What happened to Iran’s 'hardliners?'

The “moderate” and “hardliner” narrative was trotted out by the Iranian regime and its explainers abroad while much stayed the same at home in Iran

US President Donald Trump (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For many years Western media repeated a typical formulation: Iranian politics is dominated by “hardliners” and “moderates” and if the US or the West don’t do what Tehran wants, then the “hardliners” will be fueled and Iran will become more extreme.
When US President Donald Trump left the Iran deal a year ago, almost every major analysis claimed that the “hardliners” would now be empowered by his decision.
However, after a year little has changed in Tehran. The same faces are largely in charge and the same rhetoric, which was always militarist and threatening, hasn’t changed.
In May 2018, the US announced it was leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the “Iran Deal” that the US had agreed to in 2015. China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany and the European Union had signed on as well, ending most sanctions in exchange for Iran not producing certain levels of nuclear material or trying to build a nuclear weapon. After the US chose to leave, Iran and the rest of the signatories chose to keep the deal. Earlier this month, Iran threatened the European powers that if they didn’t do more for Iran in the next 60 days, then Iran might leave parts of the deal.
The deal was the “pet project” of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the political “moderates,” according to Vox. In May 2018, Vox claimed that “Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement has given their more hardline opponents, including the leaders of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the upper hand in the domestic political environment.” The Union of Concerned Scientists also put out a statement claiming that “Trump’s announcement will strengthen Iranian hardliners.” And at The Harvard Gazette we learn: “It will also strengthen the Revolutionary Guard hardliners in Tehran.”
“Mr. Trump’s move could embolden hard-line forces in Iran, raising the threat of Iranian retaliation against Israel or the United States,” The New York Times wrote on May 8. Brookings, in an article published in October 2018, seemed to have a slightly different conclusion. “Although Washington’s new tough line on Iran has emboldened hardline circles in Iran opposed to the JCPOA, there is a willingness at the top of the [Iranian government] to keep the deal alive.”
How have the hardliners been strengthened in the past year? Iran’s foreign policy in the last year has remained largely consistent with what it was doing before 2018. It has continued to support Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has continued to support the Houthi rebels in Lebanon. It has continued to work with Shi’ite militias and political parties in Iraq. It has furthered its role in Syria. Does it have more bases in Syria in May 2019 than in May 2018? Insofar as it has only built upon and extended its goals. For instance, its goal in Iraq was to make the Popular Mobilization Forces, a group of Shi’ite militias, into an official force. Former Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi had already called them the “hope” of the country in October 2017. They were formally inducted into the security forces in March 2018.
Iran’s role has become more institutional in Iraq since then. Iraq signed new deals with Iran in March. Voices critical of Iran have been “purged” in the PMU, according to reports. Former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi called for them being disbanded in April of this year. His words fell on deaf ears. However, protesters have also targeted pro-Iranian groups in places like Basra, challenging Iran.
Where else has Iran’s foreign policy become more “hardline?” In January 2019, Iran was blamed for two political assassinations in Europe, one in 2015 and another in 2017. Iran’s destabilizing activities in Europe, therefore, have a historic element that goes back to the period of the Iran deal and before.
Zarif is still at the top of Iran’s foreign policy. He was recently on a high-profile trip to Japan, India, China and Turkmenistan. In February, Zarif appeared to resign after he was angered that Syrian president Bashar Assad visited Tehran without his inclusion. However, days later he was back at his post and was soon on a major trip to Syria and Turkey. Evidence shows that Zarif’s views are just as “hardline” as the supposed hardliners. He has said “we are IRGC” in October 2017, after US criticism of the Iran deal and the IRGC.
The IRGC, the ostensibly “hardline” part of Iran, hasn’t changed greatly in the last year. It has continued to develop its ballistic missile programs and to strengthen its influence at home and abroad. In April 2019, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced the IRGC’s leader Mohammed Ali Jafari with Hossein Salami. Is Salami more extreme than Jafari, who was the architect of the IRGC’s policies over the last 11 years? Time will tell, if he is more extreme it might mean he is more erratic because the IRGC was already extreme.
WITH THE same faces at the helm of many parts of Iran and very little change in policies, where do commentators point to find the strengthening of the “hardliners.” Reuters argued, in a May 16 piece, that “Rouhani’s authority is now waning” and he has been weakened by Trump’s policies. According to the article, a “hardline rival heads the judiciary.” The article points to Ebrahim Raisi as an example of hardline gains. A March 2019 piece from Reuters had already claimed that Raisi, a “hardline cleric,” had consolidated power. It argued that he was a “contender” to succeed Khamenei. However, since Khamenei was already one of the supposed hardliners, wouldn’t his replacement by another hardliner merely be more of the same?
Another “hardliner” who was appointed recently was Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani. He was promoted to head the Expeditionary Council in December. He replaced a hardliner named Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. In fact The Nation magazine had claimed in 2009 that Shahroudi, “a political hardliner,” was a top candidate to replace the “ailing Khamenei.” Khamenei survived and Shahroudi died, but the hardliners was replaced by a hardliner. A washing machine of hardliners isn’t a form of empowerment, it represents a continuation of Iran’s power structure.
The cleric Larijani is also the younger brother of Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani. Al-Monitor described Ali Larijani as a “moderate” in May 2018. The language here is a bit confusing because an earlier article refers to him as a “moderate conservative” opposed by “reformists.” Reuters and AFP also call him a “moderate conservative.” In November 2018, Radio Farda reported that “hardliners” were seeking to unseat Larijani.
The terminology appears confusing partly because it has been crafted largely to explain Iran to a Western audience. The simple cliché binary “hardliner” and “moderate” was a way to make a regime simple and to portray it as moderating even if it hadn’t changed at all. The survey of Iranian political leaders points to little real change in the way Iran is governed and the various power structures that exist in Iran. Iran has preferred to portray itself to the world as being more moderate during the Iran deal negotiations, sending Zarif to negotiate, while at home the IRGC continued to build missiles and support groups across the Middle East. The “hardliners” and “moderates” were trotted out like a kind of good cop, bad cop routine with the bogeyman hardliners always waiting in the wings if Western powers didn’t comply with Iran’s demands. But at home, it appears little has changed and Iran’s policy has been consistently aggressive and militaristic over the years, using a complex approach involving growing influence and strengthening its armed proxies across the Middle East.