Since assuming the presidency this past August, Hassan Rouhnai has made strenuous efforts to reorient the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy toward a more moderate path in terms of its controversial nuclear program and the relationship with the United States. At the same time, he has been cautious not to antagonize Iranian hawks who might view too much rapprochement with the United States too soon with suspicion. For the time being, Rouhani appears to have been largely successful, with many of Iran’s most senior conservative figures including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) top brass, being on-board with his reorientation.
In an interview with Tasnim News Agency, IRGC chief Aziz Jafari stated that the actions of Rouhani and his team in New York “were on the path of the revolution, frameworks, policies of the regime, and the supreme leader.” That being said, he critiqued Rouhani’s phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama, saying:
“The honorable president, who had taken proper and authoritative positions in this trip and particularly his address to the United Nations General Assembly, it would have been more appropriate that just as there was no time given for a face-to-face meeting with Obama, that he refrained from the telephone conversation with Obama and postponed such actions for after the American government showed practical actions and was evaluated for the correctness and honesty of their practical behaviour.”
Jafari contended that Iran has already shown goodwill toward the United States and that it is the American’s turn to grant the Iranian people their desire, including: “The complete relief of sanctions against the Iranian nation, the liberation of Iran’s frozen assets, refraining from enmity and conspiracies against the Iranian people, acceptance of a nuclear Iran, and refraining from obstruction in this regard.”
Jafari appeared skeptical, however, that the United States would actually take these steps, accusing the Americans of surrendering control of their policies to the Israelis, a widely held view in Iran’s political establishment. He explained that: “One of the real worries that exist is this, such that it seems American government officials unfortunately do not have the independence of reasoning and deciding and are influenced by International Zionism and must ask permission from this oppressive occupying regime before taking any actions.”
While the IRGC head seemed to view Rouhani’s diplomacy positively, he added that “this being said, there may be tactical errors in the direction of movement of the administration, like the phone call with Obama, which can be corrected and compensated for.”
We cannot be certain whether the Rouhani-Obama phone call was sanctioned by the highest levels of the Islamic Republic, and both the Americans and Iranians diverge somewhat on how the phone call happened, with each side asserting that the other side originated the call. The lack of a strong backlash against Rouhani inside Iran over the call may be an indication that Rouhani indeed did have authority to engage in such a high level contact or that, at the very least, it was accepted after the fact.
Still, Jafari’s mild criticism of the Rouhani-Obama phone call may give us insight into where and how a conservative backlash against Rouhani may begin. Looking back to the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997 and his struggles with the conservative-wing of Iran’s political establishment, the conservative backlash against him and his Reform Movement did not happen in a single day. Rather, it was a cumulative process influenced both by domestic politics and foreign affairs. The IRGC as a political actor in Iran’s political system is pragmatic and recognizes when it has been forced to step back from the brink by domestic and foreign pressure (presidential elections and economic sanctions respectively). For the time being, it, and other hawkish Iranian elements who distrust the United States and its intentions toward Iran, are going along with Rouhani. Yet the mild chiding of today may gradually become the harsh criticism of tomorrow, especially if Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy fails (or is perceived as failing) to reduce U.S. economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran.