Pushing the Hardliners Too Hard

Part I of “Reconciliation with America: Iran, China, and USSR”

If Khamenei and Rouhani get closer to rapprochement with America, will the IRGC revolt?

Abstract: Part I of this article provides the context of the current political situation in Iran.  It exposes a new rift, with Khamenei and Rouhani in favor of reconciliation and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps against it.  Once this rift is revealed, Part I concludes by asking, “Is there a chance that rapprochement with America will inspire hardliners in Iran to attempt a coup?”
Part II seeks to answer that question.  In order to determine the probability of an IRGC-led hardline coup, this article examines the two most relevant examples in history of reconciliation with the West: (1) the free-marketization of China’s economy under Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who didn’t face a coup, and; (2) the dismantling of the Soviet Union under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Boris Yeltsin, who did face a coup.
Based on these two case-studies, this article hypothesizes that a growing economy—which is correlated with increasing trade flows with America—shields reformers from hardline revolt.  This article therefore concludes that along with increasing diplomatic ties, America must re-engage Iran economically to insulate Khamenei and Rouhani from an IRGC-led coup.  Conversely, if America demands too many concessions from Iran without also easing the sanctions regime, the likelihood of an IRGC-led coup will be very high.

Note: This was written in the first week of October, so some of the relative dates (e.g., “last week”) will be off

Part I: The Lay of the Iranian Land

“Hardliner that [Rouhani] is,
there are people who are more hardline.”

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman
In Testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
October 3, 2013

A Not-So-Triumphant Return

After a week in the western spotlight and a last minute phone call with President Obama, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani flew back to Tehran.  You might have expected Rouhani to be welcomed with open arms.  After eight years of Ahmadinejad’s foreign antagonism, Rouhani offered a reasonable, modern face for the Islamic Republic.  By all accounts, Rouhani was fulfilling the mandate given to him by the 18 million who voted for him—and not the hardline candidates—in this summer’s presidential election.

The first wave of Iranians to greet the president was full of supporters.  They chanted “Rouhani! Rouhani!  Thank you!  Thank you!” (F)

But the second wave of Iranians differed drastically.  Between 50 and 100 Iranians threw eggs and a shoe at Rouhani’s motorcade, shouting the ever-catchy “Death to America!”

Anti-Rouhani Protestors

Death to America

These protestors were basiji, members of a volunteer paramilitary organization operating under the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  The basij mobilizes and indoctrinates youths into revolutionary militias, much like the Hitler Youth under the Nazis.

Hitler Youth and Basiji

The basij is just one of several hardline blocs in Iran that opposes US-Iran reconciliation.  There are also hardliners in the majles (the Iranian Parliament), hardliners in the armed forces, and hardliners in the Assembly of Experts—the group of clerics that appoints, monitors, and (theoretically) removes the Supreme leader.  Hardliners are most concentrated in the IRGC itself, which is an elite military-political-economic-complex whose leadership is entirely appointed by the Supreme Leader.[1]

For hardliners, revolutionary ideology is more important than evolving pragmatism.  From this point of view, Iran is a superpower, leading the Resistance against Zionists and other enemies in the West.  Qassem Suleimani[2]—leader of the IRGC’s qods force, whose mandate is to “export” the Revolution through proxies like Hezbollah—had this to say after Rouhani returned: “The world’s respect to the Iranian President is the enemy’s humility and their statements are due to the Iranian nation’s resistance and perseverance.” (F)  While The Guardian used this quote to suggest that Suleimani supports Rouhani’s efforts, it must be noted that “resistance” is antithetical to reconciliation.

Also after Rouhani’s return, former IRGC commander Brig. Gen. Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr warned against negotiations with the United States: “We have a long list of America’s betrayals before and after the Revolution that are unforgivable…. America’s benefit from these negotiations is higher [than ours].” (F)

The current IRGC commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, spoke more broadly about the role of the IRGC:


“…what is the Islamic Revolution, which the IRGC is responsible to protect and must continue to help, most threatened by? …there is not one single thing… it differs in every time and area.”

Herein lies the problem with revolutionary states: once you start, you just can’t stop.

Hugging the Boogeyman

Revolutionary states like Iran depend on boogeymen.  There must be an Omega to their Alpha.  Within this context, all sorts of institutions are created and given extraordinary powers in the name of revolution—institutions like the IRGC.  Remove the boogeyman and all of a sudden the justification for revolutionary institutions vanishes.  Put another way, negotiations and easing tensions are existential threats to leaders like Suleimani and Jafari, whose vast personal influence and wealth would suddenly be revealed and subject to scrutiny without the distracting curtain of The Great Satan.

Great Satan

And so, hardliners in revolutionary states cling fiercely to their boogeymen.  They do whatever they can to keep the revolution going.  A famous example of someone re-igniting the flames of revolution to maintain and gain power is Maximilien Robespierre, who led the second phase of the French Revolution: the Reign of Terror (June 1793-July 1794).

Similarly, if Iran gets closer to reconciliation with America, will the IRGC lead hardliners in a coup to “reclaim” the revolution?

To clarify, the IRGC to-date has been loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—they most recently backed him against Ahmadinejad as the two grew more adversarial towards the end of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

But Rouhani’s recent success in wooing the West is opening a rift between him and the IRGC.  So far, no significant actions have deepened this rift: right now, the IRGC and other hardliners are still obedient to Khamenei.  But rhetoric and small acts reveal the opening of a rift in its infancy.

For the pro-reconciliation side, we know that Khamenei supported Rouhani before his trip to New York.  This support was reaffirmed when Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Khamenei’s senior advisers on foreign policy, greeted Rouhani at the airport this weekend.  The other relevant member of this group is former-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.  Despite Rafsanjani’s differences with Khamenei, the former is Rouhani’s mentor and largely responsible for Rouhani’s presidential victory.  In fact, Rafsanjani and Rouhani were neighbors (F) before and during the 1979 Revolution.


Rhetoric and action also reveal the anti-reconciliation camp.  As discussed above, the Basij protestors threw eggs and a shoe at Rouhani.  That plus the foregoing statements from IRGC leaders prove that hardliners do not support US-Iran reconciliation.


Hungry Hyenas

Khamenei understands the potential threat posed by the IRGC.  Even before the UN General Assembly opened, Khamenei cautioned the IRGC against meddling with Iranian politics.[3]  Rouhani echoed this advice:[4] “[The IRGC] should be far from political currents…should not be attached to a side or party.”[5] (F)  And after the trip to the West, former-President Mohammad Khatami spoke out against the basijis who attacked Rouhani.  Khatami reminded us that during his reformist presidency, there was increased activity of some extremist groups, and warned that throwing shoes could escalate to the assassination (F) of Rouhani.


Khatami knows intimately that attempting reconciliation with America can be political suicide in Iran.  He was the first Iranian leader to attempt rapprochement under his Dialogue Among Civilizations initiative in September of 2000, which was adopted by the UN that year.  But a year later, terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon: America was in no mood for reconciliation.  Iran’s inclusion in the Axis of Evil was justified for several reasons.  But one consequence of the Axis of Evil address was that it emboldened Iran’s hardliners who were suspicious of America to begin with.  To their minds, their suspicion was validated by President George W. Bush’s speech.  Khatami tried and miserably failed, they argued.  Time for a different approach.  Ahmadinejad won in the next presidential election, and what followed was eight years of obstinate resistance, provocation, and saber-rattling.

Last time, Iran’s hardliners didn’t have to revolt: the Axis of Evil speech was the best proof of The Great Satan that they could have dreamed of.  You can read this study, which surveyed the reactions in Iran to their country’s inclusion in the Axis of Evil: many described it as “a stab in the back.”  One of the current Vice Presidents under Rouhani, Masoumeh Ebtekar, wrote in an Op-Ed to The Guardian this week: “When President Khatami came to the UN with the novel approach of dialogue among civilisations (sic), he faced an unrelenting storm of internal pressure while the US president branded Iran a member of the axis of evil, thus neutralising (sic) his excellent initiative at both the domestic and global levels.”

Today, in the midst of Rouhani’s overtures, hardliners are once again circling like hyenas, ever-suspicious of The Great Satan.  But Obama thus far has welcomed Rouhani’s warmth: the phone call last week was the first communication between American and Iranian presidents since 1979.  Ebtekar wrote in the same Op-Ed that the phone call was a huge success, “despite strong pressure from hardliners.”  As Obama, Rouhani, and Khamenei walk together down the uncharted path of reconciliation, we must be wary of the possibility that the IRGC will lead a hardline coup in Iran to “save the Revolution” and preserve their influence, wealth, and power.

Differences with the United States
have been ethical and historical,
and the roots of these outlooks will
remain until the end of time.”
– Hojjat al-Islam Ali Saidi
Representative of the Supreme Leader in the IRGC

(F) indicates Farsi-language source, typically translated by American Enterprise Institute’s Iran News Round Up

Farsi text in the first two images is from BBC

[1] The IRGC was originally established in the early days of the Revolution to act as a check on the conventional, national military.  Ayatollah Khomeini feared that the military, which was loyal to the Shah, would fight back against the Revolution, so he dismantled its leadership.  Still, he feared that even low-level members of the armed forces would attempt a coup, so he created the IRGC to serve as his own loyal military.  The IRGC quickly earned its stripes by pushing back Saddam Hussein’s forces within two years of Iraq’s invasion of Iran (The Iran-Iraq war was fundamental in forming Iran’s military doctrine).  The military wasn’t nearly as successful, since Khomeini completely gutted its command and control centers during the Revolution.  Even today, the military is manhandled to ensure loyalty to the Islamic Republic: while low-level military recruits are everyday citizens, all command positions are filled by former IRGC leaders.  There is, therefore, a revolving door for former IRGC officials to work in the military, thereby ensuring the military’s command and control is in line with the IRGC’s hardline politics and policies.

[3] Here is an article asking Who is stronger, Khamenei or the IRGC?

[4] Click here to see analysis from The Iran Primer, by the US Institute of Peace, on Rouhani’s relationship with the IRGC.

[5] Click here to see additional analysis on Rouhani and the IRGC from Will Fulton, an analyst for AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the leading contributor to AEI’s Iran News Round Up