Experts said Thursday that the recent election of Iranian President Hassan Rowhani has reopened a fissure within the Iranian regime over its foreign policy, a split that the country’s supreme leader could still ultimately wield to his advantage.
Dexter Filkins, foreign correspondent for the New Yorker, said Rowhani’s June victory and the recent resumption of talks between Iran and the United States has generated a scrum for influence behind the scenes. While Rowhani is putatively seeking a rapprochement with the West to relieve crushing economic sanctions, Iranian military leaders and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—including Qassem Suleimani, head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force branch—have vowed not to relinquish Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment.
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"There’s a knife fight going on in the Iranian regime right now," Filkins said at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) event. "Who wins that knife fight—is it Qassem Suleimani or the guys who want to make a deal?"
Filkins recently penned an extensive profile of Suleimani, who became leader of the Quds Force in 1998 after cutting his teeth as a young division commander in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. A favorite of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, who has called him "a living martyr of the revolution," Suleimani has waged a shadowy campaign to expand Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond.
"Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today and no one’s ever heard of him," a former CIA officer in Iraq said to Filkins.
Filkins noted in his piece that since the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that shaped the views of many in the Iranian military and IRGC after the loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Iran has engaged in "asymmetrical" or indirect warfare under the pragmatic leadership of Suleimani.
For example, the Quds Force trained Shiite militias to fight American troops in the Iraq War of the 2000s and flooded Iraq with EFPs, or "explosively formed projectiles," that killed hundreds of American soldiers.
Suleimani also orchestrated the formation of the Iraqi government under Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, with one condition—no U.S. troops, even a small advisory force, after a decade of fighting. The United States withdrew all of its forces from Iraq in 2011 after failing to reach a security agreement with al-Maliki’s government.
"It’s an amazing picture of 30 years of this country aggressively trying to build its sphere of influence, which [they think] is for their own protection," Filkins said, adding that Iran’s latest endeavor is keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power with billions in aid and military assistance from Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy.
Back in Iran, the IRGC, whose recruits come mostly from the country’s rural, low-income areas, has clashed with upper class Shiite clerics like Rowhani.
However, Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior FDD fellow and former CIA officer, said the dispute is over tactics, not strategy. The Iranian regime has publicly said it wants to enrich uranium for nuclear energy while Western intelligence agencies and independent experts say Iran has the capability and intent to produce atomic bombs in a matter of months, if not weeks.
"I don’t think there’s a spiritual crisis going on in the Iranian regime on the nuclear issues," Gerecht said. "There’s a disagreement on tactics—people disagree on those tactics rather profoundly."
Gerecht said Rowhani thinks he has found a better way to ensure the regime’s protection through negotiations. His tactics could still preserve Iran’s right to enrichment even if the agreement postpones elements of Iran’s nuclear program, Gerecht added.
"The issue is how much is [Rowhani] willing to delay it and whether [the United States] will be happy and content with the period of time he determines is okay on their side," he said.
Meanwhile, the IRGC remains deeply distrustful of Rowhani’s efforts and continues to believe that the "upper class did not do the heavy lifting in the Iran-Iraq War" and were "draft dodgers," Gerecht said.
Ali Alfoneh, another senior fellow at FDD and top Iran expert, said Rowhani has tried to "counterbalance" the influence of the IRGC by appointing high-ranking ministers from the Iranian intelligence agencies to his cabinet. Half of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet was composed of IRGC members by comparison.
The IRGC has responded by attacking Rowhani’s diplomatic overtures in the state-run press, he said.
"The Revolutionary Guard is trying to convey to Rowhani that you cannot reach an agreement with the United States unless you reach one with us," he said.
If the IRGC feels Rowhani has gone too far and threatened the Iranian regime, they could "sabotage" the talks, Alfoneh said. He pointed to the IRGC’s seizure of U.S. hostages in Lebanon in the ‘80s and the attempted assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States in 2011, both occurring after perceived openings in U.S.-Iranian relations, as historical precedents.
"The Revolutionary Guard’s foreign policy is not detached from domestic politics," he said.
Regardless of Rowhani’s diplomatic efforts, Alfoneh said it is important to remember that Khamenei and IRGC leaders like Suleimani are calling the shots.
"[Rowhani] is no human rights activist," he said. "And if he could relieve the sanctions, he could serve the interests of Khamenei."