Two important developments in Iran have finally brought into open a simmering issue that has divided the Iranian leadership since at least 2011. First, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif fired Hossein Amir-Abdollahian , his deputy for Arab and African Affairs. Amir-Abdollahian had led Iran’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria. Less than a day later, on Monday, June 20, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani , the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, issued an angry and blunt statement in which he threatened Bahrain’s rulers, declaring that they would pay a heavy price for their decision to revoke citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim , the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia majority.
The two seemingly unrelated developments are actually tightly linked. They represent another manifestation of the fierce power struggle in Iran between President Hassan Rouhani and his reformist and moderate supporters, and the hard-liners led by the high command of the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. More importantly, however, they also bring to light a deepening rift in the Islamic Republic’s leadership over Syria’s fate and, more specifically, that of President Bashar al-Assad.
The image presented in the West about Iran’s intervention in Syria and its support for Assad’s government is that, despite many fissures over domestic issues, the Iranian leadership is completely unified when it comes to Iran’s strategic interests in the region, in particular Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah. This is in fact far from reality. Similar to almost all other issues, there has always been a rift between the moderates and reformists on the one hand, and the hard-liners on the other.
Although there had been widespread speculations, both in Iran and in the Arab newspapers , about the possibility of Zarif removing Amir-Abdollahian from his post, his firing still provoked angry reaction by the hard-line websites and mass media, shedding further light on the rift in the Iranian leadership. Calling him a “revolutionary diplomat,” Mashregh, a website controlled by the IRGC, declared that Amir-Abdollahian was the embodiment of “ Islamic Revolution diplomacy .” Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the hard-line head of the parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, expressed his displeasure over the firing. The branches of the Basij militia in six universities in Tehran, the paramilitary group controlled by the IRGC, issued a statement accusing Zarif of yielding to pressure by the Arab countries and the United States for firing Amir-Abdollahian. Zarif rejected the accusation and the link.
The statement by General Soleimani on Bahrain, a country outside his “sphere of influence” in the Middle East, must at least be seen partly as a reaction of the IRGC to firing of Amir-Abdollahian. An Iraq expert, he is close to the IRGC and the Quds force, and was deputy to Iran’s ambassador to that country from 1997–2001, deputy to Iran’s special envoy for Iraqi affairs from 2003–05 at the height that country’s invasion by the United States, as well as director of a special Iraq department at Iran’s foreign ministry from 2005–07 and special assistant to the foreign minister for Iraqi affairs from 2003–06. During that period, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq was Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, an IRGC and Quds Force officer with whom Amir-Abdollahian worked closely. His close connection with the hard-liners is manifested by the fact that, while during the Rouhani administration’s time in office Zarif and his chief deputy Abbas Araghchi have been criticized savagely by the hard-liners, they never criticized Amir-Abdollahian even once.
Similar to all the hard-liners, Amir-Abdollahian is blunt and confrontational. Arab diplomats had reportedly complained about Amir-Abdollahian’s “undiplomatic” tone in diplomatic encounters. There is wide speculation in Tehran that Amir-Abdollahian’s firing is another signal to the Arab nations of the Middle East that the Rouhani administration is prepared to improve Iran’s relations with them.
Responding to the IRGC criticisms of Amir-Abdollahian’s firing, Rouhani said sarcastically that “Unfortunately, some who never were in a war or the  revolution talk about the nation and the revolution that surprises the people. If we want to chant slogans, we should not do so at people’s expense.” It should also be noted that while General Soleimani condemned revoking citizenship of Sheikh Qassim, his comrade-in-arms, the Basij commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi has suggested revoking citizenship of the leaders of Iran’s Green Movement—former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi , his wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard and former speaker of the Majles Mehdi Karroubi .
The rift over Syria has been simmering just below the surface ever since the war began there in 2011. Iran’s hard-liners urged President Assad to react strongly and crack down hard on the opposition, violently if necessary, to put down the “uprising.” The IRGC had done the same to the nonviolent and democratic Green Movement in Iran during 2009–10, and thus recommended the same to the Assad government. On the other hand, Iran’s reformists and moderates, a large majority of whom had supported the Green Movement, have urged caution on the support that the Islamic Republic is providing to Syria.