What Is Iran’s Policy-Making Mechanism?
As we close in to the Iran presidential election -- read "selection" -- a more precise look at the policymaking mechanisms at work in this very peculiar theocratic system is necessary.
The regime in Iran, with Hassan Rouhani as its president, has been eager to portray an image of a government mending fences with the international community.
However, no beginning of true political change has occurred in Iran despite Rouhani’s deceptive smiles. The so-called “reformist-moderate” initiative in Iran has only further strengthened and secured Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) in power.
There is a misleading notion of two divergent political trends in Iran, one pursuing a so-called “hardline” approach led by the Khamenei-IRGC camp, and another claiming a more “reformist” attitude by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his mentor and fierce Khamenei rival, the late former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Yet the harsh reality is that these seemingly competing trends are quietly harmonious in practice. Khamenei continues to monopolize power in Iran, while in need of the rival camp to portray a satisfactory canvas of his regime to the outside world.
Khamenei has the last word on all national security and foreign policy matters. Concern at times raised by outside analysts over escalating tensions between the two sides over subjects such as the nuclear deal are the result of Iran’s deceptive propaganda machine at work. The regime, in its entirety, focuses on swaying all attention far from the true policymaking mechanics at work deep in Tehran.
Rouhani only became president with Khamenei’s personal blessing, as the latter understood fully the potential of another 2009-style uprising brewing in Iran. The Guardian Council, Khamenei’s lever to control all elections by vetting each and every candidate, enjoys the authority to bar any individual considered unpalatable. Rest assured that Khamenei considered Rouhani useful, or else he would have joined the long list of disqualified others.
Khamenei saw his regime facing a massive economic crisis threatening to spark a major uprising after former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described as a firebrand, plunged Iran into serious international isolation. Sanctions were frustrating the Iranian population and the global oil price nosedive added insult to injury.
At first glance the IRGC, taking control over a large portion of Iran’s economy, was benefiting as sanctions burdened private sector competitors. Yet little by little even the IRGC’s profits began to plunge, and Khamenei realized his desperate need for sanctions reliefs at the price of taking a major step back from his nuclear ambitions.
Tehran is taking advantage of the Iran nuclear deal as a medium to calm domestic unrest and to revive the IRGC’s former economic stature. To this end, Khamenei needed a figure such as Rouhani to help convince the international community to make the deal. Of course, Tehran also enjoyed a major lifeline through the pro-appeasement dogma adopted by U.S. President Barack Obama.
In the meantime, Khamenei also needed to preserve his domestic image, as kowtowing to foreign pressure would be recipe for disaster. This is where the regime pursued a two-faced approach. While Rouhani and his top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, played “good cop” shaking hands with the “Great Satan,” Khamenei remains the “bad cop” in resorting to blatant rhetoric against America and Co.
This double-standard policy, pursued in parallel, has become the doctrine for the Iranian regime to maintain control over increasing domestic agitation while presenting an appealing portrait to the outside world.
While regime loyalists stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and Khamenei threatened Riyadh with “divine revenge,” five American hostages were released in return for the United Nations declaring Iran in compliance with the nuclear pact.
A further in-depth evaluation proves Iran’s new economic exchanges with the West are not parallel to any political improvements. In fact, safeguarding the IRGC’s grip on the economy is considered vital to enhancing their political position.
The IRGC has also been described as “a major force when it comes to controlling Iran’s economy. Many Iranians in and out of the country have called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ‘Iran’s mafia.’”
The elimination of 99% of so-called “reformist” candidates in the February 26 parliamentary elections can provide a preview to the upcoming presidential elections, with higher stakes at play.
No pragmatic behavior by Iran will render any meaningful change within. Nor will Tehran ever abandon regional ambitions in which it has invested billions, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. In fact, boosting efforts to realize such objectives is necessary to maintain Iran’s political status quo.
While Khamenei remains in control, recent developments in Syria, with Russia and Turkey spearheading a ceasefire agreement, are completely against Iran’s interests. This is parallel to snowballing dissent inside Iran on the verge of intense times prior to the May 2017 presidential election. This leaves Khamenei before a major dilemma over how to play his cards.
“The 37-year-old experience of the destructive and murderous mullahs’ regime in my country has shown that no degree of political and economic concessions, which have been carried out at the expense of the Iranian people, have led to a change of behavior or policies of the Iranian regime either inside or outside of Iran,” said Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella group of dissident entities including the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Sanctions relief providing temporary life-support for Tehran won’t last long. The international community, and the new administration in Washington, should take advantage of the nuclear deal to increase pressure on Tehran, forcing it to start actually abiding by international laws and standards.
Heshmat Alavi is a political and rights activist. His writing focuses on Iran, ranging from human rights violations, social crackdown, the regime’s support for terrorism and meddling in foreign countries, and the controversial nuclear program.
He tweets at @HeshmatAlavi & blogs at IranCommentary