August 31, 2015 | The Arab Weekly
Iran’s Impossible Return to the 1990s
Two men personify the post-revolutionary phase of the Islamic Republic in the 1990s: then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rohani, his Supreme National Security Council secretary. Rohani’s electoral victory in 2014 and the rise of Rafsanjani have revived hopes for return of the good old days of the 1990s.
The argument goes that the team that repaired relations with the Arab monarchies in the 1990s can once again build bridges between Iran and its Arab neighbours. The July 14th agreement aimed at ending the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme has given additional credence to such hopes. That assessment is probably too optimistic.
A combination of unique domestic developments in Iran and regional dynamics propelled the Islamic Republic towards moderation in the 1990s. None of those circumstances are in place today and one can’t expect an outcome similar to the one in the 1990s.
Two events paved the Islamic Republic’s way towards moderation then: The death of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s disastrous decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990.
The triumvirate of Rafsanjani, Ali Khamenei and Ahmad Khomeini, son of the ayatollah, had carefully prepared for the death of the charismatic leader of the revolution.
Rafsanjani and Khamenei used Ahmad, Khomeini’s gatekeeper, to plant their own people in the machinery of state in preparation for the post-Khomeini transition of power.
They may even have promised Ahmad that he would succeed his father, however unlikely that may seem but, after the revolutionary leader died, Rafsanjani deftly marginalised Ahmad and put the mantle of leadership on Khamenei’s shoulders.
In turn, Khamenei, preoccupied with consolidating his position as supreme leader, showed little interest in diplomacy and gave Rafsanjani a free rein to refashion the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.
This freedom Rafsanjani and his young acolyte Rohani administered with the greatest dexterity. Saddam’s terrible miscalculation over Kuwait, which the Iraqi tyrant had sought to use in his attempt to smother the infant Islamic Republic at birth and steal its oil, actually contributed to the duo’s success. Taking advantage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Rafsanjani and Rohani not only managed to reach an honourable peace agreement with Saddam — who at all costs desired Iran’s neutrality in the Kuwait war — they also quickly mended fences with the Gulf monarchies that had bankrolled Saddam and with which Tehran had been engaged in an undeclared state of war since the revolution of 1979.
Clearly, the domestic and regional dynamics of today are very different than those of the 1990s.
Khamenei, free of the insecurities he suffered early in his leadership after succeeding the widely revered Khomeini, is obsessed with counter-balancing Rafsanjani and Rohani and is not willing to give them a free hand in conducting Iran’s foreign policy.
This is in part because Khamenei fears they could use their diplomatic triumph with the nuclear agreement to expand their power base within the regime.
Therefore, Khamenei has neutralised even the slightest measures taken by Rohani government officials to normalise relations with the United States and its Arab allies in the Middle East. The politically interventionist Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is another factor, which severely constrains attempts by Rohani and Rafsanjani to pursue the updated détente policy of the 1990s.
The IRGC was battered and bruised after the end of the gruelling war with Iraq in 1988, but has gradually developed into an independent power centre in its own right and not subjected to any meaningful presidential control. Any serious attempt by Rohani and Rafsanjani to repair relations with the Arab states will doubtless be met with the unyielding opposition of the IRGC.
Regional dynamics too prevent a return to the policies of the 1990s. After the invasion of Kuwait at the start of the decade, Iraq emerged as the common enemy of Iran and the Gulf states. Tehran and the Arab monarchies had no choice but to balance the Iraqi threat.
Today, no such shared threat exists. Following the United States’ military disengagement from Iraq, the Islamic Republic and the monarchies find themselves in a fierce rivalry to fill the regional power vacuum. This eliminates possible cooperation that marked earlier decades. Such dynamics do not bode well for the Islamic Republic’s ability to return to its policies of the 1990s. Those dreaming of returning to the good old days may soon wake up to the nightmare of 2015.
Ali Alfoneh is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @Alfoneh