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Who Are Iran’s Infamous ‘Hardliners’?

As a group of senators led by Tom Cotton protests a looming deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran, the Islamic Republic faces its own internal challengers to a final agreement.

The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has vocally backed diplomacy with the U.S. and worked to silence government “hardliners,” a term that many use when discussing Iran. But who exactly are these all-or-nothing deal-breakers?

Many point to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the military specifically dedicated to protecting the principles of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. James Phillips, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the IRGC has “its own vested self-interest in maintaining the nuclear program in as large a state as possible. They really do not want to give up the option of a nuclear weapon because they see that as the best way to advance the interests of the Iranian revolution.”

Since it reports to the supreme leader, rather than the elected president, the IRGC has become Khamenei’s problem to control in light of nuclear negotiations. After all, if an agreement goes too far and renews U.S.-Iranian relations, the regime’s core ideology would be weakened, and the Revolutionary Guard would have the most to lose.

So far, the American Enterprise Institute’s J. Matthew McInnis told TheDCNF, “I’ve seen the core leadership fitting in line with the supreme leader,” as he emphasizes that an agreement on nuclear power does not veer away from Iran’s long-term hostility to the Great Satan.

Qasem Soleimani, the general who enjoys attention in the Iranian and American press for appearing on the front lines against the Islamic State terror group, heads the IRGC’s covert Quds Force. While he has not spoken publicly about nuclear policy, in recent weeks he has criticized U.S. Middle East policy in general terms, saying that Obama’s strategy, as well as the Islamic State, are “doomed to failure.”

Outside the Revolutionary Guard, some members of the Iranian parliament have grumbled about being excluded from the negotiating process. “Republicans in Congress can sympathize,” McInnis joked, but Iran’s revolt consists of “not more than a few back-benchers.” While parliamentary committees had considerable input on the international status of Iran’s nuclear program while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, they claim that Hassan Rouhani has been less willing to seek their advice.

Another key element is the Assembly of Experts, the clerical equivalent of the “senate,” which will choose the supreme leader’s successor, among other duties. On Tuesday, it elected a new leader: conservative 81-year-old Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi. He won by a 47-24 vote against former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who recently slammed those opposing a deal as “in harmony with Netanyahu.”

The newspaper Vatan-e-Emrooz has also represented nuclear elements in Iranian society. Late last year, when a group of academics suggested a civil nuclear reduction was worth a deal with the U.S., it slammed them as speaking in “one voice with Israel” and disparaging “Iran’s nuclear rights.” And when the negotiating deadline was extended in November, it printed the massive headline “NOTHING!” above a nearly blank front page, complaining that Western sanctions against Iran would not be lifted soon enough.

By contrast, ordinary Iranians seem to “want to eat their cake and eat it too,” as Phillips put it, conceding as little as possible while also avoiding the sanctions that have ruined the Iranian economy. “They have a lot of pride in their civilian nuclear program,” he says, “but they are not really committed to the military aspects.”

So are the infamous hardliners likely to sink any deal that meets the approval of both American and Iranian negotiators? According to McInnis, “if there’s going to be a political killing of the deal, it’s much more likely on the U.S. side.” If Foreign Minister Javad Zarif brokers a deal that the supreme leader approves, “there is practically nothing that anyone else can do.”

And a prevalent suspicion in Iran, mirroring many in the United States, is that Americans will somehow try to cheat once the final terms of a deal are reached. It remains to be seen whether each side’s negotiators can successfully balance credibility with their own nationalists, against trustworthiness with their opponents’ own hardliners.

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