Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Getting the Islamic Republic Wrong

Mainstream media outlets have been flooded with analysis and articles predominantly from Western scholars, professors and policy analysts discussing the reaction from Iran’s domestic political establishment and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to the recent nuclear deal.
Having lived in the Islamic Republic for over a decade under both the so-called “moderate”and “hardline” governments and having studied Iran for many years, I never cease to be surprised by the mainstream media and many of Western writers’ view of Iran’s politics.
The main narrative being circulated on the media involves the various responses from Iranian politicians: The moderates, hardliners, principlists and the Supreme Leader. The analyses and opinions center on the premise of  “this group vs. that group,” in other words, moderates versus hardliners, the Supreme Leader vs. moderates.
For many of Western writers and politicians, this is a natural way to view and interpret Iran’s political system. Because this is how the politics of Western democracies are often characterized: Democrats vs. Republicans, capitalists vs. socialists, etc.
Hence, it is very challenging for these writers, scholars, politicians and policy analysts to view things outside of this framework and prism.
Domestically speaking, I, like the majority of people who lived in the Islamic Republic, never noticed social, political, economic, or legal differences under either “moderate” or “hardline” governments. The political suppression was the same.
Human rights abuses, stripping people of their basic universal human rights (freedom of religion, speech, assembly, press) were the same under various political parties, and have deteriorated since the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979.
Whether under Rouhani’s rule, Ahmadinejad’s, Khatami’s, or Rafsanjani’s rule, discrimination against women, subjugation of women, suppression and killings of dissidents, persecuting religious minorities persisted and increased.
Similarly, when it comes to the actual implementation of the Islamic Republic’s regional and foreign policy, there exists no difference between the so-called “moderate,” “hardliners,” “principlists,” or different Supreme Leaders.
Instead of analyzing Iran’s nuclear dossier and its regional policy based on the aforementioned categorizations (which reflects a Western mindset rather than the reality on the ground in the Islamic Republic), I actually divide these groups into what I call the “real” face of Iranian politics and the “deceptive,” soft face that serves the political establishment and the theocratic regime.
The real face of the Islamic Republic (the Supreme Leader, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Forces, Basij, etc.) are those whom the West calls “hardliners.” They are clear about their goals and objectives. They desire to pursue interventionist and aggressive foreign policy in the region. They are vocal about matters such as their anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Western sentiments.  They state that they would like to wipe Israel off of the map, that they would like to spread their version of Islam across the region and beyond.
On the other hand, the deceptive, soft face of the regime is represented by those who are depicted as the “moderates.” Many of the politicians in this camp, who have smiles on their faces, are Western- or US-educated (such as Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, who recovered his PhD from Josef Korbel School of International Studies in Denver), and they have learned  how to manipulate the West’s language and diplomacy in order to fool the US and other powers.
It is worth noting that the underlying objective of all these different camps is not undermining each group as the mainstream media depict. The main goal is to preserve the power of the Supreme Leader and the underlying foundations of the Islamic Republic.
The Iranian leaders learned a crucial lesson under the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that if they employ their real aggressive face on international arenas and in nuclear talks, they will be hit by more sanctions that will endanger the hold-on-power of the Supreme Leader and the political establishment. As a result, the creation of “moderate” narratives was crucial to preserve the ruling clerics and the mullahs.  By creating this narrative, they became fully capable of preventing the West from understanding the reality of Iran’s political system.
There is no real binary such as moderate vs. hardliners, or the Supreme Leader vs. moderates. There is only the interests of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the underlying foundation of the Islamic Republic.

About Majid Rafizadeh
Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar, is president of the International American Council and serves on the board of the Harvard International Review at Harvard University. Rafizadeh is also a former senior fellow at the Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington, DC and is a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. He can be reached at Follow Rafizadeh at @majidrafizadeh.