The Iranian political class has turned on itself following America’s re-imposition of sanctions. The infighting has had an impact on Iran’s foreign policy, with Tehran sending contradictory signals to the US and its regional allies, which could lead to both the US and Iran misreading each other’s intentions and rapidly escalating toward war.
Since America withdrew from the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies have kept up a regular drumbeat of attacks on President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who are widely regarded as the architects of the nuclear deal. Perhaps sensing the direction in which the political wind is blowing, even moderate politicians hitherto allied to Rouhani have begun openly echoing conservative criticisms of the nuclear deal, prompting Rouhani to call recently for unity among Iran’s political factions as a way to resist American sanctions.
In criticizing the nuclear deal, Khamenei has four objectives. First – discredit Rouhani in the eyes of Iranian public opinion so that he does not make a play for the Supreme Leader’s post, which is likely to fall vacant over the next decade. Second – direct rising public anger over Iran’s failing economy toward Iranian moderates (represented by the Rouhani-Zarif duo) and so crush them politically in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Third – stymie Rouhani’s efforts to seek a negotiated solution to the crisis by using the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its regional proxies to launch small-scale attacks on America and its Middle East allies. Fourth – ensure the IRGC maintains its role as the vanguard of the Islamic revolution against the “Big Satan” (i.e., America). Since it controls the major smuggling routes into the country, the IRGC will also benefit economically from Iran’s continued isolation from global trade.
Rouhani and Zarif have responded to this threat to their political careers with a rapid flurry of diplomacy. Rouhani has taken some of the steam out of the conservatives’ attacks on him by partly withdrawing Iran from the nuclear deal, while still apparently complying with it. This has also allowed him to pressure the Europeans into implementing the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or INSTEX, the proposed alternative payments system designed to bypass American sanctions.
At the same time, Zarif has embarked on a whirlwind tour of Asian capitals to end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation. Such was his desperation that he arrived in New Delhi in mid-May, while India was in the thick of its general elections, to negotiate with what was in effect a caretaker government. Nonetheless, he secured a big win with reports that India would resume oil imports from Iran through an alternative currency payment mechanism.
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi is the third prong of Rouhani’s diplomatic effort, which is to seek back-channel negotiations with America and its regional allies. In May, Araqchi visited Oman, historically a mediator between America and Iran. On a visit to Doha two days later, he also signaled Iran’s willingness to negotiate with Gulf Arab countries. Even as they pursue these diplomatic efforts, Rouhani and Zarif will be careful not to promise direct negotiations with the US as long as their standing at home remains low. However, the fact remains that while Rouhani and Zarif prefer diplomacy as a way out of the crisis, Khamenei and the IRGC seem to prefer threats and raising regional tensions via the IRGC’s proxies.
The American response to Iran is likely to be dictated by whichever of these approaches by Tehran proves more successful. But the US has also has been sending mixed signals to Tehran of late. Despite ratcheting up tensions by sending extra troops, Patriot missiles, warships and bombers to the Gulf, the US has provided Rouhani with some breathing space through President Donald Trump’s recent assertion that he is not seeking regime change in Iran. It is unclear what prompted this statement, which directly contradicts his national security advisor and secretary of state. However, if it appears to be benefiting Rouhani within Iran, Khamenei and his allies will be sure to respond with increased belligerence within the region. Indeed, even as Rouhani’s diplomatic outreach was in full swing, Hossein Salami, the new chief of the IRGC, was reported to have declared Iran was “on the cusp of a full-scale confrontation with the enemy” and that this was “the most decisive moment of the Islamic revolution.”
This does not augur well for the prospects of a resolution to this conflict. In all likelihood, Khamenei will renegotiate a deal with the US. He hinted as much when he declared: “There will be no war with the US.” But any discussion of a new deal will only happen once he has considerably weakened Rouhani.
Nonetheless, as long as he and his allies continue to use foreign policy to realize domestic political objectives, the region will remain on tenterhooks – not only because Khamenei’s political star, like the IRGC’s, is currently on the ascendant due to victories in Syria and Iraq, but also because the supreme leader has more institutional power at his disposal, thanks to Iran’s unique government system.
But the danger in sending mixed signals is that they are liable to be misunderstood by one side or both. When it comes to Tehran or Washington, the slightest misreading could have the very gravest of consequences.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.