Even in the unlikely event that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his negotiating team reach a nuclear agreement with international negotiators, its implementation may well fall to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). For decades, the IRGC has expanded its influence in Iran’s parliament and national-security apparatus, and the next president may even come from its ranks. The IRGC’s vociferous opposition to nuclear concessions and improving ties with the West raises serious questions over whether future Iranian governments will uphold any nuclear deal that the current one signs.
Rouhani is fighting a two-front war. Abroad, he is engaged in diplomatic arm-wrestling with the P5+1 international negotiators, seeking to pocket maximal gains for Iran while minimizing Tehran’s concessions. Meanwhile, Rouhani’s cabinet is torn between public demands for jobs and human rights, the creeping infiltration of the IRGC, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s dogged attempts to maintain the status quo at all costs.
The Iranian president is well aware of the IRGC machinations against his cabinet, and warned the public in August 2014: “The saboteurs … have left the think tanks and are now in the operations room.” Three months later, a news outlet close to the Green Movement released a two–part account of the IRGC Intelligence Organization’s moves against Rouhani. According to the report, the Guards already have a shadow government in place that is engaged in psychological operations and inciting the mob against the government.
In the wake of those reports, fifteen parliamentarians summoned Intelligence Minister Hojjat al-Eslam Mahmoud Alavi to explain how the information had reached “the counterrevolutionary press,” and to help determine the appropriate punishment for whomever responsible. Meanwhile, the exposed IRGC plot against Rouhani’s cabinet has unsurprisingly gone unpunished.
While Khamenei may use the rivalry between Rouhani and the IRGC to maintain the factional balance of power, there is no doubt that Rouhani is merely a tenant at the presidential palace and not its owner. In two years or six (depending on whether he is re-elected), he will be replaced as president, and his successor – like his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – is likely to be recruited from the ranks of IRGC veterans.
Rouhani is one man, whereas the IRGC is an institution which has struck ever-deeper roots since the 1979 revolution, and whose influence within the various arms of the regime shows no signs of abating. Should negotiators find a way to close the remaining gaps and reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, they must remember that it is not Rouhani but the Guards who will likely be given the task of its implementation or dismissal.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.