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.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Iranian demonstrators holding a photo of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Mansoreh / Shutterstock.com)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The Munich Security Conference came to an end today but not before EU leaders warned that international “winds” might be blowing against the West on the issue of Israel’s war in Gaza
While the international meeting this weekend entertained manifold topics — from the role of the Global South to the importance of AI and food security — the Ukraine war dominated the conference, with Gaza coming in second at a considerable distance.
But the focus on Israel’s military operations grew more intense as the confab drew to a close, between yesterday afternoon and Sunday morning. In the press center, for example, the current situation in Gaza vied for attention with the death of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech on Saturday.
Indeed, Rafah was an often-repeated word Sunday in the Bavarian capital. The day before in a televised news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that “total victory” against Hamas would require an offensive against Rafah once people living there evacuate to safe areas. It is difficult to see how the concept of a “safe area” can apply to any place in the Gaza Strip today. At least 28,985 people have been killed and 68,883 injured (mostly civilians) in the Gaza Strip since October 7, when 1,200 Israelis were killed and over 250 hostages taken during a Hamas attack against Israel. In a side event Sunday organized by the Consulate General of Israel in Munich, the press was shown a video, about 10 minutes long, documenting Hamas atrocities on October 7.
According to the United Nations, over 75% of the Gazan population has been displaced, many multiple times. There is also a severe lack of food, medicine, and other essential items because of Israel’s decision to let only a trickle of the aid trucks into Gaza needed to maintain basic conditions of life.
Addressing the audience in Munich, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that peace in the Middle East requires “a prospect for the Palestinian people” and that “the security of Israel will not be ensured just by military means.”
In a reference to the war in Gaza, he noted that “Russia is taking good advantage of our mistakes. The blame about double standards is something that we need to address and not only with nice words. It is clear that the wind is blowing against the West.”
Borrell appears to share a worry openly expressed by some of the European leaders — such as Spanish president Pedro Sánchez and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar — who have been even more critical of Israel. The concern is that Europe’s failure to rein in Israel will undermine global support for Ukraine and discredit the European discourse on the importance of international law.
Borrell, in sharp contrast with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has represented the most vocal position within the EU on the growing death toll and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza after October 7. Earlier this week, the EU top diplomat replied to Biden’s recent description of Israel’s military conduct in Gaza as being “over the top.” Borrell noted that "if you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed."
Borrell has long supported a ceasefire but any EU decision on the matter requires unanimity, and countries like Germany, Austria, and Hungary are not on board.
American ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said yesterday that the U.S. will veto an Algerian proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza to be taken up at the UN Security Council on Tuesday. According to Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. is working hard for “a sustainable resolution of the Gaza conflict,” and the Algerian resolution would endanger this.
In an oft-repeated dynamic over the last months, the U.S. is basically asking the international community to trust that Washington’s diplomatic pressure will force Netanyahu to change course. Such an approach has failed once and again, and there is no clear reason to believe this time will be different.
Yesterday afternoon, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani noted that the efforts to reach an agreement between Israel and Hamas have been dominated by a pattern that “is not really very promising.”
Part of the U.S. approach to the current conflict has also been to demand that the Palestinian Authority (PA) reforms itself. Washington hopes the PA can govern the Gaza Strip after the war ends, but Netanyahu has been adamant it does not envisage any role for the PA in the Gaza Strip in the future.
The Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh was in Munich on Sunday, remarking in an interview that the PA — which has grown even more unpopular in the West Bank after October 7 — is already working on introducing reforms. Shtayyeh said that the recent insistence on the topic only seeks to divert attention from the Israeli military operation in Gaza, however.
In his view, Netanyahu’s interest today is “to keep the war going” and argued that “Netanyahu’s war is going to continue until the end of the year.” The Palestinian leader was supposed to be present at a press briefing around midday, but the event was canceled on short notice due to “scheduling reasons.”
In a panel with his Spanish and Canadian counterparts, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was one of the last Arab leaders to speak in Munich. He used the opportunity to note that “Israel cannot have security unless Palestinians have security.”
This afternoon, the Munich city center was returning to its normal state after an intense weekend of both open and closed-door meetings featuring top leaders from Europe and beyond. As security barriers were being removed and the 5,000 police officers deployed for the event, many of them from other parts of Germany, returned home, it wasn’t hard to note that beyond all the talk, the world’s thorniest problems, including two major conflicts, are left unresolved.
keep readingShow less
Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
keep readingShow less
Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.