Is the IRGC losing its grip on Iranian policy-making to the moderates?

Iranian belligerence has been see-sawing depending on who is in charge: Soleimani and his hard-liners or President Rouhani and the moderates.

Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran (photo credit: MORTEZA NIKOUBAZI/ REUTERS)
Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran
It is very early in the game to judge, but if Iran's missile attacks on two bases in Iraq are the extent of its response to an American drone blowing up Iran IRGC al-Quds force chief Qasem Soleimani, it looks like the elite unit may be losing its control over policy.
There is always a war in Iran between moderates, who want to at least try to get along with the West, and hard-liners who seem happier when the Islamic Republic is trying to loudly and openly conquer the region, including spitting in the face of the West. Who wins the battle for Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's heart is usually the one who dictates policy.
What signs would show that the "moderates" are in control for the moment?
First, a tweet by US President Donald Trump indicated that there are no US casualties of any kind.
Some of that could be because the US has early warning systems; some of it could be because the missile strikes were carried out in the middle of the night when most troops would not be outside and exposed; and some of it because only around a dozen rockets were fired.
All of the above seem to signal that Iran wanted only a limited response against America's killing of Soleimani so as not to escalate into a general war with Trump.
This is not likely the response that the IRGC – from where Soleimani came – was looking for when its leaders called for massive revenge for probably their most famous leader.
There is no question that Iran has the capability to have done far more and to have caused a significant amount American fatalities.
So what is going on behind the scenes in the internal fight for control over Iranian policy?
First, the "moderates" are not really that moderate and mostly support Tehran's plans for regional hegemony – but they at least have subtlety, patience and act more conservatively to try to preserve some notion of Iran being a country that can get along with others.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are the moderates who convinced Khamenei to detach and remove around three-fourths of his uranium centrifuges and to decommission the country's Arak plutonium facility, in order to cut the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The IRGC – including Soleimani when he was alive and heavily influencing Khamenei – opposed any deal with the US and any concessions as a waste of time.
At that point, Rouhani-Zarif beat Soleimani and the IRGC for control over Iranian policy. But then Soleimani and the IRGC took back control.
Khamenei approved Soleimani's aggressive plans for trying to take control of or at least build major forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and even to some extent in Gaza.
Soleimani's plans are a lot of what undermined the US rationale for continuing to play nice with Iran and sticking to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Although technically the nuclear deal was disconnected from other Iran issues, the Obama administration's presumption was that the Islamic Republic would deescalate provocation, not escalate to a whole new level.
In February 2019, Soleimani's power had grown so complete that Zarif, despite being foreign minister, was kept out of a visit by Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Zarif responded with a public resignation, which he did not coordinate with Khamenei or anyone else, catching them off guard and throwing the country into chaos.
Within a short period of time, all Iranian officials were reaffirming Zarif's prominence and essentially begged him to return to his post, which he eventually did.
For some time after that, it seemed that this regained for Zarif and the moderates control over policy, with Khamenei affirming in March that Iran would not leave the nuclear deal in the near term despite US sanctions, and would try to outlast Trump.
This shifted again in May 2019 when Trump upped the ante by ending sanctions waivers for China, India and others to trade with Iran.
The Islamic republic started to use force more brazenly against US forces and allies – again likely with pressure from Soleimani and the IRGC.
However, Zarif still seemed to have some influence, as Iran's violations of the nuclear deal were incremental and buffered every two months with statements about wanting to return to the deal if the US ended sanctions.
There was speculation that America's killing of Soleimani would end the restraint from Iran and shift power back completely to the now furious IRGC.
That still may happen. This could just be Iran's opening shot, and weeks or months from now, there may be an attack on other US assets or diplomats overseas.
However, the fact is that Soleimani was killed almost six days ago and this is the first real response.
And Zarif publicly tweeted that Iran is seeking to deescalate after the attack.
At least for now, that could mean that removing Soleimani may have temporarily boosted the moderates at the IRGC's expense, and a general war with Iran may still be avoidable.