For many years Western media repeated a typical
formulation: Iranian politics is dominated by “hardliners” and
“moderates” and if the US or the West don’t do what Tehran wants,
then the “hardliners” will be fueled and Iran will become more
When US President Donald Trump left the Iran deal a year ago, almost every
major analysis claimed that the “hardliners” would now be empowered by
However, after a year little has changed in Tehran. The same faces are
largely in charge and the same rhetoric, which was always militarist and
threatening, hasn’t changed.
In May 2018, the US announced it was leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan
of Action, or the “Iran Deal” that the US had agreed to in 2015.
China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany and the European Union had signed
on as well, ending most sanctions in exchange for Iran not producing
certain levels of nuclear material or trying to build a nuclear weapon.
After the US chose to leave, Iran and the rest of the signatories chose to
keep the deal. Earlier this month, Iran threatened the European powers
that if they didn’t do more for Iran in the next 60 days, then Iran
might leave parts of the deal.
The deal was the “pet project” of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign
Minister Javad Zarif, the political “moderates,” according to Vox. In
May 2018, Vox claimed that “Trump’s decision to withdraw from the
agreement has given their more hardline opponents, including the leaders
of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), the upper hand in the
domestic political environment.” The Union of Concerned Scientists also
put out a statement claiming that “Trump’s announcement will
strengthen Iranian hardliners.” And at The Harvard Gazette we learn:
“It will also strengthen the Revolutionary Guard hardliners in
“Mr. Trump’s move could embolden hard-line forces in Iran, raising the
threat of Iranian retaliation against Israel or the United States,” The
New York Times wrote on May 8. Brookings, in an article published in
October 2018, seemed to have a slightly different conclusion. “Although
Washington’s new tough line on Iran has emboldened hardline circles in
Iran opposed to the JCPOA, there is a willingness at the top of the
[Iranian government] to keep the deal alive.”
How have the hardliners been strengthened in the past year? Iran’s
foreign policy in the last year has remained largely consistent with what
it was doing before 2018. It has continued to support Hezbollah in
Lebanon. It has continued to support the Houthi rebels in Lebanon. It has
continued to work with Shi’ite militias and political parties in Iraq.
It has furthered its role in Syria. Does it have more bases in Syria in
May 2019 than in May 2018? Insofar as it has only built upon and extended
its goals. For instance, its goal in Iraq was to make the Popular
Mobilization Forces, a group of Shi’ite militias, into an official
force. Former Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi had already called them
the “hope” of the country in October 2017. They were formally inducted
into the security forces in March 2018.
Iran’s role has become more institutional in Iraq since then. Iraq
signed new deals with Iran in March. Voices critical of Iran have been
“purged” in the PMU, according to reports. Former Iraqi prime minister
Iyad Allawi called for them being disbanded in April of this year. His
words fell on deaf ears. However, protesters have also targeted
pro-Iranian groups in places like Basra, challenging Iran.
Where else has Iran’s foreign policy become more “hardline?” In
January 2019, Iran was blamed for two political assassinations in Europe,
one in 2015 and another in 2017. Iran’s destabilizing activities in
Europe, therefore, have a historic element that goes back to the period of
the Iran deal and before.
Zarif is still at the top of Iran’s foreign policy. He was recently on a
high-profile trip to Japan, India, China and Turkmenistan. In February,
Zarif appeared to resign after he was angered that Syrian president Bashar
Assad visited Tehran without his inclusion. However, days later he was
back at his post and was soon on a major trip to Syria and Turkey.
Evidence shows that Zarif’s views are just as “hardline” as the
supposed hardliners. He has said “we are IRGC” in October 2017, after
US criticism of the Iran deal and the IRGC.
The IRGC, the ostensibly “hardline” part of Iran, hasn’t changed
greatly in the last year. It has continued to develop its ballistic
missile programs and to strengthen its influence at home and abroad. In
April 2019, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced the
IRGC’s leader Mohammed Ali Jafari with Hossein Salami. Is Salami more
extreme than Jafari, who was the architect of the IRGC’s policies over
the last 11 years? Time will tell, if he is more extreme it might mean he
is more erratic because the IRGC was already extreme.
WITH THE same faces at the helm of many parts of Iran and very little
change in policies, where do commentators point to find the strengthening
of the “hardliners.” Reuters argued, in a May 16 piece, that
“Rouhani’s authority is now waning” and he has been weakened by
Trump’s policies. According to the article, a “hardline rival heads
the judiciary.” The article points to Ebrahim Raisi as an example of
hardline gains. A March 2019 piece from Reuters had already claimed that
Raisi, a “hardline cleric,” had consolidated power. It argued that he
was a “contender” to succeed Khamenei. However, since Khamenei was
already one of the supposed hardliners, wouldn’t his replacement by
another hardliner merely be more of the same?
Another “hardliner” who was appointed recently was Ayatollah Sadeq
Amoli Larijani. He was promoted to head the Expeditionary Council in
December. He replaced a hardliner named Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi
Shahroudi. In fact The Nation magazine had claimed in 2009 that Shahroudi,
“a political hardliner,” was a top candidate to replace the “ailing
Khamenei.” Khamenei survived and Shahroudi died, but the hardliners was
replaced by a hardliner. A washing machine of hardliners isn’t a form of
empowerment, it represents a continuation of Iran’s power structure.
The cleric Larijani is also the younger brother of Parliament Speaker Ali
Larijani. Al-Monitor described Ali Larijani as a “moderate” in May
2018. The language here is a bit confusing because an earlier article
refers to him as a “moderate conservative” opposed by
“reformists.” Reuters and AFP also call him a “moderate
conservative.” In November 2018, Radio Farda reported that
“hardliners” were seeking to unseat Larijani.
The terminology appears confusing partly because it has been crafted
largely to explain Iran to a Western audience. The simple cliché binary
“hardliner” and “moderate” was a way to make a regime simple and
to portray it as moderating even if it hadn’t changed at all. The survey
of Iranian political leaders points to little real change in the way Iran
is governed and the various power structures that exist in Iran. Iran has
preferred to portray itself to the world as being more moderate during the
Iran deal negotiations, sending Zarif to negotiate, while at home the IRGC
continued to build missiles and support groups across the Middle East. The
“hardliners” and “moderates” were trotted out like a kind of good
cop, bad cop routine with the bogeyman hardliners always waiting in the
wings if Western powers didn’t comply with Iran’s demands. But at
home, it appears little has changed and Iran’s policy has been
consistently aggressive and militaristic over the years, using a complex
approach involving growing influence and strengthening its armed proxies
across the Middle East.