Trump administration’s recent decision to impose sanctions on Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif ignited a discussion in western media and political spheres about the nature of the Islamic Republic.
The Democrats and leftists in the US, as well as their allies in Europe, appear to believe that there is an intensifying power struggle between moderates and hardliners in Iran. Based on this belief, they argue that the best policy to seek normalisation in relations with the Islamic Republic is to support the moderates over the hardliners, so that Iran can reform itself from within in the long term.
This is why they objected to President Donald Trump‘s decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 nuclear deal and impose new sanctions on Iran. In their view, this move was a colossal mistake that undermined the moderates and empowered the hardliners. Almost all Democratic presidential candidates in the US, including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, have promised to go back to the nuclear deal, if they are elected president.
In contrast, conservative circles in the US and elsewhere believe that there is no real difference between the hardliners and reformists in Iran. They argue that both groups share the same ideology and only concern themselves with the regime’s survival, not the liberation of the Iranian people or reformation of the Islamic Republic.
Moderates, they assert, are simply regime apologists who try to legitimatise its brutal policies. As Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the influential conservative think-tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, recently articulated, any contestation between hardliners and moderates in Iran, “is bureaucratic jealousy, not ideological competition“. Based on this view, they want the US and its allies to follow policies that target the entire regime not just the hardline elements within it.
Historically, there has indeed be political competition between moderates and hardliners in Iran. However, over the past few years, the latter had managed to consolidate their power and weakened significantly elected bodies. In this sense, the Western conservatives are right – the Islamic Republic can no longer be reformed from within. That, however, does not mean that their maximum pressure policy would work.
The Islamic Republic is made up of two main components: the “deep” state which is responsible for making the regime’s important strategic decisions, and an elected government which provides a veneer of legitimacy to the regime.
While the former has always been dominated by hardliners, the latter is currently under the control of moderates. The “deep” state is comprised of the Office of the Supreme Leader, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Guardian Council – the most important apparatuses of the regime. The “visible” part of the state, on the other hand, is comprised of the presidency and the parliament – two bodies that are, in practice, merely responsible for implementing policies and running the state bureaucracy.
Through this complex structure, the Islamic Republic has projected itself as a pluralistic regime, where there is a true competition between the more moderate and hardliner elements.
The relationship between these two distinct branches of the Iranian state has changed dramatically over the years. Between 1997 and 2004, when Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration was in power, for example, there was an undeniable ideological competition between the deep and the visible state in Iran. Between 2005 and 2013, however, when the hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s government was in office, they almost completely overlapped.
Since 1989, Iranians have mostly voted for reformist and moderate candidates in presidential and parliamentary elections, whom they have perceived as the “lesser evil” and as capable of bringing at least some political change and liberalisation.
But over the past decade, under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s leadership, the deep state has strengthened its grip on power and practically made reform of the system impossible.
Recent developments, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s surprise visit to Tehran, organised by the IRGC which did not inform Zarif, have demonstrated that the deep state now feels free to act as it wishes without consulting the government.
While the deep state worked hard to silence moderate voices and built a system in which the elected government have little say about the direction the country is taking, the moderates are not innocent in all of this.
In addition to their inefficiency in challenging the hardliners, the moderates deeply disappointed the Iranian people, especially the youth, women and the urban middle classes who are their primary supporters, with their corruption.
The public’s frustration with political elites from both sides became apparent in January 2018 when protests broke out in across the country. In the streets, Iranians often chanted “Reformists, hardliners, It is over for all of you.”
More and more Iranians have come to believe that the rivalry between the moderates and hardliners is merely a game designed to keep the illusion of choice alive while guaranteeing the same elites continue to control the state’s coffers.
In response to growing public anger, Ayatollah Khamenei has jumpstarted several initiatives to consolidate his power, regain public trust, and neutralise the biggest threat to his regime: a mass uprising. He has made drastic changes in the leadership cadres of the regime’s many security apparatuses and placed a new generation of his loyal supporters in key positions within state structures, universities, state media and even mosques.
He also appointed hardliner Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi as the new head of judiciary earlier this year in a move to combat corruption. Through these initiatives, the regime aims to replace old, corrupt elites with a younger and more ideological group and give the regime some extra legitimacy. However, the anti-corruption campaign is unlikely to succeed in the absence of an independent judiciary, media, and active civil society.
In this sense, Trump’s administration policy of targeting the regime is more realistic than what the Democrats propose because even in the best-case scenario, the moderates cannot capture the “deep” state and reform the regime from within.
The declared goals of the maximum pressure strategy are: to stifle Iran’s missile programme, curb its support for proxy groups in the region, and ultimately change its regional policy. While there are various opinions of whether it is successful in cornering the Islamic Republic or not, what is clear is that it has strangled Iran’s economy and hurt the most vulnerable groups of society – the lower and middle classes.
While some have argued that the economic crisis Iran is currently suffering from is stimulating public anger and inciting people to revolt – as demonstrated by last year’s protests – in the medium run, the crippling of the Iranian economy is weakening the ability of the middle classes to organise and lead an effective political movement against the ruling hardliners.
Further, the maximum pressure strategy has also left the Iranian regime highly suspicious and intolerant towards any form of dissent and given it a suitable excuse of a “foreign threat” to launch a brutal campaign of suppression. The various security apparatuses have cracked down not only on protesters, but also on journalists, students, women, and environmental activists, arresting them and handing them unprecedented jail terms.
Given that the middle classes are the engines of social and political change, their economic exhaustion and deprivation of their intellectuals and leaders will ultimately undermine any hope for a peaceful transition to democracy.
That is why, continuing with the maximum pressure policy in its current form will not help political change; it will only strengthen the position of the hardliners further and relocate scarce resources towards internal security and regime reinforcement.
The Trump administration should, therefore, work with its European partners to find a way to target specific individuals and institutions that control the Islamic Republic and are responsible for violence at home and abroad. Only a pressure strategy that focuses on weakening the elites, rather than impoverishing ordinary Iranians could help bring about the political change both the Iranian people and the West want.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.