Iranians’ message to hard-liners: ‘You break it, you own it’
An audio recording of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was leaked last week to a Persian news channel in London. The highlight of the audio was his criticism of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), particularly the revered late commander Qassem Soleimani.
Some said the leak of the recording was aimed at sabotaging any hope Zarif might have of running for president, while others thought it might be to exonerate him for the failures of foreign policy. Regardless of who leaked it, the audio exposes the schizophrenia in the system and puts the hard-liners, who are likely to win June’s presidential election, under the so-called Pottery Barn rule — i.e., “you break it, you own it,” meaning they will be responsible for the economic ailments of the country if diplomacy with the West fails.
The audio reveals much more than Zarif’s criticism of the IRGC — it also reveals a structural problem in the Iranian system. The duality of power between the state and the revolution is starting to weigh on Iran. In Iran, there is the president, who is elected by the people, and there is the supreme leader, who trumps popular will. There is the army, known as Artesh, and there is the IRGC. Even in their world view, the two schools differ. One has a national outlook and the other has the world as its landscape. One is concerned with the Iranian people and the other feels responsible for Shiites around the globe. Sometimes these two views fall in line, but mostly they clash.
The schizophrenia in the system is no longer sustainable and Zarif put his finger on the wound, as the Arabic expression goes. He pinpointed a major problem plaguing Iranian political life. However, the history of sanctions against the regime, which started with the inception of the revolution and the disastrous hostage crisis, nurtured the ideology on which the IRGC feeds. The sense of deprivation, of being oppressed and dispossessed, drove its foreign adventurism — which was interpreted as deterrence, and the proxy militias and cells as necessary friends in an unfriendly environment. However, by opening up to the West, this narrative does not pan out.
The IRGC’s philosophy has always been a key obstacle to the opening up of Iran. This audio shows how the IRGC undermined Zarif’s diplomatic efforts, like in 2016 when it captured US soldiers whose boat had drifted into Iranian waters and released humiliating footage of them on their knees, and when it tested a missile bearing writing in Hebrew that read “Israel should be wiped off the Earth.” The IRGC has not only usurped the country’s foreign policy, but it also has a large stake in the economy and controls several of the country’s resources. Iran’s largest contractor, Khatam-al Anbiya, belongs to the IRGC. Funds from several of the country’s assets go directly into funding the IRGC without going through the government budget.
The average Iranian now realizes that, no matter who is elected, the supreme leader and the IRGC will have control.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
While hard-liners blamed Zarif for the leak and asked for him to be punished, the truth is that the recording is an eye-opener for the average Iranian. The people now realize that, no matter who is elected, the supreme leader and the IRGC will have control. This exposure of the infighting in Iran could lead to a low turnout at the June election, which would ensure victory for the hard-liners. There is a huge movement in Iran to boycott the vote, as there is a feeling that elections are irrelevant. The Iranians had eight years of Mohammed Khatami’s rule and eight years of Hassan Rouhani, interrupted by eight years of the hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but still real change never came.
Despite the renewal of negotiations on the nuclear deal, the Iranians have somehow lost hope of any real change in the system, as the power of the supreme leader is enshrined in the constitution. Every presidential candidate has to be vetted by the Guardian Council, so effectively needs to be approved by the supreme leader. The Iranian people have reached a point where they are passive and where they see that the situation is “locked,” as one of my Iranian friends told me.
The infighting is badly hurting Iran. The executive power is with the reformists, while the judiciary and the legislative are with the hard-liners. Many Iranians, though they dislike the hard-liners, advocate a harmonized system. Their rationale is, once the IRGC has it all, it has to behave and reconcile with the world. Once the facade represented by the reformists is gone, they will need to assume responsibility for their actions. So far, there is no strong contender for the presidential election on the reformist side. Mostafa Tajzadeh is running, but he does not have strong backing and is considered to be a tier-two politician. The conservatives have Ebrahim Raisi weighing his options for a run. He is the head of the judiciary who lost to Rouhani in 2017. Raisi is also a candidate to succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The veto power of the IRGC and supreme leader has been the main hurdle between Iran and engagement with the West and Arab countries. From discussions I had with colleagues from the Gulf and the US, the feedback was similar: Negotiating with Rouhani and Zarif is useless because they don’t call the shots. When the world has this impression of the country’s elected officials, how is it supposed to build any trust or take any negotiations with them seriously? The new rationale adopted by Iranians is: If this false distinction between the hard-liners and reformists is gone, then the IRGC and the supreme leader need to take responsibility for their actions in front of the country’s people and the world. They can no longer have control but leave the responsibility with the executive. They will be subject to the Pottery Barn rule if the situation in the country deteriorates due to their belligerence and adventurism, as they will have to own the responsibility.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.