Iran’s Hawks Soar Following Nuclear Deal
By Ben Tannenbaum
Photograph of Iranian Quds Forces courtesy of International Business Times
It seems hard to think of nuclear bombs as a mere side issue. Nevertheless, last summer’s agreement with Iran sought to resolve more than just nuclear concerns. Supporters of the deal claimed it could herald in a new era of broad Iranian reforms. John Kerry spent more time in Austria than the entire Von Trapp family combined, hoping to bring Iran back into the global diplomatic fold. Nevertheless, the accord has not strengthened Iran’s political reformists. Anti-deal factions, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have grown more assertive in wake of the agreement. Passage of the nuclear deal has emboldened Iran’s domestic hardliners, enabling them to consolidate economic power and press an aggressive foreign agenda.
Since the agreement, Iranian hawks have worked to maintain their control over the nation’s economy. In October, officials detained Simak Namazi, an American citizen travelling in Iran on business. Two factors contributed to Namazi’s arrest. First of all, the hardliners knew they could get away with it. Any Iranian politician sticking up for Namazi would appear too pro-American, particularly after agreeing to concessions on the country’s nuclear program. Yet economics provide a key second factor. The IRGC dominates crucial economic sectors such as the pipeline and telecommunications industries. The hardliners fear foreign investment could threaten their stranglehold. By arresting Namazi, Iran’s hawks have sought to warn foreigners against investing in Iran. Along similar lines, Iran has reportedly increased its use of cyber-attacks against American banks and financial institutions. These antagonistic actions refute the notion of a reformist Iran eager for close ties with the West. Since the nuclear deal, hardliners have thrown down the gauntlet to foreign investors.
Additionally, thus far the deal has enabled Iran to pose an even more assertive international role. Supporters of the deal argued that Iran would spend money from sanctions relief on domestic reform rather than military initiatives. However, this has not proved true. With the impending flush of cash, Iran’s military has increased cooperation with Russia and upped its activity in Iraq and Syria. Shortly after the deal, in early August Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani violated his travel sanctions in order to pay a visit to Moscow. Soleimani helped to coordinate and plan the Kremlin’s intervention supporting Bashar al-Assad. Iran has also increased its support of Assad in more tangible ways. While unofficial, Iranian troops have likely started to directly fight alongside the Syrian regime in Aleppo province. Iran’s military has also begun to increase direct engagement in Iraq. In October, Iranian-backed militias reclaimed the strategic city of Baiji from ISIS control. Of course, an ISIS setback does not exactly hurt U.S. interests in Iraq. Nevertheless, the fact that these gains occurred with such open Iranian assistance represents a win for the IRGC. In fact, increased Iranian engagement has won political backing among Iraqi Shi’a. The growing appreciation for Iran contrasts with waning support for America. Many Shi’a Iraqis question the depth of our anti-ISIS commitment while criticizing our support of Kurdish militias. Since the nuclear agreement, Iran has made diplomatic, military, and political gains at the expense of America’s regional interests.
In fairness, Iran’s reformist faction has not lost all influence. President Hassan Rouhani recently took an open position against the IRGC arrests. His comments indicate that Rouhani maintains the will and capacity to challenge the hawks. Further, Iran has one of the Middle East’s largest middle classes. This sector of the population widely supported the agreement with America. Similarly, a staggering sixty percent of Iran’s population remains under 30 years old. Many of these youths seek reform and an end to their country’s ostracism. If the nuclear deal does not provide economic progress to these two sectors of society, another Green Revolution remains theoretically conceivable. Going forward, Ayatollah Khamenei’s ability to balance the hardline and reform factions will likely prove crucial.
Two potential scenarios appear plausible. First, perhaps Khamenei simply wants to let the hardliners blow off steam. He has tolerated their recent assertiveness to appease the anger over nuclear concessions. Eventually, however, he will pinion the hawks and use the agreement as an opportunity for reform. The second scenario represents the reverse. In this case, the nuclear deal served as a smoke-screen. Iran gained newfound cash and some good Western PR. Now the hardliners can have free reign to strengthen their hold over domestic politics while consolidating a regional Shi’a crescent. Making a prediction about Middle East politics seems more challenging than picking tomorrow’s Big Ten Championship game. However, if recent behavior can provide any indication, the hawks figure to maintain ascendance in Iran for the foreseeable future.by