Khamenei's team of rivals: Iranian decision-making, June-July 2014

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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran

Article Highlights

  • Khamenei worked hard to build a new relationship between the president and the IRGC.

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  • Recent events show Khamenei supporting Rouhani.

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  • The relationship between Rouhani and Khamenei is central to Western analyses of Iran’s trajectory in foreign and security policy.

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Iran’s national security decision-making process is not remotely as opaque as it sometimes appears.  The recent crisis in Iraq and the nuclear negotiations in Geneva have opened a fascinating window into the efforts of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to bring rival groups within his government together behind a single set of policies.  He appears to have been remarkably successful in mediating tensions between President Hassan Rouhani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps senior leaders.  They have come together, at least for the moment, behind a coherent set of strategies for dealing with a number of thorny problems in Iraq, the nuclear negotiations, and even economic reforms.  It remains to be seen if these accommodations will survive the current crisis, of course, but the success of Khamenei’s efforts so far is impressive.

The relationship between Rouhani and Khamenei is central to almost all Western analyses of Iran’s likely trajectory in foreign and security policy, and in the nuclear negotiations.  Much of the hopefulness about the negotiations themselves has stemmed from the assessment that Rouhani is a determined reformer willing to buck the pressures of the “hard-liners,” by which is usually meant the IRGC and the clergy.  Rouhani statements suggesting a desire to open Iran to the world appear to contradict the desires of the Supreme Leader, setting up speculation that Rouhani may even be able to press Khamenei further than he would like to go.

But the crisis of the last two months tells another tale.  IRGC and clerical criticism of Rouhani died away as Mosul fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS).  Khamenei seems to have worked hard to build a new relationship between the president and the IRGC, moreover.  One of his oldest and most trusted friends in the military, Armed Forces Chief of the General Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, publicly shut down criticism of Rouhani in IRGC-affiliated media in May and June.  Two meetings of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) brought the president and the generals together in July and had them singing from the same hymn sheet on Iraq, the nuclear negotiations, and even Rouhani’s economic proposals by the end of the month.  Rouhani hosted the commanders for an iftar dinner on July 16, an unusual event followed by mutual public statements of support.

Khamenei’s actions do not suggest that he fears Rouhani or feels pressured by him.  Rouhani’s interactions with the Supreme Leader and with the IRGC do not show a factionalized government riven by power-struggles.  On the contrary, the events of the past two months show the Supreme Leader strongly supporting Rouhani, the president, in turn, enthusiastically backing the Supreme Leader’s statements, rhetoric, and policies, and the IRGC supporting both leaders. 

American strategies that rely on severe tensions within Iran’s senior leadership or that imagine that Rouhani is somehow seriously at odds with the Supreme Leader and the IRGC on foreign, defense, or nuclear policy are likely to fail.  We must reckon, at least for now, with an Iran firmly under the control of the Supreme Leader whose commanders and president are pulling in the same direction—a direction inimical to U.S. interests in the region and the world.

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