April 11, 2019

Memo: The IRGC FTO Designation & Iran’s Shifting Domestic Landscape

Since President Trump’s abrogation last May of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the trajectory of Iranian society and politics has shifted in significant ways.

Most consequentially, renewed U.S. pressure has debilitated moderate President Rouhani, who invested much of his political capital pushing for diplomatic engagement with the U.S. and promising an economic dividend to the Iranian people with the deal. Iran’s rivalrous political factions have since united in ruling out new negotiations with the U.S. but have sought to use the country’s deteriorating economic situation to advance their contrasting agendas.

The Trump administration’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) has also spurred increased elite unity behind the Guards, including from reformist and moderate factions long publicly critical of their interference in Iranian politics and the economy.

In the past year, sporadic demonstrations and protests have also continued by various Iranian labor groups, civil society groups, and other Iranian activists expressing specific demands. Importantly, despite the increase in number of protests since last year, there exists no cohesive revolutionary movement or an organized, broad-based opposition to the ruling system. The protests that have occurred have been met with a mixture of repression—with many activists and prominent dissidents handed heavy prison sentences—and governmental concessions. Importantly, President Rouhani’s conservative rivals, who have outsized influence over state media outlets, have sought to exacerbate discontent and catalyze protests as well.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) produces a weekly digest, “Iran Unfiltered,” that tracks developments in Iranian society and politics based on Persian sources. The following is a summary of important developments in Iran drawing on recent issues of the digest.

Renewed U.S. Pressure Has Debilitated Iranian Moderates

  • The Trump administration’s abrogation of the JCPOA and reimposition of U.S. sanctions has discredited President Rouhani and his moderate and reformist allies domestically and validated hardline narratives regarding not trusting the United States. Hardline forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have been significantly empowered.
  • The JCPOA experience has spurred a rightward shift in Iranian politics, including among many longtime advocates of U.S.-Iran engagement, such as Ali Akbar Salehi, who convinced Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei of the need for bilateral U.S.-Iran talks in 2013 and led technical-level negotiations with former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
  • Salehi, the current head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), recently stated: “It took awhile for many to believe that America is our enemy. But now everyone believes that America is our enemy … From the beginning the Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] stressed that this government and American officials could not be trusted. Now this can be seen clearly and this itself is a huge achievement.”

IRGC Designation has Mitigated Internal Divisions

  • Foreign Minister Zarif’s short-lived recent resignation was rooted in his stance that the foreign ministry’s credibility and authority was being increasingly undermined by other institutions, including the IRGC.
  • Zarif’s resignation, a recent trip to Iraq by President Rouhani, and recent devastating flooding in large parts of the country brought differences between the IRGC and the Rouhani administration to the fore.
  • However, the Trump administration’s designation of the IRGC as an FTO has resulted in strong displays of support for the Guards among Rouhani officials and moderate and reformist public figures and members of parliament.
  • Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former reformist vice-president who was arrested by the IRGC after the contested 2009 presidential election, said that “all people are guards now, even Iranians who have been upset with the guards’ policies.”
  • Meanwhile, prominent reformist dissident Mostafa Tajzadeh, who was imprisoned for 7 years after 2009, has stated: “The intervention of the Guards in the economy and domestic and foreign politics is against the law and hurts the country. However, I strongly condemn labelling them as terrorists by Trump. His aim is not confronting terrorism or defending democracy or peace. Instead, Trump seeks to increase pressure on the Iranian people to destabilize Iran and increase tensions in the region.”

Rouhani Has Kept Door Open to Negotiations if the U.S. Returns to the JCPOA

  • While Rouhani has adopted more intransigent rhetoric and has blamed President Trump for eliminating diplomatic channels between the two countries, he has left open the possibility of negotiations if the U.S. returns to its commitments under the JCPOA.
  • “[The U.S.] has burned the bridge,” Rouhani declared last August, “Now, the U.S. is standing on the other side … If it is honest, it should fix that bridge again.” In February, Rouhani reiterated that Iran would be willing to engage the U.S. “if America reverses its course.”
  • However, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has proclaimed that negotiations with the U.S. would be to Iran’s detriment unless Iran reaches a point where “U.S. pressures and blackmail don’t affect us.”

Hardliners in Stronger Position to Influence Supreme Leader Succession

  • Rouhani’s empowered hardline critics scapegoat him for the country’s increasingly dire economic circumstances, with an August 2018 letter from the Assembly of Experts—a constitutional body charged with supervising and electing the Supreme Leader—chastising “weak economic management and non-belief in the ‘resistance economy’ and infiltration by the enemy and corruption.”
  • Notably, the Assembly of Experts is chaired by hardline cleric Ahmad Jannati, who recently rebukedPresident Rouhani for not following a July 2016 proclamation by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that Iran would “set the JCPOA on fire” if the U.S. violated the accord.
  • The Assembly of Experts also recently elected as its deputy Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative 2017 presidential candidate who was defeated by Rouhani but was appointed head of Iran’s judiciary earlier this month.
  • The increasingly powerful Raisi is considered a top contender to succeed the aged Khamenei and has a long track record in Iran’s judiciary, including a major role in mass executions that took place at the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.

Prominent Activists and Pro-Democracy Groups Rebuke U.S. Intervention

  • Prominent Iranian political prisoners and opposition groups have repeatedly underscored that U.S. pressure policies hurt their cause.
  • Political prisoner Farhad Meysami, who was sentenced to six years in prison in January for his activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law, wrote a letter last year disavowing support from the Trump administration and criticizing its withdrawal from the JCPOA.
  • Meysami lambasted the administration’s “inhuman sanctions,” which he said “have plunged millions of my fellow countrymen into poverty.”
  • The Freedom Movement, one of Iran’s oldest pro-democracy groups, wrote a letter last month censuring “unilateral” U.S. pressure policies for empowering “domestic hardliners [in Iran] and warmongers abroad.”
  • The letter added: “It is the Iranian people who suffer the most harm and economic hardship from sanctions. These sanctions have weakened the middle class and the downtrodden and disrupt Iran’s democracy-seeking trend.”
  • Recent widespread flooding across Iran–which killed over 70 and displaced tens of thousands–spurred accusations by Iranian officials that U.S. sanctions are obstructing foreign aid for relief efforts. The Red Crescent, a branch of the International Red Cross, has affirmed that sanctions are impeding aid, saying in a statement: “No foreign cash help has been given to the Iranian Crescent society. With attention to the inhumane American sanctions, there is no way to send this cash assistance.”
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