It seems that Iran will continue to appear in the headlines for a long time. After the protests were finally extinguished, the focus in the coming weeks will be on the general elections for the 11th parliament of the republic in February. Although the parliamentary elections are an important stage in Iran’s political life, and usually reflect the size (and weight) of the two main trends in the government, the reformists and the conservatives, it is clear that this division has become a part of the past.
This is after the reformists were abused and almost eradicated after the Green Movement’s protests in 2009, and competition was then limited to the circles of the conservative movement itself, i.e. between the wing of the so-called realists, represented by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the wing of hardliners represented by the Revolutionary Guards and the associated centres of influence around the Supreme Guide.
However, even this classification is no longer valid to understand the dynamics of Iranian politics today, after US President Trump undermined the realists ’positions by re-imposing tough sanctions on Iran, and the Rouhani-Zarif bilateral bet on the nuclear deal failed to achieve the expected political and economic revenues.
While the focus was on the widening gap between the regime and its social support base during the recent protests that suddenly broke out and the horrific suppression it was exposed to, the New York Times released leaks, known as the Iran Cables, which suggested the existence of more significant divisions amongst the ruling elites. The most important of which is the silent war between the commander of the Qods Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani, and the Iranian intelligence ministry.
Indicators of this war include the Iranian intelligence’s planting of spies in Soleimani’s inner circles, including members who attended meetings with him organised in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The Iranian intelligence has objected to the “legendisation” of Soleimani, who has become somewhat of an Iranian Rambo, as excessive focus is put on its activities and movements. Even failed activities are portrayed as successes.
Various sources also report that Soleimani is only an image that the spotlight is deliberately being focused on in order to conceal the more important role played by Hossein Taib, who is the commander of the Revolutionary Guard intelligence organisation. Taib is believed to be the most powerful man of the regime today. The tripartite alliance that includes him and the Supreme Guide’s son, Mojtaba Hosseini Khamenei on whom sanctions were imposed by Washington, and Ebrahim Raisi, the former candidate for the presidential elections in 2017, who was appointed head of the judicial system months ago thanks to the support of Taib and Mojtaba, is what effectively governs Iran today.
The first act of this trio (Taib – Raisi – Mojtaba) was politically eliminating the Larijani brothers (Sadeq, the former head of the judicial system and Ali, the current speaker of parliament who announced his retirement from political work a few days ago). Many predicted that after Sadeq Larijani was marginalised after being mentioned as a potential successor to the Supreme Guide after being appointed as chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council in December 2018.
This followed the death of former chairman Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who was also a strong candidate to succeed the Supreme Guide. In light of the current balance of power, many believe that the Supreme Guide’s successor will either be Raisi or Mojtaba, who are supported by Taib. It seems that the Supreme Guide gave the green light to begin arrangements for his succession and appears to be firmly on the side of this alliance.
In the coming period, attention will be focused on the Assembly of Experts, whose membership includes 88 “jurists” from the regime and its staff, and which is charged with the task of selecting the Supreme Guide from among its members.
It is interesting that Raisi was appointed to the position of Deputy Chairman of the Assembly of Experts in the same week in which the decision to appoint him as head of the judiciary was issued last March. This indicates that the chances of the man, who belongs to the far right of the conservative trend, to become Iran’s next Supreme Guide are now greater.
It is also likely that the government will go back to being closed off onto itself. However, we must not forget that we are talking about Iran, where nothing is certain until it becomes certain.
This was first published in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 11 December 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.