By Kamran Bokhari
During the past couple of weeks, Turkey’s failed coup followed by a massive purge has consumed a great deal of my attention. But in our business we can’t afford to ignore the rest of the world every time one country has a crisis. Recently, we’ve noticed that Turkey’s main regional competitor was exhibiting some unusual signs as well.
It is well known that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani are not on the same page regarding the nuclear deal. But for them to publicly contradict one another cannot be considered business as usual. On Aug. 1, Khamenei criticized the nuclear accord saying it had not made a difference in the life of the average citizen, which has been a key claim of the president and his allies. The same day, Rouhani praised the deal in a speech, saying it restored the glory of the nation and had given the country the choice to do business with many countries instead of only a few.
Separately, hardline weekly newspaper Yalasarat al-Hussein had its license canceled by the government’s Press Supervisory Board for publishing an “insulting” piece on celebrities’ outfits at a recently held awards ceremony. But the paper was able to defy the ban and published its latest issue two days after the cancellation. Perhaps the most noteworthy development was the arrest of the hardline head of the Center for Doctrinal Strategic Studies Hassan Abbasi, who is close to the country’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC has distanced itself from Abbasi’s disparaging remarks against the country’s regular armed forces, the Artesh, which he said would “not make a sound” if the U.S. threatened Iran.
Abbasi apparently made these remarks in a talk in 2010, but the video recently surfaced on the internet and has created a controversy. The details of the incident are murky, but for the head of a think tank to make such a comment underscores divisions within Iran’s two-tiered armed forces. As an ideological force founded by the clerical regime, the IRGC enjoys disproportionate influence in the country’s political economy, while the Artesh is a more professional military institution fashioned from the remnants of the old army that was purged after the 1979 revolution.
That there are divisions within the armed forces is only natural given the political divide in the country. After all, the military in any country is a subset of the nation as a whole. In Iran, since the election of Rouhani and the subsequent nuclear deal with the United States, domestic politics have become polarized. On one side is a coalition of pragmatic conservatives and reformists who see rapprochement with the West as strengthening the regime. On the opposing side are hardline conservatives who dominate the clerical and security establishments and feel that proximity to the West will subvert the regime.
The fierce debates between the two in the Iranian press give the impression that the intensifying power struggle will lead to an extra-constitutional outcome. However, a closer examination of the actual behavior of the two camps reveals that these differences are not dissimilar from those that exist in other countries.
In the case of Iran, there is a stalemate between the two sides, which is a natural outcome of their respective strengths and weaknesses. Neither side has the ability to overwhelm the other. The pragmatists won the presidential and parliamentary elections. They control the government and to a great extent the legislature. They managed to come to an agreement on the nuclear deal, which the hardliners realize is critical for the well-being of the republic’s political economy.
Likewise, the pragmatists cannot override the clerics who have disproportionate power in the hybrid political system. More important, the hardliners dominate the security forces. The Rouhani government depends on them for internal security and protection against external threats. The current environment in the region provides great leverage to the hardliners.
The bottom line is that both sides – even though they may despise one another – realize that they need each other. A combination of threats and opportunities bring them together more than their differences divide them. This dynamic has created a unique equilibrium in the Iranian political system. Each camp refrains from being too critical of the other.
But such balances are delicate. In the case of Iran, the nuclear deal has set into motion a process that is bound to produce change internally. As a result, the current domestic balance of power cannot avoid being disturbed. There is also the fact that Khamenei is ill and aging and is expected to be succeeded by another cleric. The current supreme leader has been sitting at the top of the political edifice for nearly three decades and has been balancing between the two main camps.
How this pending transition is managed will determine whether Iran will also experience the kind of turmoil that is consuming the rest of the region.