It is a common assumption underlying debate about Iran policy: Iranian politics are a struggle between hardliners and reformers, and U.S. and European actions can privilege one faction over the other. In 2000, that was the logic of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s initiative combining rhetorical outreach and sanctions relief. “It’s a substantial speech designed to strengthen the hand of the reformers by giving them something concrete in the form of sanctions modification,” a senior official explained on background to the New York Times. President Barack Obama likewise based his Iran negotiation strategy in the belief that he could privilege Iranian moderates over hardliners. Proponents of Iran engagement have pushed the idea through the Trump presidency. Michael Fuchs, an Obama administration alum and a fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, wrote in a 2019 op-ed. “Trump’s actions have now empowered hardliners in Iran, making a diplomatic outcome less likely.”
Biden Rejoining JCPOA Won’t Empower Iran’s Moderates
As the Biden administration seeks to put Iran talks on the fast track, proponents of rapprochement argue that lifting sanctions and re-engaging Iranian diplomats is just the thing to push reformers over hardliners in the Iranian political vortex. In December 2020, Iranian journalist Saeid Jafari wrote, “Moderates will lose the June 2021 presidential election in Iran unless there is a new agreement and sanctions relief—and the United States can forget diplomacy if hardliners win.” Earlier this week at a Princeton University panel, for example, BBC journalist Negar Mortazavi, an activist for rapprochement with the Iranian regime, suggested that a quick Biden administration return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) could “strengthen the moderates’ hand.”
The Western belief that substantive differences exist between Iranian hardliners and reformers, however, betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Iranian society. The most obvious problem is that the dichotomy between hardliners and reformers only represents about 25 percent of Iran’s political debate. It limits political debate to loyalists to the theocratic ideals espoused by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The Guardian Council exists to vet candidates for office to their fealty to revolutionary principles, and blacklists the vast majority of candidates. In effect, this means that the major debates today between hardliners and reformers have less to do with ideology and more to do with tactics to implement it.
Another Western misunderstanding is rooted in the hard-liners’ origins inside the Islamic Republic: The root of the hardliners—or principlists, if a direct translation from Persian is used—lies with those who answered the call to defend the Islamic Republic from the invading Iraqi army in 1980. Those who survived the World War One-like trench warfare sacrificed their youth and health in order to defend Iran’s territory and its new revolutionary principles. When Khomeini accepted a 1988 ceasefire, they returned home only to find that revolutionary bureaucrats had gotten fat and rich cutting political and business deals while conscripts and Guardsmen served at the front. Late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for example, literally made billions of dollars cornering the pistachio trade while young Iranians inhaled Iraqi mustard gas at the frontline. This is one of the reasons why among working-class Iranians, hardliners—no matter how bizarre hardline rhetoric may sound to the Western ear—often enjoy a reputation as less corrupt than reformists.
Another basic problem in Western capitals is that understanding Iranian politics through the lens of hardline vs. reform debates is too simple. The 1979 Revolution was not just about Islamism. Khomeini led a loose coalition, and many of the university-age students infused their revolutionary fervor with social justice and anti-capitalist rhetoric. Decades later, Iranian politicians continue to embrace a command economy, although Rafsanjani fought much of his career to make the Islamic Republic more business-friendly. The Revolutionary Guards’ heavy economic footprint and protectionism distort the economic debate even more.
To understand better the Iranian internal debate, it is important to sketch two axes: One may be the familiar hardline vs. reform dichotomy, but the other would be the economic debate between free marketeers and proponents of the state-centered economy. This divides Iranian politicians into four quadrants: reformist free-marketers, social reformists who embrace a state-centered economy, hardline free-marketers, and hardline believes in the command economy. The most impactful rivalries and vicious debates within Iranian society are often less about orientation to the outside world, and more about the role of the state in the Iranian economy.
The greatest misperception about Iranian politics, however, comes from projecting a Western understanding of electoral politics. Within the Iranian political system, there are positions subject to electoral politics, and positions that stand above them. The Supreme Leader, of course, rules for life and is not subject to elections. This is important for the purpose of Western diplomacy because the policies of most concern to American policymakers—the nuclear file, terrorism, ballistic missiles, and Iranian support for regional insurgencies—are controlled by unelected officials rather than the presidency, parliament, or cabinet officials answering to the president. The Revolutionary Guards exist as a Praetorian Guard to protect the supreme leader from the will of the people. Structurally, muddle-through reform is a non-starter unless the Revolutionary Guards first collapse.
While many proponents of diplomacy, like Albright, Obama, and current National Security Jake Sullivan, believe they can tip the scales in Tehran’s factional battle, there is a more compelling explanation of Iranian electoral history. To understand political fortunes in Iran, it is important to recognize that the supreme leader operates as a marionette puppeteer, manipulating the bureaucracy to privilege one faction and undercut the other so that none grows powerful enough to challenge him. Mohammad Khatami’s 1997 election undercut Rafsanjani’s political machine. As reformists grew more powerful, Khamenei tipped the scale in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who surprised the Washington establishment when he acceded to the presidency in 2005. His political base was in the Revolutionary Guards. Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 election had less to do with reform or moderation—Rouhani was the ultimate regime hatchet man—and more to do with cutting the Revolutionary Guards off at their knees, replacing them instead with veterans of the competing intelligence agency. Put another way, what American analysts lazily read as an honest competition between hardliners and reformers is anything but: Elections are less about allowing Iranians to realize their political desires and more about the leadership pulling the rug out from any competition. In this year’s election, it does not matter what Biden does: Khamenei’s overriding interest is to diminish Rouhani, clean house, and empower Rouhani’s opponents.
The worst thing a political analyst can do is project his or her own understanding of politics onto a fundamentally different system, but that has become par for the course in the Iran policy debate. The truth is every regime, no matter how autocratic, has its divisions. Just because factions exist in North Korea, Eritrea or Iran does not mean they offer different outcomes. While the Islamic Republic and its agents-of-influence are happy to indulge credulous Westerners with a game of good cop-bad cop, the reality is that there are limits to the meaningfulness of factional divisions inside Iran’s government. Neither wishful thinking nor an arrogant overassessment of the power of American diplomacy will change that.