Iran’s 1979 revolution, in helping to push out Jimmy Carter and bring in Ronald Reagan, offered up one of the few instances in the latter half of the twentieth century where domestic politics in a Third World country affected domestic politics in the United States more than the other way around. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made no bones about it: The US couldn’t do a damn thing.
This fact remains an unspoken reason the Islamic Republic looms larger than life in our insecure American psyche. Thirty-four years later, it could happen again.
Wasn’t Barack Obama’s Friday fulmination against “extremists” in the Republican Party an attempt, perhaps by osmosis, to copy Hassan Rouhani’s refashioning of Iran’s domestic politics into a clash of “extremists” and “moderates”? Both presidents are faced with a divided and embattled conservative opposition. Both urgently need markers of progress — symbolic and real — to legitimate and push forward their agendas. Both men’s reputations are now linked together, for better or worse. Yet Rouhani, who clearly knows how to bend both the US and Iranian news cycles in his favor, seems to be more adept at handling his antagonists.
The recognition that Iran’s 2013 June election was no fluke has seeped in. Journalists and pundits are panting hard to fit the fast-paced events of recent weeks into the Procrustean mold of Kremlinology-cum-analysis that only sufficed when no competent Iranian interlocutors existed. Luckily, we are running out of Orientalist clichés from Victorian-era Persia travelogues to describe the situation: “rug bazaars,” “wrestling matches,” “chess games” and the like. Frankly, I’ve stopped reading the stateside stuff. Instead, a cursory glance at Iran’s domestic press displays a simple answer to why Rouhani has gotten this far, this fast: The new Iranian president seized hold of an already divided right wing and further fragmented it.
We now know, thanks to bleating by the losing team, that during the run-up to the June election nearly all the supposed pillars of the “regime” were busy throwing tantrums. In Qom, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi refused to back a conservative coalition that other high-ranking ulema such as Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani tried to foster, leading the seminaries to scatter their support to Rouhani among others. Mesbah-Yazdi, we were once assuredly told, was the true sinister power behind the state curtain.
The Islamic Republic’s Leader and Supreme Jurist, Ali Khamenei, never decided “to let Rouhani win,” as the US media bafflingly portrayed it, but instead prevaricated until it was too late to do anything to prevent the election from taking its course. He was locked, along with the rest of the conservatives, in a prisoner’s dilemma of his own making. In his September 5 speech to the Assembly of Experts, reported in the US for a throwaway line that “the US would suffer losses in Syria” in the case of Obama’s then-planned attack — which is true no matter whether Iran does anything about it — he spent the majority of his remarks trying to take credit for the entirety of Rouhani’s campaign platform. Rather than the point man and prime mover for the state’s decision-making process, Khamenei is the bellwether for where the political elite is already moving. It was only a few years ago when Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, was being touted as the (other) true sinister power in Iranian politics, not to mention the indisputable Leader-in-training. Heard much about Mojtaba lately? Maybe he and Mesbah-Yazdi took up backgammon.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their postulated potentate Qasem Suleimani are the current moment’s bogeyman of choice. Yet quoting the IRGC’s mouthpieces for the purpose of divining Iranian politics is like watching Red Dawn to understand the nuances of US foreign policy. This is why few registered the fact that the IRGC’s main spokesman Gen. Ramazan Sharif gave post-election interviews to the two most famous reformist newspapers, Sharq and Etemad, for the purposes of reputational realignment. The IRGC had been most unfairly treated not by the Rafsanjani or Khatami administrations, Sharif declared, but by the usurping Ahmadinejad team. These particular IRGC exclamations were blazoned above the fold on Iran’s dailies, but more pugnacious IRGC boasts ended up on the front pages of America’s establishment press. The truth is not located in either rhetorical maneuver, but in the recognition that this organization is as divided as the rest of Iran’s political apparatus, with an internal clique of Rouhani sympathizers to boot. Hence the IRGC eating humble pie and throwing darts at the same time.
One reason that politics are again realigning in Iran is that Rouhani is cultivating key conservatives as stakeholders in his own administration’s success. This is the LBJ rule: Good politicians prefer to have enemies inside the tent aiming their liquid invectives outside rather than the converse. Unlike Khatami, Rouhani did not enter office feebly speaking of civil society, NGOs and other liberal armchair fantasies. Instead, Rouhani flipped the right wing’s national security discourse of “resistance” on its head. The president’s current adviser, former Defense Minister Akbar Torkan, put it quite plainly just before the election: “Who can say that imposing various sanctions on the country is a revolutionary move and in line with serving the political system and the people? In our opinion, rationalism is revolutionary.” Rouhani has reframed the debate: Moderation is revolutionary, extremism is reactionary. If these remain the new stakes, then the recalcitrant hardliners, especially if they repeat the tactics of the 1990s by resorting to extra-institutional violence, may find themselves with even less influence than before. The smarter conservative players are going along with the show for now.
The other reason that politics are realigning, one that the Obama administration recognizes to its credit, is that the segment of the Iranian population that occasionally sits out elections pushed back publicly on the political elite through what can best be described as a heroic act of collective consciousness. In a quite tangible sense, Rouhani won his current mandate through a social coalition we might call “Green movement plus”: the 2009 supporters of reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, plus provincial urban fence sitters, plus ethnic minorities. Given the region’s further unraveling this summer — Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Turkey — it may well be the case that voting for Rouhani was the most revolutionary act available for Iranians en masse. It was for this reason that Roger Cohen in the New York Times branded the Islamic Republic an “island of stability” earlier this month — echoing Carter’s Tehran toast to the Shah in December 1977 — without a hint of irony.
Neither Obama or Rouhani know for sure how far they can secure their domestic clout. Yet, if I may lazily go Orientalist for a moment, both sides pushed against a wall and realized it was a beaded curtain. The politics, in sum, have just begun, and the bedfellows may get stranger.