Iran’s Hardliners Positioned to Gain More Power
In his latest speech, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to rebuke the moderate government of Hassan Rouhani for not fulfilling its economic promises. Other hardline officials and outlets have also ratcheted up their criticisms of Rouhani’s government.
The hardliners’ position should not be solely examined or interpreted from the economic landscapes, but it needs to be analyzed from the larger prism of geopolitical and revolutionary paradigms.
Those who have meticulously studied the Islamic Republic for decades are cognizant of the notion that there appears to exist a positive correlation between how tough and robust the US administration’s Iran policy is, and the extent to which Iran hardliners attempt to maneuver, project, showcase, or deploy hard power.
Whenever a US administration has taken a stronger stance either in actual policies or even in rhetoric towards the Islamic Republic, hardliners’ stances -such as the position of the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Judiciary system and the Ministry of Intelligence- have become anchored in resorting to their classic policy, which they have become familiar and comfortable with in over nearly four decades; that is, reacting more forcefully and publicly. At its highest peak, a prominent example occurred during the Bush Administration and the Iraq War. When Iran was militarily under pressure from the Bush Administration, and when Tehran was heavily sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, the Islamic Republic’s reaction was not retreating. In fact, the tense environment made the hardliners gain momentum. Through proxies or military, advisory and financial assistance, the IRGC and the Quds Force (the elite branch of the IRGC which is responsible for Iran’s extraterritorial operations) fought harder in several cities in Iraq in an attempt to tip the balance of power in favor of Iran and the Shia militias. In addition, they were capable of inflicting a considerable amount of damage to US national security, American soldiers and further scuttling US foreign policy objectives in the region.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that it has also been shown that a US administration such as President Obama’s, which pursued a softer stance towards Iran in comparison to any other American administrations, was incapable of fundamentally changing the core pillars of Iran’s foreign policy. For example, Tehran maintained its military, financial, intelligence and advisory support for Bashar Al Assad; and the Islamic Republic escalated its engagement in Iraq; furthermore, Iran’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan, Hezbollah and other state and non-state actors remained predominantly intact.
This is partially due to the historic deep mistrust between Iran and the US. From the perspective of Iran’s hardliners, any US administration, whether Democratic or Republican, is seeking to covertly or overtly overthrow the political establishment of the Islamic Republic. In addition, two of Iran’s core revolutionary principles for nearly four decades have been to oppose the US and strengthen the Shia axis.
As a result, while softer policies did not empower the moderates as many believed and hoped for, tougher policies are more likely going to give hardliners the momentum and make them resort to their classic position of showcasing power more forcefully.
From Caution to Confrontation
When the Trump Administration assumed office, Iranian leaders were cautious at the beginning because that they were uncertain about Trump’s actual Iran policy. They could not detect the nuances of the articulated Iran policy coming from the White House, or they were not certain whether Trump’s promises throughout his campaign regarding Iran were simply a collection of words or concrete actions.
As a result, Iran began feeling out the Trump Administration. When Iran test-fired a ballistic missile in January, which was detected by the State Department, and when Iran was put “on notice,” it became clear for Iranian leaders what direction Trump administration’s national security team was more likely going to take towards Iran.
This has led the hardliners to flex their military power more publicly, to reassert their regional power, to redefine the Middle geopolitical chessboard, and to send a message to the US that Tehran will not alter its policies. Subsequently, the IRGC has test-fired several ballistic missiles, some of which could carry nuclear warheads. Last weekend, Iran test-fired a pair of ballistic missiles, according to US officials. Accordingly: “One of Iran’s ballistic missile tests was successful, destroying a floating barge approximately 155 miles away, two US officials with knowledge of the launch told Fox News. The launches of the Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles were the first tests of the missile in two years, one official said.”
More recently, Iran has successfully test-fired its Hormuz-2 ballistic missile, according to Tasnim News Agency quoting Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the IRGC.
This would constitute as Iran’s 15th ballistic missile tested since the nuclear deal. The US believes that Iran is breaching UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
Iranian leaders, on the other hand, reject this premise that their ballistic missile tests are in violation of international law because it is designed for defensive purposes. Later, in the continuing chain of linked events, Iran also held a military exercise in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s military and IRGC spending have also witnessed a considerable increase in 2017. The 2017 budget bill is approximately $106 billion, according to official numbers. The single highest increase has been designated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which rose from $4.52 billion in 2016 to $7.01 billion in 2017, an increase of approximately 55 percent.
Since Michael T. Flynn has left the Trump Administration, it appears that the White House’s tougher tone towards Iran has subsided. Nevertheless, Iran’s hardliners will more likely continue their attempt to gain leverage.
In closing, due to the aforementioned factors, Iran hardliners have the momentum to gain more power, as well as to reassert the Islamic Republic’s power in the region. The more a US administration shows intentions to counter Iran, the more Iran’s hardliners appear to resort to their classic policy of publicly projecting power.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM's editorial policy.