Misunderstanding Iran: The West’s False Narratives About the Islamic Republic

By: Ian K, Columnist

Photo: United States Secretary of State John Kerry with his European, Iranian, and United Nations Security Council counterparts in Vienna, Austria, after the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Western media coverage of Iran’s political scene following this summer’s landmark nuclear deal paints a satisfyingly cogent, easily digestible picture. The standard narrative goes something like this: Iran is at a historic turning point. Moderates, led by President Hassan Rouhani, forced through the nuclear agreement and scored a political victory against their hardline conservative rivals. Hardliners are pushing back by arresting moderate civil society figures and attacking Rouhani over the deal so as to weaken the opposition prior to elections scheduled for 26 February 2016. The outcome of this struggle could have profound implications for Iran’s future behavior, the trajectory of bilateral relations, and whether Iran adheres to the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Yet this account falls wide of the mark, reflecting a number of fundamental misunderstandings and false narratives about the Islamic Republic to which the West subscribes at its peril. Media analysts and pundits often fall prey to one or more of the following cognitive biases when covering Iran: 1) mirroring and salience—interpreting the Islamic Republic through the lens of our own political model so as to make it understandable, when in fact it is an entirely different animal; 2) selection bias—whereas most of Iran’s decisionmaking and political wrangling occurs in the black box of the Supreme Leader’s inner circle, media analyses are forced to paint a coherent picture using only the limited and often peripheral information available to the public; 3) bandwagon effect and availability cascade—misconceptions about Iran have been repeated so frequently that they have become a lore unto themselves. Covering the Iranian regime, with its opaque, complex, and highly personalized politics, is no easy task. But recognizing the false narratives we have built about the Islamic Republic is an essential step toward formulating effective policy in the wake of the nuclear agreement.

False Narrative 1: Iran’s public political discourse dictates the substance of regime policy.

Western analysts too often impose on Iran a familiar democratic paradigm, in which one or more opposition parties clash with the ruling establishment over fundamental policy differences. In so doing, they tend to mischaracterize the nature of Iranian politics and overlook the Islamic Republic’s true policymaking process.

Iran’s governing structure is unipolar—with all power flowing from and through Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—rather than multipolar as this narrative implies. Although the president nominally serves as head of government, Khamenei holds exclusive purview over significant decisions and is capable of manipulating Iran’s governing structures as he sees fit. Khamenei maintains direct or indirect control over the judiciary, the state media, and the state security apparatus, notably including the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Even important ministries that by law are accountable to the president and Majlis—Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Defense—bow to Khamenei in practice.[i]

Khamenei’s influence also dominates the Guardian Council, the body responsible for approving political candidates and endorsing election results. This arrangement ensures all officeholders are acceptable to the Supreme Leader and that, in a broader sense, Iran’s “political spectrum” is an outgrowth of his own persuasions. Khamenei therefore sets the parameters for political discourse—or at least that which occurs in public view—and is moreover capable of circumscribing or guiding it at any time either through intermediaries or his own pronouncements. Given these constraints, Iran’s factional politics are more accurately understood as insider jockeying on a grand scale, rather than as substantive policy debate. The Supreme Leader more often than not appears to be the intended audience of this political theater, as currying Khamenei’s favor is the surest way to gain advancement and influence policy in Iran’s unipolar system. Khamenei himself frequently prefers to remain aloof or otherwise leave his position ambiguous so as to maintain freedom of maneuver and play underlings off one another. In this manner, Khamenei is an adept practitioner of what Henry Kissinger called “constructive ambiguity,” leading many Western analysts to underemphasize his influence consistently.

Iran’s “political spectrum” has been contracting over the long term, a trend catalyzed by the Green Movement protests of 2009. Large-scale unrest over the disputed reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that year shook Khamenei’s confidence in the stability of the Islamic Republic’s system of governance and influenced him to authorize a campaign, led by the IRGC, to marginalize reformists and moderate elements systematically by removing or excluding them from government. As Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack notes, the ideological range of Iranian leadership is now more restricted than at any time since the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Political discourse has been limited to “debates between the Iranian right and far right. Moreover, these have often been disputes about personality and power masquerading as arguments over substance.”[ii]

 Rouhani’s election in 2013 did not fundamentally alter this trend. Western media consistently refer to Rouhani as a “moderate” or “pragmatic conservative,” in part because of his markedly temperate rhetorical style and his expressed interest in certain limited “reforms.” But Rouhani is a regime insider who served as Khamenei’s representative on the Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2013. [iii] Although the nuclear accord is commonly associated with Rouhani’s presidency, Khamenei in fact authorized negotiations in 2011—two years before Rouhani’s election—and thus likely played a more direct role than is generally appreciated. Characteristically, however, Khamenei has sought to distance himself in public so as to insulate himself from any negative political fallout. This will also allow him to abandon the JCPOA more easily if he decides to do so at a later date.[iv]

The consolidation of power by Khamenei and the IRGC should color the West’s interpretation of Iranian elections. Although the victors matter little given the Guardian Council’s guiding hand and Khamenei’s expansive decisionmaking authority, popular participation in elections has become all the more important for the increasingly autocratic regime. Notably, the regime delayed elections for the Assembly of Experts—the body responsible for selecting the Supreme Leader’s successor upon his death—to coincide with Majlis elections on 26 February 2016, reportedly in order to secure greater turnout.[v] As Assembly members are elected for seven-year terms, this election may determine those responsible for the all-important task of identifying the successor to 76-year-old Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery last year.[vi] The 2016 elections may not be a factional showdown for Iran’s future, as Western analysts will portray it to be, but it will bear potentially significant consequences for the regime’s domestic legitimacy.

False Narrative 2: The nuclear accord could result in a thaw in bilateral relations and serve as a precedent for cooperation in other areas.

This summer’s nuclear agreement encouraged speculation in both the United States and Iran that a new model of bilateral relations might be in the making. This hope was undergirded by an assumption that compromise on such an intractable issue as Iran’s nuclear program must be symptomatic of a deeper shift in Iranian decisionmaking. Khamenei moved quickly and decisively to dash that hope.

Following the deal’s announcement, Khamenei has consistently reiterated his expectation that the relationship between Iran and the US will remain fundamentally antagonistic. The Supreme Leader has made clear that he considers the nuclear negotiations a one-off transaction that will not translate into wider cooperation or a pathway to normalize relations. [vii] In October, he expressly forbid negotiations with the United States on any issue save the nuclear agreement.[viii] Iranian officials, taking their cue from Khamenei, have responded with a marked increase in anti-American rhetoric as if to atone for the compromise.[ix]

Indeed, the regime’s rhetorical response to the deal underscores the extent to which opposition to the United States is an essential condition for the Islamic Republic. Anti-Americanism is a core tenant of the regime’s identity, one to which Khamenei holds strong personal fixation.[x] In his view, a relaxation of this vital creed would jeopardize the ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic itself. This creates a formidable bulwark against a bilateral thaw during Khamenei’s lifetime, even though his pragmatism led him to tolerate isolated negotiations.

False Narrative 3: The regime embraces reintegration into the international economy.

Although it has pursued sanctions relief, the regime remains committed to the Sisyphean task of controlling the effects of globalization on Iranian society. Iran is therefore seeking an unnatural arrangement whereby it can engage with the international community to boost exports and revive its domestic economy, even while continuing to shelter its population from the outside world.

The regime has long feared that foreign influences pollute Iran and erode the social foundations of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei has even suggested that the international sanctions in fact benefit Iran by limiting these forces.[xi] In the wake of the nuclear accord, the Supreme Leader and other top officials have repeatedly warned that the JCPOA could serve as a vehicle for US political, social, and economic “infiltration.”

The regime’s response to the perceived threat has been twofold. Firstly, the IRGC and intelligence services intensified their campaign to root out those suspected of harboring pro-Western sentiments.[xii] Secondly, the regime is embracing its program for the “Resistance Economy,” or autarky, with newfound urgency. In the letter Khamenei sent to Rouhani in which he endorsed JCPOA implementation, he tellingly concluded, “Although the lifting of sanctions is necessary in order to remove injustice and regain the Iranian nation’s rights, an economic opening, improved livelihood, and the resolution of current challenges will not be easy unless the Resistance Economy is taken seriously and is completely implemented… You must also be vigilant that the lifting of sanctions is not followed by unrestrained importation. In particular, the importation of any kind of consumer materials from America must be seriously avoided.”[xiii]

To Khamenei, then, the JCPOA is at best a mixed blessing. The nuclear compromise was a necessary exigency to dispel Iran’s economic malaise, taken at the cost of exposing the Islamic Republic to forces that threaten its long-term viability. Khamenei’s system of government—faux democracy and puppeteering, an identity dependent on an adversarial relationship with the United States, an autarkic economy resistant to the tide of globalization—almost certainly will sustain the Islamic Republic through his lifetime, but the sustainability of such a system in perpetuity is indeed questionable.

[i] Mehdi Khalaji, “Great Expectations: Iran after the Deal,” The Washington Quarterly, Fall 2015, accessed November 22, 2015, https://twq.elliott.gwu.edu/sites/twq.elliott.gwu.edu/files/downloads/TWQ_Fall2015_Khalaji.pdf.

[ii] Kenneth M. Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 22.

[iii] Khalaji, “Great Expectations: Iran after the Deal.”

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Mehdi Khalaji, “Iranian Moderates Face Tall Obstacles in 2016 Elections,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 19, 2015, accessed November 23, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iranian-moderates-face-tall-obstacles-in-2016-elections.

[vi] Gareth Smyth, “Delicate but pivotal: Iran’s factional politics explained,” The Guardian, November 12, 2015, accessed November 22, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2015/nov/12/iran-experts-assembly-elections-leadership-succession.

[vii] “Iran News Round Up, November 23, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, November 23, 2015, accessed November 23, 2015, http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-november-23-2015.

[viii] “Iran News Round UP, October 7, 2015,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, October 4, 2015, accessed November 23, 2015, http://www.irantracker.org/iran-news-round-october-7-2015.

[ix] Garret Nada, “Anti-Americanism Grows in Iran – Again,” The United States Institute for Peace, November 3, 2015, accessed November 22, 2015, http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2015/nov/03/anti-americanism-grows-iran-%E2%80%94-again.

[x] Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, 23.

[xi] Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy, 13.

[xii] “In Iran, a Deal and Then a Crackdown,” The New York Times, November 6, 2015, accessed November 23, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/06/opinion/in-iran-a-deal-and-then-a-crackdown.html?_r=2.

[xiii] Caitlin Shayda Pendleton, “In letter to Rouhani, Supreme Leader Khamenei approves implementation of the JCPOA,” AEI’s Critical Threats Initiative, October 22, 2015, accessed November 22, 2015, http://www.irantracker.org/nuclear/pendleton-khamenei-letter-approves-implementation-of-jcpoa-october-22-2015.

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