Experts say that the country's moderates and hardliners have found a common ground, as much of Iran's elite is on the edge of losing its ‘strategic patience’ with the US.
With Democrat Joe Biden’s election as US president, many Iranians were living in the hope that a new peaceful era could start between Washington and Tehran after four turbulent years under Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.
But now many feel disappointed as the Biden administration signals that Trump’s sanctions will stay in place and that America expects Iran to show restraint across the Middle East to persuade Washington to return to the nuclear deal.
“Iranians have come to believe that the Biden administration is nothing but Trump 2.0. They doubt it is serious about diplomacy with Iran unless it can force Iran to accept a less-for-more kind of bargain,” says Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group (ICC).
“With its reluctance to offer Iran any meaningful sanctions relief, the Biden administration has strengthened those inside Iran who argue that US enmity towards Iran is implacable and that Washington only understands the language of force,” Vaez tells TRT World.
Fatima A Karimkhan, a Tehran-based Iranian journalist, expressed views on the matter that were similar to those of Vaez.
“The hope which was growing after the US election is no longer alive in Iran. There was an old idea which has described (US) Democrats as more dangerous than Republicans for Iran and now most people are repeating it again,” Karimkhan tells TRT World.
“The power of hardliners is increasing in Iran and they might be the winner of the upcoming election,” says Karimkhan. If Europeans and Americans want to understand what’s going on in Tehran, they can check the current composition of the Iranian parliament, which has been dominated by hardliners after the recent general elections, she adds.
But after Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and Iran’s recent disappointment with Biden, even distinguishing a hardliner from a moderate has become difficult in Tehran, says Mehmet Bulovali, an Iraqi-Kurdish analyst. “No moderates are left in Iran anymore,” he tells TRT World.
Even the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, can no longer be called a moderate, according to Bulovali. “You can call him someone, who has originated in the movement of moderates,
whose political stances have been dissipated in the face of so many hardliners,” he says.
Political infighting within Iran's leadership has now spread to different conservative blocks and ceases to be just a struggle between moderates and hardliners, he adds.
But practically speaking, the political infighting has been realised between the weakening Rouhani government and the strengthening of the Revolutionary Guards-led forces, according to Bulovali.
Deep state planning
While different Iranian political factions continue to keep tabs on each other’s power games, most elites interestingly appear to agree on one particular issue, which is the stabilisation of the nuclear deal, according to Vaez.
US sanctions, accompanied by a deadly pandemic, have appeared to hurt the Iranian economy the most. In the face of approaching elections, none of the Iranian political factions want to be seen as enablers of the ongoing painful sanctions. As a result, they all defend the revitalisation of the nuclear deal to buy the popular sentiment, Vaez says.
“There is now a general consensus in Iran that the country should stabilise the nuclear deal with the Biden administration, thereby rebooting the economy through benefits granted under the deal,” wrote Ali Reza Eshraghi, the projects director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s MENA division.
Vaez believes that the Iranian deep state is still interested in keeping the nuclear deal alive while it also plans to monopolise power after the presidential elections scheduled this summer.
“Elections always deepen the political infighting. But in this election, the deep state in Iran seems to care more about ensuring an outcome that it is comfortable with than allowing a certain degree of pluralism to boost participation rates,” Vaez views.
“They (deep state operators) are seeking a monolithic conservative control of all levers of power in the run up to the Supreme Leader’s succession,” he says.
“They want to take the credit for resolving the (nuclear deal) deadlock and bringing in economic reprieve. But the escalatory path that they have opted for might result in the deal’s collapse before they come to power in August,” he analyses.
It also means that tensions might escalate in the near future if the US does not lift sanctions or do something to calm the growing Iranian anger toward Washington. Iranians have recently rejected the offer of the EU to sit down at a negotiating table with the Americans before Washington raises the sanctions.
Many experts believe that as long as Washington does not provide sanctions relief or a kind of appeasement to Tehran, Iran will not enter any official negotiation with the US. Due to too much anti-Americanism, which has become the political trademark of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, it is very difficult for Tehran to easily sit down with the US, says Bulovali. “The Iranians need some kind of appeasement to show their people that they did not lose to the Americans.”
But by the time Washington decides to ease tensions with Tehran, there is a danger that hardline stances might completely dominate Iranian political life.
“I agree with those who think that elite groups are changing their minds about the situation. Ten years ago or five years ago or even last year, the idea of having atomic weapons was in minority, just some of the most ultra hardliners supported it. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a group of elites in university or media or anywhere else who still strongly disagree with that,” Karimkhan says.
Most Iranian elites are also “confident” that the US could not wage a war with Tehran as it did with Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Bulovali. “As a result, no matter what the economic situation is, they will continue to play their political game with the US,” he adds.
There are different reports on the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s health situation, but the 81 year-old cleric’s health appears to have deteriorated recently. As a result, the Revolutionary Guards want to fill his place with one of their supporters, according to Bulovali.
Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, is one of the strongest candidates for the supreme leader post. “If Mucteba becomes the next supreme leader, it means the Revolutionary Guards will also take over the control of the spiritual leadership. In this case, a possible war between Iran and his adversaries might materialise,” Bulovali says.
“But Khameni is currently very effective and he does not want war. As a result, the Revolutionary Guards are still under his control despite their dislike of his control,” he says.
“They are waiting for his death to address among themselves the issue of who will have the ultimate power in Iran,” he concludes.