June 10, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Can Arresting Another Former Vice President Help Save Iran From Itself?

I have argued on several occasions that Iran is engaged in a serious long-term debate about how to keep the Islamic Republic going. This internal struggle reflects a gnawing fear among Tehran’s elites that Ayatollah Khomeini’s model of governance will never provide a viable framework for successful domestic and foreign policies. The credibility of the 1979 Revolution and the regime is at risk.

Since his election campaign two years ago, President Hassan Rouhani has contended Iran is out of balance. Tehran must alter its economic approaches, fight corruption, and de-escalate its conflict towards the West if the country is going to survive. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei agrees on strengthening Iran internally, but dreads that opening up to the United States and the international community will leave Iran more vulnerable to coercion, destabilization, and ideological erosion.

The regime’s internal angst has been on full display, with a nuclear deal nearing completion and sectarian contests with regional Sunni rivals and extremists escalating. The past week was like watching a morality play to restore faith in the system, in four acts:

Our political house must be clean. In a stunning move, another of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vice presidents, Hamid Baghaei, was arrested June 8, presumably on corruption charges. Baghaei’s arrest follows former vice president Mohammad Reza Rahimi’s sentencing earlier this year to five years in prison for corruption. Rouhani also stressed the need to increase government transparency and combat money laundering in an unusually publicized cabinet session on June 7. The president understands Iranians are losing faith in their government and addressing corruption has to be front and center. Taking down your predecessor a few more notches does not hurt either.

Never forget the United States is still the enemy. On June 4, the regime commemorated the 26th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. Supreme Leader Khamenei criticized the US role in the region and lionized Khomeini’s distrust of America:

Imam [Khomeini] was always against America and had objections against the American political and security system…If we had given them [the Americans] an opportunity, they would start inflicting damage on the country again. They would look for weak points to enter the country…the Imam [Khomeini] saw this coming. Therefore, he took a decision on the espionage den [referring to the seizure of the US Embassy in Iran in 1979].

Iran’s engagement with the United States during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations is driving hopes (and fears) in Tehran of broader rapprochement with Washington. Khamenei’s comments make it clear where he stands on the prospect, and that Khomeini would not have bought into it either.

Economic salvation is around the corner. Iran’s leaders admit they have (unsurprisingly) not found the right policies to realize Khomeini’s vision of a dynamic, largely self-sufficient, state-driven economy. (Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani’s February comments are indicative of this tension.) The Iranian people are still waiting for significant improvements in their lives, though. President Rouhani took his message of deliverance through sanctions relief, foreign investment and reform to new heights at an environmental conference on June 7:

The oppressive sanctions must be removed so that investment can come and the problems of the environment, employment, industry and drinkable water are resolved.

Better water through sanctions relief? That is salesmanship, or something.

Iran is on the side of the angels in today’s conflicts. Recent military setbacks for the Syrian and Iraqi governments are sowing further doubts about Iran’s costly investments in its allies in Damascus and Baghdad. Iran is doubling down, however, and is even bringing Yemen more explicitly into the fold, at least rhetorically. But the elites, and the public, need to be reassured. Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati criticized the United States on June 1 for exacerbating regional crises, claiming:

America… [and its regional allies] plan to break the chain of resistance [forces in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine] and prepare a safe environment for the Zionist [Israeli] regime, which is a dream that will never be fulfilled.

President Rouhani also chimed in on June 4 stating “the Iranian nation is helping the peoples of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and other regional nations in their fight against terrorism, violence and extremism.”

The Iranian regime is not about to crack, but feels increasingly compelled to justify itself. The United States must appreciate the deep-seated insecurity at the heart of Tehran’s current behavior. Expect more dramatic political and military twists as Iran tries shore up its tattered legitimacy and failing policies.