Before Rouhani was elected, Tehran spoke with one voice through Khamenei and Ahmadinejad: neither are really politicians in the polished sense of the word and both used explosive rhetoric which led Iran further into isolation.
And then, Rouhani came along and the tone and content of the rhetoric changed: Rouhani is a polished politician and his agenda is to get Iran out of isolation and Iranians out of sanctions while Khamenei’s song remains the same.
In an earlier post, “What’s (Not) Changed Since 1979“, Rouhani was described as the driving force in changing Iran’s brand image while Khamenei maintains the status quo of the “product” that is Iran. Rouhani and Khamenei are definitely pulling in different directions and it seems inevitable that they will clash in the not too distant future.
The main question that remains is will Rouhani have, by then, enough power to stand up to the Supreme Leader or not.
Khamenei’s Voice of Revolution
Although Khamenei is quoted as saying that “holding absolute power is heresy in Islam”, he is very comfortable in his role of Supreme Leader who isn’t voted in by the Iranian people but chosen by a council of elders and holds supreme powers.
As far as Khamenei is concerned, criticizing the regime or the Islamic revolution is tantamount to sin and all criticizers, whether in Iran or outside of Iran, should be extinguished. He is much more focused on saving the “oppressed” in “Yemen, Palestine and Bahrain” (or wherever they may be) instead of dealing with his own regime’s oppression of Iranians.
In his mind, the US, along with all other “arrogant” powers, will remain the enemy, with or without any deal, since hating the US is a cornerstone of the revolutionary ideals. He is stuck in the past and wants to maintain the status quo without regard to the changes the Iranian people clamored for during the last presidential election. For him, it’s imperative to “take a revolutionary position in front of the enemy without fear“.
Khamenei’s fear of the West borders on paranoia but is also justified: He fears that the US wants to usurp the regime either through supporting Iranian opposition groups within and outside of Iran and through “cultural exchanges which could erode religious beliefs in Iranian society and ultimately undermine the influence of the Islamic system“. He is fearful of the West’s ability to “infiltrate into the country“, which is Tehran’s favorite method for “Exporting the Revolution” into neighboring countries.
As to the nuclear deal, Khamenei was upset that his red lies had been crossed (long-term limitations, unconventional inspections, limitations on enrichment, gradual lifting of sanctions, IAEA conditionality and limits of nuclear research) and he made it very clear that “whether this text (JCPOA) is approved or disapproved, no one will be allowed to harm the main principles of the (ruling) Islamic system“. In this stance, he is not surprisingly backed by IRGC chief Jafari who claimed that there is no validity to “any resolution that contradicts our country’s red line“.
In short, for Khamenei, everything begins with the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and ends with preserving the revolutionary ideals as long as he lives: His rhetoric is always slanted towards the revolution through slogans such as “heroic flexibility” (to convey the fact that Iran may have to retreat from some of its isolationist stances) and “resistance economy” (to convey the fight against sanctions). The Islamic Revolution remains his true North, the Global Islamic Awakening his true vision and martyrdom in the name of the Islamic Revolution is the true “zenith of courage and bravery“.
Rouhani’s Voice of Reason
Rouhani is not only a politician, he is a pragmatic one. Rouhani understands that once Iran is brought out of isolation, the wheels that will open the doors of Iranian homes and hearts to Western capitalism and brands will turn.
He knows all too well, that the nuclear deal that Zarif orchestrated crossed Khamenei’s red lines even if Zarif maintains that he did the best he could to “preserve most of the red lines, if not all“. For Rouhani, the nuclear deal is the fruit of his presidency as is evident in his speech following the signing of the deal: ” This is a new page in history…it didn’t happen when we reached the deal in Vienna on July 14, it happened on 4th of August 2013 when the Iranians elected me as their president.”
Rouhani is no fool either and he understands that he has to maintain a posture that will appease hardliners and lessen the gaps between Khamenei and himself. In order to do so, he issues defiant “militarized” statements but usually presents them from a defensive point of view (“defend our country“) and less from an offensive point of view (“eliminate Israel”).
But Rouhani is playing a dangerous game that goes beyond rhetoric: It was Rouhani who pressed to create a special committee that will decide on whether to accept or reject the nuclear deal. His reason? Were the Majlis, Iran’s parliament to do the job, it would turn into a legality which might “place an unnecessary legal restriction on the Iranian people“. What he doesn’t mention is that he is to be the head of the council, and Zarif is also a member, which gives him more leeway than if the deal was put to a vote in the Majlis.
And even in regards to choosing candidates for the upcoming elections for the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts (in charge of choosing a successor for Khamenei) in February 2016, Rouhani went head-to-head against the IRGC in deeming the Guardian Council as a “supervisor, not an administrator” and placing his administration in charge of “carrying out the elections”. Jafari, the head of the IRGC deemed Rouhani’s comments as questioning “the beliefs and values of the revolution” in an effort to “appease the dominant powers of the Great Satan (US)“.
Experts on Iran are beginning to believe that if the nuclear deal comes to fruition, it will be a defeat for Khamenei’s status quo. This may sound premature at the present when Khamenei’s word remains law, but the foreign policy and economic boom that followed Rouhani’s insistence on negotiating for a nuclear deal are bound to strengthen Rouhani’s hands in parliament and in public opinion. Will it be enough or will Rouhani join other political oppositionists under house arrest or worst? Time, will tell.