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Rouhani’s Pyrrhic Victory

With a nuclear deal in hand, Iran’s president faces trouble at home.

Paradoxically, the agreement with the P5+1 powers over the Iranian nuclear program is likely make things more difficult for President Hassan Rouhani. Rather than bolstering the forces of reform, the deal may end up having the opposite effect.



“Today is a historical day,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif said as the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 nations – the UN Security Council and Germany – agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on July 14, 2015. Within an hour, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared: “God has listened to the prayers of the great Iranian nation!”

The triumphal tone of both men was understandable – after all, negotiating an agreement to govern the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in exchange for an end to the international sanctions regime and improved economic prospects for the average Iranian was the election promise that paved their way to office.

However, while Rouhani and Zarif were busy celebrating their recent negotiating triumph, their opponents in Tehran, chief among them Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), were engaged in a fierce political struggle against the dynamic duo. The outcome will not only affect the political career of Rouhani and his team, but also the fate of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group, along with the future of the Islamic Republic after Khamenei.

With the nuclear agreement in hand, Khamenei no longer needs Rouhani or Zarif. While he shielded them from domestic criticism during their first two years in office, he is not likely to continue to do so; in fact, fearing their popularity, Khamenei may actively encourage the Revolutionary Guards to attack the president and his allies politically.

Not that the Revolutionary Guards need Khamenei’s active encouragement: as the engine of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and the most likely custodian of the bomb, the Revolutionary Guards would doubtlessly benefit most if Iran were to resume its pursuit of a nuclear bomb. This goes a long way towards explaining the Revolutionary Guards’ opposition to Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy: Rouhani has attempted to politically marginalize the Revolutionary Guards, pushing them out of economic activities.

Rouhani, however, has no intention of surrendering to his enemies in Tehran, and is perhaps in a better position to defend himself than his “pragmatic” forerunners. Rouhani’s team is not a one-man operation that emerged from nowhere, but the product of the large “technocratic” and clerical network built by his mentor, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

And Rouhani has been mobilizing the Iranian public to his cause. As demonstrated by the spontaneous street parties in Tehran and other major urban centers after the nuclear agreement was reached, there is significant public support for Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy.

Rouhani has also come close to eliminating the international sanctions regime, providing brighter prospects for economic improvement for the average Iranian voter – who in turn may vote Rouhani’s allies into the Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Khobregan-e Rahbari), the eighty-six-member body that formally elects the next Supreme Leader, as well as the parliament on February 16, 2016, eventually re-electing Rouhani himself in presidential elections the following year.

That scenario, however, is optimistic.

Facing adversity, Rouhani, Rafsanjani, and the hapless Zarif may find themselves deserted by their network. In the past, Rafsanjani and Rouhani seldom reciprocated the loyalty of their protégés, and can therefore not expect their former allies’ support in return. They did not move to save their friends when opponents, which sometimes included Khamenei, began to attack Rafsanjani’s too-powerful network during his presidency in the 1990s. When Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a reformist mayor of Tehran and a Rafsanjani ally, was targeted by a politically-motivated judiciary in 1998, Rafsanjani and Rouhani, who then served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, remained silent. If Khamenei unleashes the Revolutionary Guards against the president, Rouhani’s network of friends is vastly smaller and weaker than Rafsanjani’s was a decade earlier, and would likely scatter in the face of adversity.

At the street level, the nuclear deal remains immensely popular. But the Islamic Republic isn’t a democracy, and Khamenei fears competition from the Rouhani-Rafsanjani camp. He has successfully curtailed the political power of Rafsanjani before, occasionally even persecuting his children to remind the cleric of his place: in March 2015, Khamenei frustrated Rafsanjani’s bid for chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, and Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the son of the former president, was summoned to Evin Prison shortly after Rafsanjani declared his intention to once again run for chairmanship of the Assembly.

Apart from weakening Rafsanjani, the Supreme Leader will likely ensure that the Guardian Council (Showra-ye Negahban), which approves candidates for public office, disqualifies candidates favored by the president and his allies. The purging of candidates would be done with the goal of keeping Rouhani’s supporters home and allowing anti-Rouhani forces to score huge electoral triumphs, checking the popular power of the executive branch.

Even in the unlikely event that Rouhani’s supporters pass through the filter of the Guardian Council, they will face the hurdle of rising expectations among the Iranian public: Rouhani’s critics are already fanning the flames of discontent with team Rouhani’s economic performance. Having lost the nationalist discourse over Iran’s nuclear program to Rouhani, they are shifting their attention to the gap between Rouhani’s pre-election promises and the grim economic realities of Iran today in an attempt to regain the political upper hand. This tactic resonates among the Iranian public, which chose to believe Rouhani’s pre-election explanation that the sanctions regime along with Ahmadinejad-era economic mismanagement caused their poverty. With both villains gone, the Iranian public understandably expects improvement in their living standards. Rouhani cannot possibly deliver this prior to the February 2016 parliamentary elections. Thus, the president’s diplomatic victory may turn into a resounding electoral defeat in the short term.

Even in the medium term there is no guarantee that Rouhani will be able to capitalize on sanctions relief to liberalize Iran’s economy and improve living standards for the average Iranian. To date, Rouhani has already repeatedly tried, and failed, to push the Revolutionary Guards out of the economy: Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base, which is the Revolutionary Guard Corps of Engineers, remains the largest contractor in Iran, operating as a “private” company, and is still awarded most major infrastructure development plans despite the government’s dissatisfaction with its performance. “We were no match for Khatam al-Anbia,” explained Akbar Torkan, presidential adviser.

The Revolutionary Guards probably received the tacit support of Khamenei, who cannot afford to lose his praetorians’ support – after all, it was the Revolutionary Guards that brutally suppressed the pro-democracy Green Movement in the wake of the fraudulent 2009 presidential elections. The money from sanctions relief is more likely to find its way to the companies owned by the IRGC and the semi-public foundations controlled by Khamenei than to state coffers and the ordinary citizen.

At the same time, ever more belligerent statements from Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards are beginning to drown out Rouhani and Zarif’s charm offensive towards the United States. “Our policy toward the arrogant US government won’t change at all,” Khamenei assured the Iranian pubic in his July 18, 2015 address marking the end of Ramadan, specifically mentioning the regime’s support of “the innocent nations of Palestine and Yemen, the nation and governments of Syria and Iraq, the innocent people of Bahrain, and the sincere holy warriors of The Resistance in Lebanon and Palestine, who will continuously enjoy our support.” Major General Mohammad-Ali (Aziz) Jafari, Revolutionary Guard chief commander, used his first commentary on the nuclear agreement to condemn the United Nations Security Council Resolution endorsing the deal: “Some elements in the draft are specifically contrary and opposed to the major red lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular concerning arms capabilities, and we will never accept it.”

The cumulative impact of these efforts could be disastrous for Rouhani and his team. Deserted by their network, possibly abandoned by the voters who – either out of frustrated expectations or because of the manipulations of the Guardian Council – choose to stay home rather than vote for the government, and facing the Revolutionary Guards, Rouhani may face a disaster: his own political career, the nuclear agreement, succession after Khamenei, and ultimately control over the Islamic Republic may be slipping from his hands.

In Washington and European capitals, the nuclear agreement is being sold in part as an effort to bolster Rouhani against more hard-line forces. The opposite, however, may well play out. The nuclear deal with Iran may in fact be an investment in a sinking ship.