Rouhani can reform, but it won’t be easy.
Since coming to office, the actions of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have caused a slight thaw in US-Iranian relations. However, the easing of contact should not be mistaken for a “glasnost” type situation, as Rouhani is a complex figure, who has far less power than he lets on.
With a background in the clergy and bureaucracy, President Rouhani is undoubtedly a capable individual, one who is able to work summits and policy with ease. However, the question of how much power he actually has is variable. The Iranian leadership can be boiled down to three figures: Rouhani, Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei and the enigmatic commander of The Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani. Ayatollah Khamenei has a reputation for being a conservative, more at home with the policies of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than Rouhani. Gen. Suleimani is probably the least known figure in the group, a seldom seen military officer linked to acts of terrorism in Syria (where he reputedly runs Assad’s operations), Iraq and Afghanistan. The Quds Force, otherwise known as the Revolutionary Guard, which he commands, acts as the spearhead of Iran’s foreign policy, conducting special forces operations and undercover raids against coalition forces, including American troops in Afghanistan. According to some, Gen. Suleimani is the most powerful man in the Middle East, operating in a strange realm where he becomes an untouchable, almost mythical figure, immune to prosecution or restraint. The Obama administration is faced with a dilemma: either they leave Suleimani alone and risk more violence, or they go after him and risk more direct retribution. Suleimani has demonstrated that he is capable of the latter; after an incident in which he was almost arrested by U.S. troops in Iraq, insurgents disguised as contractors entered a US base and killed several soldiers, an act which was widely considered to be Suleimani’s revenge.
The actions of General Sulemaini and his counterparts in the Revolutionary Guard pose some concern to reformists in Iran: while they are officially part of the Armed Forces, the Revolutionary Guards see themselves as political soldiers, who exist to ensure the stability of the Ayatollah and the preservation of Iran’s Islamic ideology. For this reason, President Rouhani (if he genuinely wants reform) will need to keep The Guardsmen in their place, and possibly scale back their role to a purely military one, rather than the guardians of the state. However, this could lead to destabilisation and pushback from the military, possibly ending in a coup, and an even more hardline government than before. Thus, Rouhani could end up in a Gorbachev like situation, nominally in power but at the mercy of hardliners.
It should be remembered that, since coming to power, Iran has continued its policy of shoring up its allies in the Middle East, and acting as the main opposition to US and Israeli foreign policy in the region. While President Rouhani’s manner at the UN is somewhat less bombastic than his predecessor’s, he has similar aims in foreign policy and domestic policy. While President Obama may have been mollified by talk of a cessation of Iran’s nuclear programme, it’s not all about the bomb. Thus, the West needs to be careful not to lose sight of the larger issues and policies at stake, namely how to address and be a part of the new power balance in the Middle East.
While a thaw with Iran would undoubtedly be a good thing, the West needs to be careful in its expectations. Rouhani does not have overall power in Iran: that belongs to Ayatollah Khamenei. If Rouhani wants to reform, he would need to have Khamenei’s agreement, and even then there is the risk that the military would destabilise matters. Rouhani’s attempts at opening dialogue are a good thing, and should be welcomed. But we shouldn’t expect real change any time soon: that will only come when Iran reforms its entire system.