Iran's internal power struggle: two sides of the same coin

The folly of seeing Iran’s aggression as internal power play between radicals and moderates

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the arguments used by former US president Barack Obama and his supporters in favor of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was that the deal would strengthen and enable the Iranian moderates.
The kind-looking Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, and his always smiling foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, this argument held, were moderates locked into a battle with forces of darkness inside Iran – led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – for the country’s soul and future. The deal will give the moderates an important card to play in this titanic struggle which – if the moderates would win – could benefit all of humankind.
Never mind that things haven’t worked out that way in the least, and that, in the three years since the signing of the nuclear deal, not only have the moderates not had a warm and fuzzy impact on developments inside Iran, but the country has actually been emboldened to become even more aggressive beyond its borders.
Or, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often says, the hope was that the deal would turn Iran into a responsible member of the family of nations, when in fact it has led Iran to devour one member of that family after the next.
But comfortable ideas die hard, and this moderates vs extremists thesis appeared this week in a slightly different form in a much-talked-about opinion piece written by Thomas Friedman in The New York Times.
The piece made big news in Israel on Monday because Friedman quoted a senior military source as admitting to the attack on the T4 Air Base near Homs in Syria last week which has led to an Iranian pledge of vengeance and seemingly set Israel and Iran on a collision course.
“It was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets – both facilities and people,” Friedman quoted a senior military source as saying.
At first glance, that quote seemed a bit odd because Israel already admitted in February to hitting the Iranian command and control unit at T4 that dispatched an explosives-laden drone to fly into Israel.
The IDF denied the quote, and Friedman added the IDF spokesman’s disclaimer in a later online version of the piece. An even later online version was further revamped, and the quote by the senior military official was omitted altogether. As the Times wrote at the bottom of the new version: “This column was updated April 17 to reflect news developments.”
But, never mind. This is the point: In the piece – headlined “Are Iran and Israel headed for their first direct war?” – Friedman resurrected the old thesis about the radicals vs moderates inside Iran.
“Tehran’s attempt to build a network of bases and missile factories in Syria – now that it has helped [Syrian President Bashar] Assad largely crush the uprising against him – appears to be an ego-power play by Iran’s Quds Force leader [Qassem] Soleimani to extend Iran’s grip on key parts of the Sunni Arab world and advance his power struggle with President Hassan Rouhani. Soleimani’s Quds Force now more or less controls – through proxies – four Arab capitals: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa.”
Friedman continues: “Iran’s President Rouhani probably also [along with Russia] prefers a stable Syria, where Assad has consolidated his power and that is not a drain on the Iranian budget. But Soleimani and the Quds Force seem to aspire to greater dominance of the Arab world and putting more pressure on Israel.”
So there it is again. The problem is not Iran, but those pesky extremists, Soleimani and the Quds Force, who are out for domination.
“Unless Soleimani backs down, you are about to see in Syria an unstoppable force – Iran’s Quds Force – meet an immovable object: Israel.”
Again, it’s Quds Force, not Iran itself. It’s the Quds Force in control of Arab capitals, not Iran. Friedman gives the Quds Force an independent will of its own.
BUT ISRAELI experts are not buying it.
“There has always been an American school of thought that the elected president of Iran [Rouhani] was a force for moderation, and you had to strengthen his people against the power of the supreme leader,” said Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA).
“I personally have never accepted that. I think the supreme leader behaves like his title says – that he is supreme. The Revolutionary Guards [The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], and the Quds Force in particular, report directly back to Khamenei.”
Gold rejected the idea that Syria was a theater where internal Iranian power plays were being played out.
“I think Iran is determined at all costs to build a military capacity along Israel’s northern border, and that is what is putting them in a direct clash with us,” he said, adding that efforts to give the Quds Force, which is the overseas operational unit of the Revolutionary Guards, an independent will of its own is not new.
“During the Iraq War there was an effort by some spokesmen in Washington to assert that they were not certain that operations of the Quds Force against the US Army [in 2009-2010] were authorized by the political leadership in Tehran,” he said. “That may have been an effort to lower the responsibility of the US political leadership at the time to have to respond to the Quds Force’s killing of US soldiers.”
Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence, who is now also affiliated with the JCPA, said that Rouhani and Soleimani were simply “two sides of the same coin.”
Both, he said, “want to see Iran as the hegemonic power in the Middle East.” They may have a different timetable and use different means, “but they have the same goals.”
Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, concurred wholeheartedly.
“Rouhani is part and parcel of this regime – he is not different. It is true that Soleimani has accumulated more power, he is a name that everyone now knows, and that wasn’t the situation in the past, but I think that Khamenei is the one calling the shots – and Rouhani has not shown any indication that he is in a different place.”
Landau stressed that since he has been in power, Rouhani has not spearheaded any internal reforms, and issues “very hard-line” messages.
“There’s always this idea floating in the background that it is all really about some power struggle in Iran, and if we would only do what needs to be done to let these moderates take over, then we would be in a better place,” she said.
“There are a lot of people who supported the [nuclear] deal, and support the idea that if we only change our attitude to Iran, we will strengthen the so-called moderates,” she continued. “It didn’t happen, and it is not happening. All we see is a hardening of the Iranian approach.”
Landau said that even if there is some political struggle inside Iran – and she acknowledged that there is internal politics there, as there is everywhere else – “I don’t think it is about the overall direction of Iran; and even if Rouhani would win this struggle, we would not see something entirely different.”
Landau noted that Khamenei gave Rouhani the green light to run for president in 2013 because he was the one talking about economic reform, “and it sounded good, since there were grievances at the time, so they had their candidate who did not sound as hard-line as some of the others.”
But, she added, if Rouhani was really someone who would challenge Khamenei or the overall policy and direction of Iran, his candidacy would have been nixed, as were the candidacies of so many others.
“It is time to get real about what is happening in Iran and about who is running things,” she said. “Iran has gotten more aggressive, more entrenched, and more threatening.”