Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s first election victory in 2013, proved to be unpopular with the country’s Principlists (aka conservatives/hardliners) as Rouhani promoted reforms that would ideally allow Iran to open up its economy to western partners that had previously put Iran under heavy economic sanctions. Rouhani’s political goal was realised in 2015 when Iran, the United States, China, Russia, Britain, Germany and the EU as a whole, agreed to relax sanctions in return for Iran reducing the scope of its nuclear energy programme – one that the US and Israel continue to regard as a gateway to a nuclear weapons programme. In this sense, the 2015 deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appeared to be a moment in which Rouhani proved that his Reformist faction could achieve a goal that many Principlists felt was impossible to secure.
But while 2015 was arguably the apotheosis of Iranian reforimsm, it has widely been suspected that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was always sceptical of the JCPOA’s efficacy. In this sense, Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA and the European Union’s thus far insufficient ability to uphold a post-US JCPOA, has somewhat vindicated the Principlists and Iran’s Supreme Leader in a technical sense.
And yet, there is a further irony to Rouhani’s period in power. Whilst conventional wisdom would lead to a conclusion that the Principlists are generally more concerned with increasing Iran’s influence in the neighbouring Arab world than are the Reformists, under Rouhani, Iran’s prestige in much of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon has greatly increased, even though Iran has spent large sums of money (whose official figures remain undisclosed), in order to achieve this.
Making this paradox all the more surreal is the fact that it is indeed the monetary, material and human costs that Iran has incurred through fighting Daesh and al-Qaeda terror in Iraq and Syria, that has aroused the anger of Principlists who feel that Iran is not receiving the kinds of political gains that it otherwise expected as a result of its partnership with Baghdad and Damascus. In respect of Syria, Principlist anger is particularly strong. It is clear to anyone with an objective perspective that the three most important factors in shaping the Syrian peace process are the policies, military strength and diplomatic manoeuvres of Russia, Turkey and the United States. In many respects, even Israel is having a wider impact on the peace process in Syria vis-a-vis Iran. This is due to the fact that both Russia and the US are tailoring their policies in Syria to suit Israel’s desires, whilst Turkey operates in parts of Syria that are remote from the Israeli border. Because of this, whilst Turkey has a number of disputes with Israel whilst simultaneously pivoting closer to Iran economically – in Syria, Turkey and Israel have different desired spheres of influence and have thus far not stepped on each others proverbial toes in the Arab Republic.
Because of this, Iran has been visibly jettisoned from having a leading role in the Syrian peace process, in spite of its partnership with Russia and Turkey in the Astana Format. As such, whilst in 2015 and 2016, many pro-Principlist Iranians on social media spoke of their desire to transform Syria from a secular Ba’athist state into a Shi’a dominated Islamic Republic, such dreams which were always impractical given Syria’s extremely multicultural demographic, have now be thoroughly put to bed.
Because Iran’s role in ‘post-conflict Syria’ was self-evidently reduced at roughly the same time as the US dramatically withdrew from the JCPOA, Principlists began to take their anger out on Rouhani. This anger initially rose to the surface in the form of increasingly militant statements from the largely politically autonomous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Unlike Rouhani and his fellow moderates, the IRGC tend to take an absolutist line on revolutionary politics and as such have always viewed Rouhani’s penchant for geopolitical compromise with suspicion. Because of this, recent months have seen the IRGC (even by its own standards) come out forcefully against Iran’s traditional adversaries in the wider western half of the Middle East, with the overall effect of publicly compromising Rouhani’s moderate tone by confusing international partners as to who is actually speaking for Iran – the IRGC or the moderate President and Foreign Ministry.
Beginning in mid-February, it was the IRGC whose leadership dramatically accused Pakistan of actively “sheltering” terrorists that attacked IRGC unites in south-eastern Iran. These inflammatory statements proved to represent a huge setback in Iran-Pakistan relations (that Rouhani’s government had tried to repair and take forward), whilst furthermore, the fact that pro-Principlist Iranian media heaped scorn on Pakistan for hosting the Saudi Crown Prince whilst failing to criticise India or China for doing the same (all during the same week), proved to be a public relations disaster for Iran in the eyes of many millions of Pakistanis.
Clearly, Pakistan was an easy scapegoat for Iranian political leaders engaged in a substantial degree of ideological and policy driven infighting. Crucially, this undiplomatic scapegoating of Pakistan had more to do with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, than the relationship between Iran and Pakistan itself – a relationship which until this month had been steadily improving for at least two years.
And then the penny dropped in a major way on the 25th of February. On the 25th, Syrian President and Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran, where he held meetings with President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei among other top Iranian officials. Noticeably absent from the meetings was Iran’s otherwise highly prominent Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – a man who incidentally spent the previous week in China holding what was described by both sides as a highly productive set of meetings with the leadership in Beijing.
In spite of this, someone or some Iranian political faction self-evidently conspired to prevent Zarif and his Foreign Ministry colleagues from meeting with Assad. Further unconfirmed reports state that Zarif was not even informed that Assad would be visiting Tehran. Assuming that this last revelation is true, one can hardly imagine a bigger insult to Zarif than to keep him in the dark about a visit from the Syrian President that Zarif’s Foreign Ministry had worked tirelessly to support and publicly rehabilitate over the last several years.
The fact that IRGC General Qasem Soleimani (a political hardliner) met with Assad, but close Rouhani ally Zarif did not, helps one to connect the dots in respect of recognising a pattern wherein certain Principlists wanted to insult and embarrass Zarif in the most unambiguous way imaginable.
Then another penny dropped when Zarif took to Instagram to announce his resignation as Foreign Minister, not long after Assad flew back to Damascus. The timing of Zarif’s resignation helped to distract from the otherwise carefully choreographed Assad-Iran “victory lap” and furthermore, the choice of Zarif to make his announcement on an American owned social media network, makes it clear that Zarif felt deeply insulted and wanted to return the insult tit-for-tat. This is the case because although Iranian politicians and government ministers use western social media as a means to (for lack of a better word) “troll” the west, Iran does not use social media to make official announcements in the way that for example, Donald Trump has infamously fired his former colleagues via Twitter before letting them know in private.
The events of the 26th have not made the situation any clearer. At first it was reported that vocal Principlist and current parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani would replace Zarif. Hours later, it was reported that a majority of Iranian members of parliament signed an open letter asking Zarif to resend his resignation and continue his duties as Iran’s Foreign Minister.
With all of this in mind, the only conclusion one can reach is that the long whispered political tug-of-war between Principlists and Reformists is now being conducted openly. The fact that Zarif was not invited or even allegedly told about the Assad meeting and then dramatically resigned on American social media,makes it clear that this tug-of-war has claimed its first political victim.