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January 22, 2015 11:05 am

Obama Opposition to New Iran Sanctions Inadvertantly Highlights Fissures Within Tehran Regime

avatar by Ben Cohen

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani (right) is locked in a power struggle with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photo: Twitter.

Following President Barack Obama’s pledge, in this week’s State of the Union address, to veto any legislative attempts to impose fresh sanctions on Iran, attention is increasingly focused on whether the Tehran regime can actually deliver on any commitments that are made during the latest round of negotiations over its nuclear program, which resumed in Geneva last week.

Understanding the power struggle at the heart of the regime is critical to the answer. As Suzanne Maloney of the Brooking Institution argued in an oped published this week, “the primary obstacle to a deal rests where it always has — with the unwillingness of Iran’s ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to countenance any meaningful compromise on Iran’s production and stockpiles of enriched uranium.”

Maloney pointed out that while American opponents of the current negotiating process use “the democratic system” to achieve their goals, in Iran, “the opponents of compromise occupy the one position that matters, the office of the Supreme Leader.” Referring to the international community’s frustrated efforts to find “a formula for addressing international concerns about Iran’s proximity to weapons capability,” Maloney argued, “to date, there has been no sustained progress in gaining Iranian buy-in for any such formulation, and Iran’s only known proposal entails leaving the entirety of its current capabilities for enrichment intact.”

Given the entrenched nature of Khamenei’s position, there are natural doubts about whether President Hasan Rouhani – widely hailed as a “moderate” by the west, but, according to Maloney, either unwilling or unable to push the negotiating framework agreed in Geneva in November 2013 “toward a more permanent solution” – could overcome the Supreme Leader’s resistance to a deal even if he wanted to.

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A January briefing on Iran from the Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) asserts that “Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani have traded blows and insults in the media on issues of policy and ideology, to the point of challenging one another’s authority to rule.”

“In a speech in early January 2015, Rouhani called for a referendum on social, political, economic and cultural issues; by doing so, he challenged the legitimacy of Khamenei’s rule,” the briefing said.

Rouhani and his supporters were rebuffed by Khamenei at a January 7 conference in Tehran. Noted the MEMRI briefing: “Khamenei rebuked the leaders of the pragmatic camp, calling on them not to divide the people for any reason, to unite around the values of the Islamic Revolution, and not to trust the Western ‘enemy.’

“He exhorted them to adhere to the ideological path that he had laid out for the revolutionary regime, the main principles of which are maintaining ideological hostility and distrust towards the West, in particular the U.S.; relying on domestic forces – the IRGC – to revive the country’s economy (i.e. instead of foreign investment); prohibiting any concessions to the West in the nuclear negotiations; and implementing the economy of the resistance.

“He reiterated his demand that pragmatic camp’s leaders toe the line of his ideological/ political/ cultural/ economic plan, even if no nuclear agreement is reached and the sanctions remain in place.”

Several politicians and official media outlets have warned Rouhani that his referendum call could result in his removal. Among those attacking Rouhani is the commander of the paramilitary Basij militia, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who slammed Rouhani and his supporters as “bogus revolutionaries.”

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