Iran is in its worst economic situation in 42 years, and the threat of a widespread uprising that may lead to the overthrow of the regime has become more serious than ever. When Ayatollah Khomeini was alive, no authority dared to dispute his orders and decisions, and everyone had to obey him. In today's Iran, his successor and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei still has the final say on all internal and international matters. Unlike Khomeini, though, he has not been able to keep all political factions in the country at bay.
Khamenei has not wasted a moment in suppressing the regime's opponents, even those very close to him and his ideas. One of Iran's former Prime Ministers, Mir Hossein Mousavi, for example, and the ex-speaker of Iran's parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, have been kept under house arrest for more than 12 years for not obeying his wishes. Former two-term President Mohammad Khatami, meanwhile, has been banned from participating in any political activities.
Despite this, factionalism in Tehran has become ever more intense. Many current politicians and authorities who believe in the Islamic regime have exhibited their unwillingness to obey all of Khamenei's orders and think that maintaining the regime in this situation is impossible. This has resulted in the birth of two factions within the ruling body, the so-called reformists and those loyal to Khamenei who call themselves fundamentalists or conservatives.
The difference between the views and policies of the two groups, however, is only in the proposed solutions to maintain the status quo; neither seeks a fundamental change in the system of government. In other words, the power struggle between the two factions is to gain more power to advance their own policies in line with their own interests, but they are two sides of the same coin.
Although these differences can be seen in some domestic policies, they are mainly evident in their respective foreign policies. Apart from this, there is no difference between the two factions in terms of internal repression. During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, one of the founders and leaders of the reform faction, most repression and crimes were committed in Iran, including attacks against students and university professors. In what is known as the "serial killings", more than 80 dissidents were brutally murdered, while in the 1999 attack on a Tehran university dormitory by the security forces, with Khatami's approval, students were thrown from the third floor of the building. Several were killed and dozens were imprisoned.
In terms of foreign policy, the reformists believe in establishing relations with the west and opening the doors to foreign investments to improve the lives of Iranian citizens and dissuade them from taking to the streets. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, strongly oppose any relationships with the west. They think that the regime can survive by yet more internal repression, and interference in regional countries using Iran's proxies. They also believe that acquiring nuclear weapons could strengthen their position in the region and the world.
The current government of President Hassan Rouhani is affiliated with the reformist faction, and began its negotiations with the United States in 2015, resulting in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. Iran's economy benefited from this and in less than two years several foreign companies returned to invest in the country. The government also signed some big contracts to buy aircraft from Airbus and Boeing to upgrade Iran's dilapidated civilian airline fleet. Widespread corruption within the regime, and in both factions, ensured that with all of these contracts huge sums were poured into the pockets of the affiliates of the ruling faction.
It was revealed later that Hossein Fereydoun, the president's brother, profited by several billion tomans from such contracts. His corruption became an issue between the factions and a mutual settlement was reached. He was sentenced to five years in prison for bribery but, according to Voice of America, "went on leave just a few days after going to Evin prison".
Khamenei is well aware of the fragility of his regime and is doing his best to pretend that he is still in total control of Iran's affairs. He is watching Iran's recent round of negotiations with western countries closely. Whenever necessary, he advises the Rouhani government to go ahead with the talks but tries to cover his tracks just in case they are not as fruitful as he would like. By doing so, he can deny his role and blame the failure on others. This position could be seen clearly in the recent JCPOA talks in Vienna. According to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Rouhani, although Khamenei was aware of the details of the initial talks in 2015 and the agreement was signed with his approval, when Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018 Khamenei claimed that he had said from the beginning that America should not be trusted and he had not agreed to negotiations.
Indeed, the talks in Vienna provided another example of the same factional conflict, with the reformists wanting to improve their position by reaching an agreement with the US before June's presidential election in Iran. The fundamentalists have the upper hand in this election and are, as a result, doing everything possible to block the revived JCPOA negotiations. Neither of the factions is considering the interests of the Iranian people.
Moreover, such interests were not taken into account last month when a 25-year agreement was signed with China, with Khamenei's approval. Many Iranians think that the agreement is similar to the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, through which large parts of Iran were ceded to Imperial Russia. Neither of Iran's factions opposed the Iran-China agreement.
Within the reformist faction there are many members who are aware of the discontent of the people and have warned the fundamentalists repeatedly that we are all in the same boat and will float or sink together. The latest to do so was Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a sociologist and professor at the University of Tehran affiliated with the reformist faction, who warned on 16 April about the danger of a revolution in Iran. In the context of the "reformist" and "fundamentalist" differences, though, it is worth remembering that during his tenure as governor of Naghadeh, 59 anti-regime youths were executed in the city, some of whom were children, and people hold him responsible for the killings. That is the sort of "reformist" seen in Iran.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.