Iraqi women walk past a poster depicting images of Shi'ite Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at al-Firdous Square in Baghdad February 12, 2014. 
Ahmed Saad / Reuters

The three centers of power in Iran—the Supreme Leader, the president, and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)—are embroiled in a historic contest to shape the course of Iranian foreign policy. This clash, long seen as inevitable, was finally sparked by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1 negotiating partners in July. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fears that the deal was just the first step in the Rouhani’s government’s grand designs for deeper economic integration with the world, which could irrevocably alter the balance of power in Tehran. In turn, Khamenei has given the IRGC’s hardline generals the green light to fight back.


Ironically enough, it was Khamenei himself who set Rouhani on the course to power. Through his control of Iran’s voting process, Khamenei first sanctioned Rouhani’s candidacy and then his victory in the 2013 presidential elections. He then proceeded to back the president’s nuclear negotiating team until a deal was reached in July 2015. Khamenei badly needed some sort of agreement to escape intense international sanctions that peaked in 2012, which threatened to unravel the nation’s economic framework.

Throughout the negotiations, Rouhani and his inner circle argued for a principled détente with the West. That made Khamenei distinctly uncomfortable. Iran’s Supreme Leader was never interested in an open-ended détente, and certainly not with the United States. Anti-Americanism is, after all, Khamenei’s main claim to domestic legitimacy. Better relations with Washington would thus be a net political loss for him.

Still, Khamenei stayed on board with the negotiations because he too could see that the country badly needed sanctions relief, and calculated he could prevent a nuclear diplomatic settlement from turning into a pretext for détente with Washington. In turn, he delivered Rouhani the political backing the president needed to conclude negotiations. For example, on September 17, 2013, the day after Rouhani urged IRGC generals to be open to compromises both at home and abroad on issues ranging from not playing an excessive role in Iran’s economy to acquiescing to more regional cooperation, Khamenei echoed the president’s words in front of those same generals.

The IRGC, whose political and economic clout runs much deeper than its fighting force of 130,000 troops and commanders, would suggest, got the cue. For the next 21 months, the IRGC watched the nuclear negotiations nervously, but largely kept quiet. It was never particularly worried that Iran would lose its nuclear program; rather, its senior commanders feared the political clout Rouhani would reap from the resulting deal. As long as IRGC generals weren’t cut out from foreign policy decision-making entirely, they seemed prepared to go along.


In August 2013, shortly after the Rouhani government was installed, Khamenei had agreed to let the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which reports to the president, conduct the nuclear negotiations, instead of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). Even so, Khamenei also made it clear that the IRGC generals would still run foreign policy as it related to militarized conflicts, such as those in Syria and Iraq. For this task, Khamenei gave the nod to General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, its foreign operations branch. As late as October 2015, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif openly admitted that, even as the foreign ministry handled nuclear negotiations, Iran’s Syria policy was “not in the hands of the Foreign Ministry in Tehran.” 

Girls carry portraits of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the funeral of three Hezbollah fighters who were killed while fighting alongside Syrian army forces in Syria in Nabatieh town, souther
Girls carry portraits of Iran's late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the funeral of three Hezbollah fighters who were killed while fighting alongside Syrian army forces in Syria in Nabatieh town, southern Lebanon, October 27, 2015.
Ali Hashisho / Reuters
This division of labor worked out well: Iran’s diplomats possessed the credentials and ethos that resonated with the West. They stood in stark contrast to former Iranian President’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provincialism. Iran’s hardliners in the IRGC, meanwhile, were acting with near impunity in the region’s conflict zones. Despite the foreign ministry’s reservations about the IRGC’s strategies and goals in Syria and Iraq, the Rouhani government kept quiet and opted to choose its battles carefully.

From Khamenei’s perspective, July’s nuclear agreement achieved his goal of lifting international sanctions against Iran. Once that goal was achieved, he opted to put the brakes on the rest of Rouhani’s agenda. The Ayatollah made it very clear that the warming of U.S.–Iranian relations that came as a result of Rouhani’s bargaining proved irksome. In a letter to Rouhani that expressed support for the nuclear deal, Khamenei closed his message with a curious but explicit demand: “Importing any consumer materials from the United States must be seriously avoided.” Khamenei’s point was not about U.S. consumer goods, which are readily available in Iran, but to firmly nudge Rouhani away from broadening the diplomatic dialogue with Washington, which he suspected was the moderate president’s ultimate policy objective.   


Khamenei’s displeasure toward potential rapprochement with the United States reveals his own insecurity. According to the Supreme Leader, Washington both intends to and is capable of bringing down the Islamic Republic, with nuclear negotiations serving as the Trojan horse. In this conception of U.S. grand strategy, Rouhani is at best cast as a naive enabler and, at worst, a willing agent of the Washington, as some of Rouhani’s most hardened critics, such as IRGC head Mohammad Ali Jafari, and Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati and Ahmad Khatami, two hardliners close to Khamenei that have openly argued with him at times.

Nor is this the first time Khamenei has reined in an Iranian president. When President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, became too ambitious in his plans for political change (including overtures toward Washington that went over Khamenei’s head), he was censured. The same was true when Ahmadinejad, a populist, began to act as a loose cannon in 2011. He remained a lame duck until leaving office in 2013.

Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran June 15, 2013.
Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran June 15, 2013. 

But in clamping down on Rouhani, Khamenei may have jumped the gun. If anything, he may have forced the president to up the ante as well. The half sentence admonishing U.S.–Iranian trade in Khamenei’s letter to Rouhani has taken on a life of its own; since its publication, IRGC generals and their resources—media outlets, their minions in the Iranian parliament, and other lackeys in the state machinery—have all ripped into Rouhani’s government. Everything it stands for is now a fair target. Khamenei has provided the IRGC with a blank check to “identify threats to the political order” and address them as it sees fit. This measure is bound to receive pushback from Rouhani’s faction. Not only does the Iranian president believe he has an electoral mandate to pursue domestic and foreign policy reform, he also sees a profound appetite among Iran’s population for a transition to a much milder version of the Islamic Republic. By publicly mandating unelected IRGC generals to act as a check on a popularly elected president, Khamenei has crudely pitted two centers of Iranian power against one another. But in doing so, the 76-year old Khamenei has merely raised the stakes in an intra-regime power struggle—one that might cause the Supreme Leader to lose control within Tehran’s political decision-making process.

The Iranian people had hoped that the nuclear deal would be the beginning of broader Iranian reforms at home and improved relations abroad. Unless Khamenei opts to stop the IRGC’s onslaught on Rouhani, the president’s camp will have to decide whether it can push back against Khamenei. If Rouhani does choose to react, Iranian politics will enter uncharted waters in the years to come. 

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  • ALEX VATANKA is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C.
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