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Iran's hardliners crack down at home, seek détente abroad

It's to buy time to anchor the legacy of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But tensions between the US and Israel won't be avoided so easily.

Analysis | Middle East

The recent redeployment of Iran’s dreaded “morality police” signals much more than a victory for the country’s hardliners. 

Instead, it seems to be part and parcel of a wider campaign to impose a network of true believers whose mission will be to anchor the ideological legacy of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Many forces, including the young women who have taken to the streets over the last year to protest the killing of Mahsa Amini, will resist this effort. Still, it is the struggle within the ruling elite that counts most, especially if Khamenei’s allies manage to isolate their rivals in what remains a fractious political system. 

Indeed, their efforts could be a prelude to a wider political housecleaning, especially when and if Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, succeeds him. But their victory could also yield a regime that lacks the means to manage elite conflicts, thus producing a ruling apparatus that is at once more centralized yet more vulnerable. Indeed, the very attempt to expel rivals from the political arena could spark further elite struggles.

Given the risk that comes with any effort to advance this political “cleansing” (as Khamenei’s allies call it), Iran’s leaders have embarked upon a very public effort to reduce tensions with Tehran’s Gulf neighbors. The last thing the supreme leader and his allies need is a strategic surprise that might complicate their quest to clear a path to uncontested power. Hence the logic of seeking a détente with regional states, as well as reported efforts to forge some kind of unwritten understanding with the United States on the nuclear issue. 

This blend of regional pragmatism and domestic retrenchment owes much to the efforts of former Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Chair Ali Shamkhani. He spearheaded Iran’s outreach to Gulf Arab states, an effort that set the stage for China’s brokering a renewal of Saudi-Iranian relations. But Shamkhani’s very visible role came with a political cost. In late May he was replaced by Ali Akbar Ahmadian, an important member of the club of security hardliners who, with Khamenei’s backing, have secured prominent positions in the government. 

The security leaders who are now extending their grip on power advocate a rhetorically ambitious strategy of global “resistance” that could prove very risky. Its success depends on the assumption that Tehran can secure a period of relative regional calm for at least a good year if not longer, thus giving Iran’s hardliners room to prepare for any storms to come. But with the prospects for even a temporary Iran-U.S. accommodation on the nuclear issue now declining, Iran and the United States could slide into a military confrontation that none of the key players in the region are now seeking. The problem is that there is appears to be no diplomatic Plan B. 

Shamkhani Fulfills His Role

Khamenei began setting the stage for the ongoing power grab by Iran’s ultra-hardliners back in February 2019, when he announced his “Second Phase of the Revolution.” But what began in 2019 as an improvised housecleaning might now appears to be sliding toward a wider putsch. Underscoring his role as chief arbiter, Khamenei has exploited the talents and experience of rival leaders, only to dispense with their services when they have outlived their usefulness or become a liability.

The May 22 dismissal of Shamkhani and his replacement by Ahmadian illustrates the vagaries of power. The highest-ranking security official of Arab origin in the history of the Islamic Republic, Shamkhani cut his teeth as a tough pragmatist who could deal with reformists, veteran conservatives, and hardliners. But it was the hardliners’ support that counted most. They backed Shamkhani in their bid to subordinate the authority of the Foreign Ministry to key security institutions that are closely aligned with the supreme leader, the most important of which are the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the SNSC, a body that Khamenei has used to manage Iranian foreign policy. 

This arrangement gave Shamkhani a major role in shaping Iran’s relations with Iraq and other Gulf Arab states. But he may have also risked competing with Khamenei for the limelight. Still, it is unlikely that the supreme leader’s vanity was the driving force behind Shamkhani’s dismissal. The more likely explanation, as one expert has noted, is that having played a very public role in setting the stage for the China-brokered deal to renew Iranian-Saudi relations, Shamkhani nailed down a policy of regional de-escalation that will serve Khamenei’s domestic political priorities, not least of which is anchoring the power of a hardline faction that was always suspicious of Shamkhani’s power and pragmatism.

The Rising Power of the True Believers

Indeed, over the last two years that faction has extended its reach into a myriad of security-related state institutions. The task of these leaders, it appears, is to set the stage for the 2024 parliamentary elections, and for the Assembly of Experts, a body that will decide who will be the next supreme leader when Khamenei, now 84 years old, passes on. 

Viewed against the wider backdrop of these political dynamics, Ahmadian’s appointment as chief of the SNSC makes ample sense. Although he has little political experience, he is a long-time security and military apparatchik from the IRGC who reportedly sees himself as a “Khamenei purist.” A true believer, he has warned against the efforts of any Iranian leaders—be they reformists, mainstream conservatives, or hardliners — who in his words “have tried to change the meaning of the Islamic Revolution.” Thus, he has pushed to expand the IRGC’s role in many state institutions while cementing close ties to like-minded colleagues in the security community. 

Ahmadian’s 15-year leadership of the IRGC’s Center for Strategic Research, combined with the key role that he and other ultra-hardliners played in founding the National Defense University’s Moin Fajr Strategic Institute, prepared the ground for Ahmadian’s appointment to the SNSC. In short, Ahmadian is part of an expanding team of Khamenei absolutists who, as one analyst notes, can be relied on to “toe the Supreme Leader’s uncompromising line.”

Looking to China, Iran’s Hardliners Seek a New Global Order

But what precisely does this operation involve when it comes to the leader’s allies in the security apparatus? Skeptical of the JCPOA nuclear deal from the start, these apparatchiks are unlikely to be keen on even a temporary U.S.-Iran arrangement, if one should indeed become viable. Moreover, they have backed the expansion of Iran’s enrichment program, together with its now greatly enlarged ballistic missile program, which reportedly includes a hypersonic missile that has a range of 1,400 kilometers and flies at five times the speed of sound. Like his allies, Ahmadian—who is widely credited with developing Iran’s “asymmetric warfare” doctrine--has openly advocated for countering the U.S. presence in the region, insisting that while “many have…questioned [Tehran’s] presence outside of Iran…we should ask why the United States…maintains a presence in the Persian Gulf, Taiwan, and other regions.” 

This global framing of the U.S. challenge underscores the ideological and strategic priorities of the security apparatus and their political allies in the Resistance Front. These leaders insist that the confrontation with Washington is an integral part of a global struggle against U.S. hegemony. Underscoring this position, on May 15 and 16 Iran’s Supreme National Defense University held an international conference entitled, “New World Geometry.” 

Attended by many notable Iranian security officials (including Shamkhani) and officials and academics from 37 countries, the conference was launched by President of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations Seyyed Kamal Kharrazi, who told the audience that, “The Republic of Iran has been able to develop its semi-hard and soft powers, and have economic, political, cultural, scientific, and technological achievements, believing that a smart combination of powers can establish the country’s position in the new regional and world order.”

While the concrete implications of these bold claims for Iran’s regional policies are not easy to assess, the ambitious agenda that Kharrazi sets out could become increasingly constrained by the global military, economic, and diplomatic engagements that he and his ultra-hardline allies advocate. On this score, it is notable that Kharrazi emphasized the role of China, insisting that “China did not confront the United States until its economic, scientific, technological, and media powers were developed.” 

What he did not mention was that because China is tied both to the “anti-hegemonic bloc” and to a global financial and economic system dominated by western powers, it has to walk an often tricky diplomatic line. Beijing’s role in mediating a renewal of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia highlights this very balancing act, one that Iran must contend with if the bluster of its security leaders is to be translated into an effective foreign policy. 

Speaking to this point, in a statement made prior to the abovementioned conference—part of his last public appearances before his dismissal—Shamkhani took a cautious line, warning that, “The new world order either can be a very big and brilliant opportunity for us, or it can also be a threat and factor for the collapse of any country.” The downsides of overreach may become most clear in the domestic arena. Hardliners have suppressed the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, but in doing so they have also exposed fissures within the ruling elite over whether to crush or somehow accommodate the protestors. A revival of this movement is bound to happen. When it does, it is likely that differences will resurge. Dreams of total power could give way to infighting, thus creating small yet potentially meaningful political openings. Among the leaders waiting for such a moment may be Shamkhani himself, who ran for president in 2001 and who some observers predict might run again in 2024.

Nuclear Politics and Fragile Détentes 

In the coming months, Khamenei and his allies will probably bide their time. Some measure of détente (or at least conflict avoidance) appears not only in the interest of Iran but also the United States, and possibly Israel as well. But the status quo on the home, regional, and global fronts remains fragile, as it is largely dependent on an indirectly negotiated U.S.-Iran understanding regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. That arrangement has run into headwinds, most of which are coming not from Iran, but rather from the U.S. Congress and hardline Washington think tanks. Whether the ongoing investigation by U.S. security officials of U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, who has been put on temporary leave after concerns were raised about a possible security breach, is a product of these domestic dynamics is not evident. But what is clear is that Malley’s troubles have put a nail in the coffin of the already moribund JCPOA and whatever understanding might have inadequately and temporarily substituted for it.

While Israel’s current and much beleaguered government will celebrate the demise of U.S.-Iran nuclear diplomacy, even Israel’s Netanyahu might be prepared to tolerate a temporary arrangement as an alternative to the black hole of military escalation with Iran. But at the end of the day, Israeli security officials and political leaders have the same nightmare, i.e., that Iran might use a diplomatic respite to accelerate the construction of underground facilities unreachable by even the most destructive U.S. missiles. 

The Biden administration surely shares these concerns, not to mention worries about reaching a short-term “mutual understanding” that might allow for a limited release of sanctions-related funds to Iran’s government. Apart from buying time, the advantages of such an arrangement are far from clear, especially given the equally short time horizon Iran needs to reach the enrichment level required for producing weapons grade enriched uranium. Seeking to make this point, two Washington analysts from a leading U.S. hardline think tank have recently argued that it would be better for the United States—and for Israel—to allow Iran to reach 90 percent enrichment rather than to make any concessions on sanctions that would bring Tehran fresh funds. 

With No U.S. Plan B, Will China Step up to the Plate?

These authors might have a point; but what they fail to mention is that the opponents of a nuclear deal have rejected any compromise that would allow Iran to sustain enrichment at any level. These analysts and their political allies in Israel and the United States hold that the only viable solution is for the U.S. to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. But they have yet to make a compelling case that benefits of such an attack will outweigh the grave risks that could come with a wider Iranian-U.S. war. And so they continue to advocate more sanctions and a bolder U.S. military presence, even though there is little evidence that this policy has been effective. Beyond such hopes, they have no Plan B or C.

To say that absence of a viable Plan B is a problem is putting it mildly. The leaders of Iran, the U.S. and perhaps even Israeli are hoping that the current calm is not a prelude to a regional storm. But the Biden administration seems to have no map that would circumvent the dark clouds on the horizon. On the contrary, the recent deployment of more U.S. forces to the Middle East illustrates that the U.S. is clinging to a policy of “containment” that absent real diplomacy, will probably not contain the current drift towards possible disaster. 

Who then will step up to the plate? Given its newly minted leverage with both Iran and Saudi Arabia, might China play a constructive role in any renewed diplomatic bid to address Iran’s nuclear program? Such a scenario would require a readiness in Washington, and especially in Beijing, to move beyond their recent efforts to reduce tensions. If serious, Saudi Arabia’s recent invitation to the United States, China, Brazil, and India to hold talks on Ukraine might provide an opening to encourage Beijing to create space for just such an initiative. 

But that would also require a readiness among China’s leaders to temper an “anti-hegemonic” stance that has played well in Russia and Tehran but that has also limited Beijing’s room for diplomatic maneuver in the Middle East and in other conflict zones, including Ukraine. China’s leaders want to defy and yet be part of a global world order that has brought China many benefits. Tehran welcomes this ambivalence, but Beijing’s fence sitting may prove costly to its own interests.

This is an adapted version of an original article published by the author at the Arab Center Washington D.C.

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