Three months before Menas Associates published the first issue of Iran Focus – later renamed Iran Strategic Focus – in October 1988, Iran had accepted UN Security Council Resolution 598, putting an end to the devastating 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War.
It had cost the lives of almost a million people. That experience had a deep impact on the Iranian psyche and has influenced the country’s subsequent political, economic, and social developments.
The first post-war decade in Iran was coloured by two key events.
The emergence of Khamenei
The first was the death of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in June 1989. He was not only the architect of the Islamic Republic but also a unifying figure whose influence pushed diverse political groups to coalesce in order to topple the monarchy in 1979.
Many had predicted that the young Islamic Republic would collapse after his death, particularly as the issue of his succession was unresolved. Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri, who had been elected as Khomeini’s designated successor, had been dismissed in 1988 and no consensus figure had emerged to replace him. No individual embodied both religious and political legitimacy, as Khomeini had done.
During the June 1989 meeting of the Assembly of Experts – the organ that is entrusted with the supervision and election of the Supreme Leader – it was therefore proposed that a Leadership Council be established.
This was rejected by the Assembly, which then moved to elect Seyed Ali Khamenei as the next Supreme Leader.
At that time, Khamenei was the country’s president and a religiously lower ranked Hojat-ol-Eslam. For that reason, leadership responsibilities were divided between Khamenei as political leader and Grand Ayatollah Ali Araki as the religious authority.
When Araki died in 1994, some conservative ayatollahs in Qom argued that Khamenei’s political experience now qualified him as a religious leader, and he therefore came to embody both political and religious leadership in one person. Even today, however, the more traditional grand ayatollahs in Qom refuse to refer to Khamenei as Grand Ayatollah because he did not follow the traditional route of theological hierarchy.
The ascendance of Rafsanjani
The second key element was the ascendance of former Majles (parliamentary) speaker Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became president in 1989.
That year, Iran put a constitutional amendment to a referendum, eliminating the position of prime minister and converting the ceremonial role of president to head of the executive branch.
Even though the Supreme Leader was more powerful constitutionally, Rafsanjani wielded considerable power during his two-term presidency from 1989 to 1997 – in part because Khamenei was still young and inexperienced.
Rafsanjani called his eight years in office the ‘era of reconstruction’ and tried hard to leave the war economy of the 1980s behind and engage in reforms designed to build a modern state. He was pushed back by conservative factions, however, which managed to win a majority in the Majles in 1992.
The pendulum effect
Developments between Khomeini’s death in 1989 and the 1992 Majles election can be seen as the foundation of a pattern of pendulum swings between reformist and conservative ideals in post-revolutionary Iran. What emerged during this period was a competition between two outlooks.
The first, driven by Rafsanjani and the reformists, was a conciliatory approach that believed the Iran–Iraq war had shown the limitations of confrontation and thought that Iran needed to reconcile with the international community in order to develop and prosper.
The second was a confrontational approach shaped by the bitter war experience, when almost all world powers had sided with Saddam Hussein. Subscribers to this world view argued that Iran could not and should not trust any other power but instead needed develop independent security and defence capabilities.
Swinging to the right…
The first sign that the pendulum was moving in a conservative direction was the resignation of Rafsanjani’s reform-minded minister of culture, Mohammad Khatami, in 1992.
Rafsanjani’s conciliatory approach had included reaching out to the United States, with which Iran had fallen out in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Rafsanjani believed that the path to improving Iran–US ties lay through commerce, which is why in 1995 the Ministry of Petroleum during his tenure awarded the first post-revolutionary oil contract to US company Conoco.
The strategy backfired, however, and President Bill Clinton’s administration decided to impose sanctions on US companies that wanted to trade with Iran. The sanctions have intensified throughout the past three decades.
…then to the left
The 1997 presidential election was a pivotal moment in Iran’s post-revolutionary developments. The conservative faction, which had secured the backing of the Supreme Leader, felt very powerful and was hoping to control all branches of power, but a landslide election instead elevated reformist Khatami to the presidency.
He devoted his administration to the promotion of civil society and the private sector, and to easing external tensions.
He used a January 1998 interview with CNN to propose expanding people-to-people contacts between the United States and Iran in the hope that relations could be made less strained. He opened the Iranian oil sector up to international investors and improved the country’s ties with the European Union to an unprecedented degree.
Using Khatami’s momentum, reformists then overwhelmingly won the 2000 Majles election and another reformist leader, Mehdi Karrubi, became the speaker.
This mobilised conservative forces that had always been against a rapprochement between Iran and Western countries. Gradually, the group now referred to as ‘hardliners’ came out of the shadows and collected around the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
The IRGC had been established after the 1979 Revolution as a parallel military organisation to counter-balance the regular army, whose members may have felt loyalty to the old regime. During the Iran–Iraq war, the IRGC had gained prominence because its members were more closely affiliated with the religio-political elite.
During the reconstruction years, the IRGC engaged in major infrastructure projects and gradually built engineering and industrial capacity. In short, it became a powerful organisation with interests outside the military realm – but it also felt neglected by the Khatami administration.
One reason for the tense relationship was that the Khatami government was not awarding any larger projects to IRGC companies. The limits of Khatami’s power in the complex power structure were publicly displayed, however, when the IRGC lobbied to push Turkcell out of the running for the country’s second mobile operator, and also imposed IRGC companies to provide security for Tehran’s new airport instead of Turkish TAV.
Khatami had tried to address the complexities of the national power structure by emphasising the constitution, but conservatives side managed to use the constitution to highlight the authority of the Supreme Leader’s position and also to underline the IRGC’s role as guardian of the revolution.
Consequently – despite Khatami’s landslide re-election in 2001 – the reformist camp started losing steam. By 2005, the pendulum was already moving in the other direction.
The 2005 election produced another big surprise. Former president Rafsanjani decided to run, while the most promising conservative contender seemed to be Mohammad Baquer Qalibaf, a former IRGC commander and popular police commander.
Instead, the little-known Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had served as Tehran mayor since 2003, ran a successful anti-Rafsanjani campaign and won in a second round of voting.
Ahmadinejad fed on the anger of groups that had been marginalised in the 16 years of Rafsanjani and Khatami, including parts of the IRGC. In a populist campaign, he promised to ‘take the oil wealth to the people’s homes’ and to decentralise the political structure.
He also benefited from Ayatollah Khamenei’s desire to see a younger generation of politicians in the executive branch in order to push back against Rafsanjani’s desire to return to presidency.
Ahmadinejad’s election victory was also facilitated by regional developments. The post 9/11 invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) and talk of an imminent attack on Iran emerging from President George W. Bush’s administration had strengthened a confrontational theme in the Iranian discourse.
The nuclear wedge
Furthermore, in 2003, revelations about Iran’s nuclear programme had worsened already tense international relations. From the perspective of many Iranians, a president like Ahmadinejad was needed to manage relations with the outside world.
Instead, he poured oil on the fire by denying the Holocaust and engaging in inflammatory anti-Israeli rhetoric.
It was also during the Ahmadinejad era that the IRGC’s involvement in major infrastructure projects – including in the oil and gas sector – expanded. This process was accelerated in 2008–2009 when many Western oil and gas companies started to exit the Iranian market in response to nuclear-related sanctions.
As international powers boosted sanctions, Iran intensified its nuclear programme. A solution emerged in 2010 when, through the mediation of Turkey and Brazil, Tehran agreed to cap its nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief, but President Barack Obama’s insistence that Iran had to reduce its enrichment activity to zero made a deal impossible.
The hostile rhetoric was amplified when Iran moved to enrich uranium at 20% level, reducing its potential ‘breakout time’ to build a nuclear bomb just to a few months.
The Green Movement
The failure to conclude a deal in 2010 was driven in part by the complex Iranian domestic political dynamic. Ahmadinejad won a second term in 2009 with 63% of the vote, but his success led to what became known as the Green Movement.
Pro-reformist citizens were convinced that the election was rigged, and their street protests led to massive repression of dissent, including the arrest of leading reformist figures and house arrest for reformist candidates Mirhossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karrubi.
Ahmadinejad’s second term was thus characterised by internal and external tensions and a hardening of conciliatory and confrontational positions. The 2013 presidential election was destined to test which camp would be able to attract voters.
Arab Spring and after
Meanwhile, the Arab Spring movement had taught Iran’s political elite an important lesson.
The confrontational camp had always argued that a harsh anti-American stance had generated ‘soft power’ for Iran among Islamic countries, but in the aftermath of the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, none of the revolutionaries turned to Iran as a model state.
The conciliatory camp began to argue that soft power would emerge only from peaceful economic and technological development.
Within this context, Hassan Rohani’s campaign – based on resolving the nuclear issue and improving ties with the international community – resonated well with the majority of Iranians in 2013. His election victory opened a new chapter in Iranian relations with Western countries, leading to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.
In contrast to former president Mohammad Khatami, Rohani has focused only on foreign and economic policy and has allowed the conservative faction to control the domestic and cultural agenda.
This division of responsibilities may have made the nuclear deal feasible, but it has disillusioned reformists who were expecting Rohani to attend to issues such as civil rights, press freedoms, and political parties.
The success of the nuclear negotiations and Rohani’s economic policies in his first term facilitated his re-election in 2017. His second term has, however, been undermined by an intensification of domestic rivalries as well as the increasingly anti-Iranian posture of President Donald Trump’s administration.
And then came Trump
Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, and the negative economic consequences, have caused a significant decline in Rohani’s popularity. The pendulum is once again swinging to the confrontational side, and this process will be accelerated by deteriorating relations with the United States and growing regional tensions.
Iranians are fatigued by the constant failure of negotiations. Opinion polls now suggest that the most popular public figure is Qassem Soleimani, who commands the Qods Force – the IRGC’s regional operations unit.
He has clearly moved beyond a purely confrontational approach to develop an anti-Western but pro-engagement stance that is similar to President Vladimir Putin’s strategy.
Over the past 30 years the Islamic Republic has proven its resilience, taking a more pragmatic approach to crises than many external observers have admitted. Its fragmented power structure has created a very complex and lengthy decision-making process, but it has also ensured that Iran rarely makes radical decisions, despite its rhetorical outbursts.
Is the pendulum slowing?
In the absence of new and significant developments, it is likely that the pendulum will swing again to support for a confrontational discourse, but each time a mainstream political faction dominates, the approach is adjusted.
Just as Rohani differed from Khatami, the next confrontational president will differ from Ahmadinejad.
The February 2020 Majles and June 2021 presidential elections are impossible to predict because of the innumerable domestic, regional, and international factors that will feed into the result. What can be said with certainty, however, is that external pressure and animosity will boost the influence of the confrontational faction.
Another important issue is the question of succession to Ayatollah Khamenei if he should die or become unfit to rule.
Additionally, recent protests against clear deficiencies in economic management have made their mark – and the senior leadership wishes to shift the balance of power in order to address the country’s lack of professionalism and efficiency.
This process is coinciding with deliberations on the question of Khamenei’s successor. Diverse scenarios are being considered:
- Before electing the new Supreme Leader, some of his responsibilities may be transferred to other power centres – various councils, the president, the Assembly of Experts, and so forth – so that the next leader exerts less pressure on the decision-making processes.
- The overall system may stay the same and Khamenei would be replaced by a conservative cleric such as Ebrahim Raissi.
- A moderate cleric such as Hassan Khomeini – the first Supreme Leader’s grandson – could become the next leader and begin reforming the political structure.
The outcome of these deliberations will depend on both external and internal dynamics.
As Iran Strategic Focus celebrates its 30th anniversary, the Islamic Republic is preparing to celebrate its 40th in February 2019. Despite all its challenges, the regime remains resilient and capable of adapting to new realities. Political risks and sanctions remain on Iran’s horizon – but each time the pendulum swings in the other direction, it gets closer to the centre.