Khamenei v Rouhani: Consensus gives way to discord after the Iran deal

Nuclear negotiations were one of the few areas of broad consensus among the political elite of the Islamic Republic of Iran. With the nuclear deal in hand, however, underlying tension between moderate and conservative currents in Iran has been increasingly coming to the fore.

This tension has manifested in a number of ways, for example in the debate over the role of the Council of Guardians in vetting parliamentary election candidates. Another majour debate has been about the threat of Western, and especially American, penetration of the country and whether the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is uniquely empowered to confront such threats. The latter was a majour theme of back-to-back speeches by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this past week, with the two again appearing at odds with each other.

Speaking to 21st General Assembly of Commanders and Officials of the IRGC on Tuesday 15 September 2015, Rouhani said that Iran had managed to weaken its enemies through both diplomatic and military ability, with the implication that the IRGC could not take exclusive credit for successes: “Guarding the Islamic Revolution and its achievements is not solely the responsibility of one of the centers of the Islamic Republic.”

“It is correct that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been introduced as the guardian of the Islamic Revolution and its achievements,” he said referring to a Article 150 of Iran’s constitution, “but the very same duty has been defined for the representatives of parliament, the Supreme National Security Council, the Army of the Islamic Republic, and other institutions. Based on the constitution all of the institutions of the Islamic Republic are responsible for protecting and guarding the achievements of the Islamic Revolution.”

According to the Iranian president the best way to defend the revolution and its achievements is through cooperation between the country’s different centers of power, belying the idea that the IRGC is exceptionally empowered for this mission: “It is only possible under the circumstances that all stand together, cooperate, and have synergy and no one separates themselves from the others.”

Rouhani also highlighted the diverse nature of the threats facing the country: “Our enemies are not solely the Zionists, America, and terrorists. Rather, we have enemies such as dust-storms, water shortages, unemployment, stagnation, inflation, and weakening of faith and morality in society that is very dangerous for society and must be overcome.”

In a similar vein, the Iranian president also called on all state institutions, including the armed forces and especially the IRGC and Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed (Basij), to help create a resistance economy:

“Resistance economy means a deterrence economy and the country must, just as it has in the military field created a kind of deterrence so that our enemies do not even consider attacking Iran, reach such a level of deterrence in the economic field that the enemy feels sanctioning Iran and not cooperating with Iran in the economic field is to its detriment and Iran is invincible in this regard.”

While hitting some similar notes, Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech to a similar gathering of IRGC commanders and officials the next day was tonally different from the Iranian president’s in a number of important ways. The Iranian supreme leader made his important “heroic resistance” speech in the same forum two years ago, which many interpreted as signalling his consent to nuclear negotiations and an eventual deal. But his speech on Wednesday 16 September, in contrast to Rouhani’s just a day before speech, focused on continued conflict with the United States and emphasized the IRGC’s unique role in guarding the revolution and its achievements: “Guarding the revolution is not special to the IRGC. All are responsible: Each human, each faithful being, is responsible. But the characteristic of the IRGC is that it is an organization, a coherent complex, a corps.”

Ayatollah Khamenei said that the IRGC is a corps that relies on order, discipline, and management as its key characteristics, and that in Iran’s political system there is no other actor “except for the IRGC” that “has defined an organizational duty for itself” to guard the revolution. This duty includes identifying enemies and confronting them to prevent their penetration of the country, according to Iran’s supreme leader. But who are Iran’s enemies? He explained: “The enemy is the global arrogance whose complete embodiment is the United States, and its agents are the regressive regimes and mercenary and weak people.”

He argued that these enemies often call on Iran to change its policies, but in so doing they were urging Iran on an ultimately contradictory and self-destructive path: “One phrase they frequently repeat is that you are a powerful country, you are an influential country…the second phrase is that they say do not pursue the word and the issue and spirit of “revolution” so much. Well these things are contradictory. This authority and this influence is because of the revolution. If there was no revolution, if there was no spirit of the revolution, if there was no revolutionary action, this influence would not exist. [Our enemies saying] that you are influential, you are powerful, put aside the revolution so that we can co-exist, means put aside the revolution so that you fall from power so we can devour you…this means put aside and lose this influence that you now have, this power that you have, this influence that you have in the region, this strategic depth that you have among nations. Meaning become weak so we can devour you. They say become part of the international community. Their meaning by “international community” is several arrogant, oppressive and suppressive powers. Meaning come and dissolve in our plots. ”

In this context, he turned to an increasingly common refrain in his post-deal speeches: Concern about “penetration” of the country. He warned the IRGC commanders and officials in attendance that: “They use all tools and have various people; they have university professors, they have student activists, they have intellectual and scientific elites, there are all kinds of people for creating these penetrations.” Ayatollah Khamenei enumerated several types of penetration: Security and economic, which he said compared to “intellectual, cultural, and political penetration, are less important….The enemies try to alter society’s beliefs in the cultural field and move around and harm and penetrate those beliefs which have kept this society on its feet…”

He also warned against political penetration of Iran’s centers of power, saying: “When the political and managerial machinery of a country have been influenced by arrogant enemies, then all of the decision-making in this country happens according to the desire and preference of the arrogance. When a country becomes politically penetrated, that country’s movement, that country’s orientation in the managerial machinery, is according to their will.” He thundered that Iran’s enemies wanted a nation that: “thinks like them, wills like them, makes decision like and according to their benefit. This is political penetration.”

Finally, he appeared to take aim at what has become a talking point for the Barack Obama administration in selling the nuclear deal to domestic audiences and skeptical allies: That in a decade or more the international community could very well be faced with a more “moderate” Islamic Republic. Iran’s supreme leader asserted: “They are waiting until the day the nation of Iran and the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran go to sleep; they are waiting for this. They claim that in the next 10 years Iran is not the same Iran…It must not be allowed for this evil thought and hope to take root in the enemy’s heart. The foundations and thought of the revolution must be so strong here that the dying or living of this or that person…not impact this country’s revolutionary movement. This is the main responsibility of the elites of the IRGC and all of the revolutionary elites of this country.”

Ayatollah Khamenei appears to have referred to the Islamic Republic after his passing in his original speech to the IRGC commanders and official, but this reference appears to have been excised from subsequent official texts and broadcasts.