Iranian conservatives divided over Rouhani’s U.S. policy

As the United Nations Security Council Permanent Five Members plus Germany (P5+1) and the Islamic Republic of Iran prepare to meet for the next round of high-level nuclear negotiations on 15 October 2013, Iranian conservatives, who operate under the Principalist label in Iran, are split over the prospect of better relations with the United States.

Ahmad Khatami, Neo-Principalist (hardline conservative) and temporary Friday Prayer Leader of Tehran, lashed out against recent statements by Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The latter, the right-hand man of the Islamic Republic’s founder the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a former president, and a key backer of President Hassan Rouhani, implicitly criticized the regime’s usage of the slogan “death to America” and said that  the Imam Khomeini had considered eliminating this regime slogan of before his death. The hardline Khatami retorted by saying that: “Those who say do not say “death to American” will tell us tomorrow don’t say “death to anti-Velayat-e Faghih”…and the next day will say that all of the things we have done in the last 35 years of the revolution have been a mistake.” Khatami insisted that the United States’ concern with the Iranian nuclear program is just a pretext for expressing American hostility toward Iran, arguing: “Today their problem is the nuclear issue, when this issue is resolved they shall bring up the human rights issue and shall say every right that a man has, a woman should too.” He went on to say that: “The end of the story with the United States is that they want us to open the path so they can come and plunder this country, but America should know that it shall take this wish to the grave.”

Interestingly, Traditional Principalists (moderate conservatives) appear to be cautiously defending Rouhani’s foreign policy initiative to improve relations with the United States. Asadollah Badmanchyan, member of the Islamic Coalition Party, explained that: “In every era in the world circumstances come about toward which we must act with reason and duty, just as at the end of the Imposed War [Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)] the Imam signed Resolution 598, but this did not mean a concession to America; in fact Iran at that time won in its legal and political struggle.” He concluded that the Rouhani administration was on the right path and that, through its seemingly conciliatory actions toward the United States, had not crossed any of the regime’s red lines in doing so.

Questions remain regarding the extent to which the Rouhani administration’s nuclear and U.S. policy has the full backing of Principalists. As IranPolitik has argued in the past, Traditional Principalists, by not working with Neo-Principalists during the 2013 Iranian presidential election, greatly aided Rouhani’s victory. For the time being Traditional Principalists appear to be on his side, at least when it comes to these critical foreign policy and national security issues. Neo-Principalists, however, despite their defeat in the election, have been gradually picking up the pieces and making their opposition to the direction in which Rouhani is taking Iran felt. The battle between Iranian conservatives has begun, but it has yet to play out, and its conclusion could greatly affect P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations and the country’s foreign policy.