Although Iranian Principalists are loathe to admit it, they have suffered what many consider a profound defeat in the 2013 Iranian presidential election. The extent of the defeat should not be exaggerated: Principalist candidates (depending on how you define them) garnered 35 percent of the overall vote, compared president-elect Hassan Rouhani’s 50.7 percent. Still, just weeks before election the Principalists had all of the advantages, including a marginalized and divided Centrist and Reformist opposition, voter apathy (which historically has helped Principalist candidates) and what many considered the ability to commit extensive electoral fraud because of Principalists’ control of nearly all elected and unelected centers of power. And yet Principalists’ inability to form a coherent front in the election, a last minute Centrist-Reformist coalition, and broad popular participation cost them the presidency.
The 2013 election was an especially shocking political defeat for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose political influence had been steadily rising in the post-Iran-Iraq War era. Candidates believed to be supported by the IRGC, including Saeed Jalili and Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, placed far behind Rouhani. The election in some regards was a repudiation of the IRGC’s hardline domestic and foreign policies by the Iranian people. There are now many questions about what direction the IRGC may take in this context, how it views Rouhani, and what constructive or obstructive role it may play in his presidency. At the end of the day, foreign policy, national security, and increasingly the economy are among the raison d’etre of the IRGC and insofar as Rouhani must address the nuclear crisis there may be some kind of reckoning between the two. The IRGC did not change its hardline foreign policy position during the election, but was rather defeated. This means that they continue holding on to their past positions. Still, for the time being the IRGC seems to be taking a “wait-and-see” policy toward Rouhani, while Rouhani is being careful not to step on their toes when it comes to certain issues. Some recent declarations by both sides can help us better understand how these dynamics are shaping up.
Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, head of the IRGC’s political bureau, declared in a recent interview with Javan newspaper that the Guard would have to wait and see what Rouhan means by “moderation” (etedal), referring to one of the president-elect’s key campaign slogans. As an important voice of the IRGC’s political views, Javani’s comment indicates that the Guard may in fact be taking a wait and see position.
Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for Basij affairs and defense propaganda, was more explicit in expressing what some consider the IRGC’s true feelings about Rouhani’s program of moderation in foreign policy, especially in terms of the Guard’s continued hostility toward the United States and the sense that there is still too much distance between the two sides for any kind of reconciliation to happen anytime soon. Jazayeri recalled that:
“The imposed war of Saddam against Iran [Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988] was a product of the idea and politics of the American government of that time. The countless aid provided by America to the Baathist regime of Iraq during the imposed war, attacks on our oil platforms, and crashing Iran’s passenger plane with 290 people on board, counts as only part of the crimes of the American ruling class which have still not been accounted for and America must certainly pay their price.”
Jazayeri insisted that the “The Great Satan” (the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s terminology for the United States) had not lost a single opportunity in the last 30 years to strike a blow against Iran, implying that the pattern of hostile relations between the two countries was likely to persist.
Speaking more specifically on Syria, Jazayeri said that despite great pressure on the “Resistance” (referring to the Iranian-led alliance which includes the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon) by America, the Resistance has managed many successes and that “those on the offense [the United States and its allies] have no alternative except retreat.” Jazayeri emphasized that the U.S. would one day drown in the blood being spilled in Syria because the events in Syria had allowed for the resurgence of “terrorists”, a likely reference to al-Qaeda affiliated radical Sunni groups fighting against the al-Assad regime.
President-elect Rouhani for his part seems to be living up to his reputation as a Centrist politician capable of appealing to both sides of Iran’s political spectrum. In a recent speech to Iran-Iraq War veterans and commanders Rouhani appeared to be trying to establish his bona fides with hardliners in the security establishment, who have doubts regarding whether he is strong on foreign policy and national security, by using harsh but carefully calibrated rhetoric toward Israel:
“A miserable regime [Israel] in this region threatens us everyday but you soldiers only laugh at them…Who is the Zionist regime to threaten us, and the fact that it cannot act on its threats and take military steps against this nation is because of the precedent of eight years of Holy Defense [referring to the Iran-Iraq War].”
For the time being Rouhani and the hardline establishment are tip-toeing around each other, uncertain how to behave in this unfamiliar situation. This state of affairs is unlikely to persist for long.