The majority of Iranians realize that a battle is currently raging in Iran for the “very heart and soul of the Islamic Republic,” Ori Goldberg, an expert on political theology in the Shi’ite world, said on Sunday.
This battle, which is being played out in the demonstrations that have hit Iran since the beginning of the year, pits President Hassan Rouhani against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But Goldberg, who teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said that Rouhani is not a liberal or reformer as the West often likes to portray him. Rather he is someone who believes that the government should devote most of its efforts and resources to the needs of the Iranians in Iran.
Goldberg told a group of policy shapers from Australia, the US, the UK and Israel taking part in the International Institute for Strategic Leadership Dialogue in Jerusalem, that in 2013 Rouhani ran on a platform “of what he called moderation.”
“That may seem like a loaded word here in the West, but in Iran that word resonated very powerfully among the Iranian public,” he asserted. “Moderation meant less involvement of the Iranian state in the direct lives of the citizens, and it also meant what later became known as republicanism: a government that devotes most of its efforts and resources to regulating the lives of Iranians in Iran.”
Goldberg said this “republicanism” was a crucial part of Rouhani’s electoral platform, “and a very major reason for his resounding and surprising victory.”
Signing the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was for Rouhani first and foremost an attempt to reassert Iran into the world – something Goldberg said “means a lot to the Iranians” – and also a vehicle providing him with the “peace of mind required to stabilize the Iranian economy and Iranian state. The JCPOA was the means to give him the breathing room in order to do that.”
Arrayed against Rouhani’s camp, Goldberg said, are the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
“The military successes in Syria and Lebanon are perceived in Iran as sectorial in nature; they belong to the Revolutionary Guards, [who] are not perceived by what I believe to be a significant majority of the Iranian public as Iranian. They are seen as a sector with its own interests, motives and agendas: mostly related to preserving their power – both executive and economic. They are a network, a clique, a mob – call them what you will. Most Iranians don’t see them as speaking or acting on behalf of the Iranian collective,” he said.
He added that the Guards’ successes in Syria, “while they serve the staunch revolutionary agenda of the Revolutionary Guards, are not seen as advancing the interests of Iran at large by a great many members of the Iranian public.”
THIS TENSION, according to Goldberg, is important in understanding the demonstrations that have hit the country this year.
These protests reflect “Iranian distress, mostly the distress of lower classes, who suffer tremendously from the sharp rise in the cost of living,” he said.
The domestic battle has “morphed,” he asserted. “It is no longer between conservatives and reformists, [or] hardliners and moderates, but between Rouhani’s republicanism and the revolutionaries. It is between a political camp that wants to devote its resources and capabilities to restarting or upgrading the Islamic Republic, and a political camp heavily invested in the interventionist, aggressive foreign policy we have come to see in Iran.”
Goldberg said that the demonstrations that began in January were sparked by the revolutionaries who wanted to use them to discredit Rouhani.
Iran protests grow, death toll mounts, January 2, 2018. (REUTERS)
“For the first day in January, the protesters shouted slogans against Rouhani and the entire Islamic Republic. That lasted less than a day,” he said. “Within a day the demonstrators all over Iran were shouting slogans against Iranian interventions in foreign countries, against money being spent on that intervention, and against the supreme leader [Ali Khamenei] – who is seen at least at heart to be supporting the Revolutionary Guards.”
This same phenomenon repeated itself in recent demonstrations in southern Iran triggered by the death of 65 villagers because of poisoned water.
“People took to the streets and once again the slogans heard were uniformly against what most Iranians believe to be the foreign policy of the Revolutionary Guards,” he said.
According to Goldberg, Iran is undergoing a battle for its identity: “Rouhani is leader in a cabinet that is not liberal or democratic, but intensely pragmatic and focused on the welfare of the Iranians.”
Rouhani, Goldberg continued, “has the support of large majority of the Iranian public who, even if they are not great fans of the Islamic Republic, look around and consider him to be the only responsible adult there, the only potentially suitable candidate for the supreme leadership.”
The Iranian president has adroitly managed to “rally the troops around him,” Goldberg said, adding that once the US withdrew from the JCPOA in May, many pundits and commentators predicted that the Iranians would immediately turn radical, “rally around the flag, and it would again be a time of heroic resistance and terrorist activity galore.”
But “This does not seem to be what is happening in Iran at the moment,” he said, adding that Iran’s military successes abroad are “losing credibility in Iran and the support of the public, and are unlikely – in my opinion – to regain it.”