Iran is undergoing a brutal crackdown by the IRGC and hardliners who received the green light from Khamenei to reign in the hopes for drastic changes following the nuclear deal. Khamenei’s fears of “infiltration” are fanning the flames of a backlash that is targeting anyone who may seem critical of the regime and any political opponents, including Rouhani himself can do nothing but toe the line.
This crackdown is a prelude to the upcoming parliamentary election in February 26th 2016 and will also depend on the lifting of sanctions scheduled by the JCPoA to happen sometime in March-April 2016. Until then, Tehran will remain unstable and most of the Iranian people, as well as most of the West, will have to hold their breaths and hope for a miracle.
Khamenei Demotes Rouhani Post-JCPoA
Once the nuclear deal was signed, Khamenei took over from Rouhani the implementation of the JCPoA and Iran’s foreign policy, both of which symbolized Rouhani’s promises for moderation and change.
Furthermore, Khamenei then openly criticized Rouhani for mishandling the economy which was yet another of Rouhani’s successes in that he managed to slice inflation by over 60% and, through the JCPoA, promised to lift all the crippling sanctions. Paradoxically, all of Rouhani’s hard work for over two years to extricate Iran out of isolation was rewarded by his being demoted in the three fields where he had actually succeeded – the fruits of his labor were curtly accepted but he was deemed expendable.
Rouhani’s efforts at “constructive engagement” with the West also came with an added benefit: Moscow. Not only did Russia facilitate the signing of the JCPoA by pressuring the other members of the P5+1, the Kremlin found itself first in line for trade that would even circumvent sanctions on both sides, military supplies, food for oil barters etc…Putin took his newfound friendship to a much higher level when he decided to support both Syria and Iran with the military might of the Russian army.
This shift in power may have always been rumbling under the surface since no one really believed that Khamenei would take a back seat forever but the watershed moment was Khamenei’s October 12th speech in which he voiced his fears of Western “infiltration” in a soft war embodies within the JCPoA itself: Once Iran opened its doors to the West, Iranians would be exposed to Western culture, brands and ideals which would erode the purity of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei specifically targeted the US, as usual, but his message was clear: Sanctions should go but not at the expense of the Islamic Revolution. Khamenei was justifiably paranoid of Iran in a post-JCPoA era in which the West would fill in the void of the Iranians desires leaving less room for a simple Islamic life and more room to criticize the regime.
The Hardliners Receive Khamenei’s Green Light
The hardliners who had constantly fought the JCPoA, albeit quietly for fear of angering Khamenei, began to mirror Khamenei’s paranoia of infiltration: The JCPoA was not perfect and had crossed too many of Khamenei’s so-called “red lines” and the fears of “infiltration” were all too real. To make matters worse, hardliners with the IRGC at their head, who had been kept at bay by Khamenei himself from criticizing Rouhani were unleashed. Having lost face over the JCPoA, they now openly accused Rouhani on all fronts and they accepted Khamenei’s dismissal of Rouhani as a green light to crackdown on other issues that are close to Rouhani’s heart: human rights and freedoms. Within weeks, the IRGC rounded up journalists, activists, satirists and social media leaders and sent them to jail for accusations as murky as “insulting the Supreme Leader”. To his credit, Rouhani complained and voiced his opposition but the crackdown has now turned into the biggest oppression of Iranians since 2009 with over 170 people in jail, or worse.
It is quite obvious that Khamenei is the wrong man to handle what Rouhani had handled up until now: Khamenei is definitely not the man required for foreign policy since he is a revolutionary at heart who would rather see Iran isolated than to play at the game of diplomacy. He is also not the right man to implement the JCPoA because he wants to do so from his own red lines which are in contradiction with the JCPoA itself. And finally, he is not the right man to handle the economy because his ideal for a healthy economy is a “Resistance Economy” which is motivated by fear. And yet, Khamenei is the Supreme Leader and as such was in power all the time while Rouhani’s smile enchanted the West.
Meanwhile, the transfer of power is not complete and is creating strenuous circumstances. Should Rouhani and Zarif meet with the US in regards to Syria or the JCPoA after Khamenei banned any talks with the Americans? Should Iran begin dismantling its nuclear plants according to the JCPoA’s timeline or according to Khamenei’s? What is Khamenei to do if sanctions are not lifted by the end of the year as he expects but by next year according to the JCPoA?
All Eyes to the Elections in February 2016
And yet, Rouhani’s biggest obstacle is yet to come: On the 25th and 26th of February 2016, Iran will hold elections for the Assembly of Experts (the body that chooses the Supreme Leader among other things) and the parliamentary elections for the Majlis respectively. Any hopes for drastic changes in the elections of the Assembly of Experts are non-existent and since this body is directly controlled by the Supreme Leader, even if reformists or moderates are elected, their influence will be limited to choosing the next Supreme Leader. The elections for the Majlis, on the other hand could be far more interesting. To date, the reformists and the moderates are political non-entities wand but they are hoping that Rouhani’s election and his achievements will empower voters to hope for more change. Rouhani has called for fair elections without manipulations by the army, the IRGC, the mullahs (he can’t say the same for the Supreme Leader but he certainly thought so) and right now, nobody knows how this election will play itself out.
What is certain is that the current atmosphere of backlash against Rouhani, any acts or votes by the Iranian people that will be seen as critical of the regime, will be met with further crackdowns reminiscent of the elections of 2009.
In the meantime, all foreign investors would be wise to delay investing until after the elections and preferably after the lifting of sanctions which should be around March-April 2016. Entering the market before is not only risky for the investment itself, it may be risky for the investors themselves because even Rouhani is at risk of not being re-elected or not even finishing his term.