North Africa, West Asia

Iran: wanting revenge but needing compromise

How is Soleimani’s demise likely to alter Iran’s policy options?

Mehrdad Khonsari
8 January 2020
Suleimani's funeral.
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Fars News Agency [CC BY 4.0]

Dealing with the plight of ordinary Iranians in light of Iran’s seriously deteriorating economic situation will undoubtedly become hugely more complex as the political dust settles following the American drone attack that killed Ghassem Soleimani, the Commander of the IRGC’s ‘Quds Force’ along with Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, deputy leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

A controversial and shadowy figure in Iran, next to Ayatollah Khomeini the founder of the Islamic Republic, Soleimani was probably the only other largely popular and nationally acclaimed Iranian political figure since the inception of the Islamic Republic 40 years ago - as evidenced by the genuine public acclamation awarded to him in the course of his albeit meticulously stage managed funeral procession. Soleimani's burial in Kerman was ultimately postponed for several hours after as many as 56 people were killed and more than 200 others injured during a stampede that broke out during the emotionally charged event.

Despite all the heated rhetoric generated by a variety of leading figures in Iran, Soleimani’s death has come at a time when any potential retaliation on the part of Iran might come at a very high cost to a regime already facing unprecedented domestic challenges and popular unrest due to its rapidly declining economic circumstances propelled by American sanctions.

While Tehran may have various potential options and many surrogates for venting its revenge, it is also acutely aware that additional escalation could drag the country into a high-risk conflict with a powerful enemy it can never defeat. Thus, having pre-warned a number of parties of their intent to retaliate by launching some 15 ballistic missiles on two separate air bases housing US forces in Iraq, the Iranians are hopeful that in the absence of any serious damage, the US might refrain from striking back and thereby paving the way for de-escalating tensions.

In the short term, the strike on Soleimani is likely to harden popular sentiment against the US. With parliamentary elections planned for 21 February, the death of such an iconic figure will no doubt provide the regime with an unexpected opportunity to shore up support and manipulate public feeling in order to try and boost electoral participation at a time when most pundits were predicting a low turn-out at the polls due to widespread public anger and disillusionment with both the Rouhani government as well as his hard-line conservative critics who are expected to take control.

Soleimani was probably the only other largely popular and nationally acclaimed Iranian political figure since the inception of the Islamic Republic.

Diplomacy to take a temporary backstage

Various incidents in the past several weeks that culminated with the death of Soleimani will for the time being put on hold a number of on-going quiet diplomatic efforts for arriving at a new and more ‘comprehensive nuclear deal’ to replace JCPOA primarily with the US. Nonetheless, unless there is some kind of a ground breaking diplomatic breakthrough either at the regional or international level, of the new year is likely to bring very harsh economic prospects coupled with greater political instability to the Iranian nation, especially since the government is simply incapable of offering any serious remedies for countering the huge damaging effects of the US economic sanctions.

Although the hype surrounding the death of Soleimani might offer the Islamic regime a temporary respite to distract public attention away from its daily woes, failure to find any kind of a solution for ending the current economic debacle at home is unlikely to remove prospects of further serious protests and domestic unrest in the coming months.

In such a scenario, every expectation suggests that a seriously fractured hard-line leadership under Khamenei will not hesitate to unleash every means at its disposal for crushing any defiance. They will also be more focussed than ever before on preventing any public protests from becoming an instrument in the hands of foreign intelligence services anxious to undermine their authority, especially in the aftermath of the vacuum that has now been created with Soleimani’s demise.

Although the regime will try and use Soleimani’s extended period of mourning into a public display of support for itself and its anti-American policies, but once the initial hype surrounding his death has ended, no one truly expects such manoeuvrings to distract the public away from their legitimate demands.

It is important to bear in mind that the brutally crushed public protests of November 2019 had come at a time when Iran was also facing a new serious domestic challenge in the shape of the increasing divide that has taken place between the Supreme Leader and his allies (senior figures in the IRGC, the Judiciary and the intelligence community), and other previously loyal and compliant personalities from both the ‘Reformist’ and the conservative ‘Principalist’ camps.

Soleimani’s death will no doubt provide the regime with a temporary period of solace when all forces unite together in condemnation of ‘the vile US attack’ that had taken place. However, once the mourning ceremonies come to an end, internal challenges to Khamenei’s style of leadership is bound to resume, this time with a new vigour given the absence of such a critical and loyal supporter as Soleimani.

Moreover, in recent months, internal threats to the ruling establishment in Iran have been further exacerbated by the prolonged anti-government riots in Iraq and Lebanon with a pointed anti-IRI dimension – believed by many Iranian leaders including the late General Soleimani to have been ‘conspired’ by a combination of elements from the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, all intent on frustrating Iran’s so-called ‘hegemonic ambitions’ in the region.

But despite all domestic problems and recent challenges posed to its legitimacy in the region, it would be wrong to assume that the Islamic leadership in Iran is on the verge of collapse, especially as it faces no organised or cohesive opposition either inside or outside Iran.

While the assassination of Soleimani has now exploded into a new and probably unprecedented round of open recrimination and confrontation between the US and Iran, there are signs that all sides, including the unfortunate Iraqis who have been forced to put up with the brunt of an Iran-US proxy war being waged on their soil, do not want matters to get out of hand and result in more death and destruction.

Internal threats to the ruling establishment in Iran have been further exacerbated by the prolonged anti-government riots in Iraq and Lebanon.

War or compromise?

Shrewd and experienced as Khamenei is, it cannot be excluded that behind a defiant façade he ends up opting for what he once depicted as “heroic flexibility” as a prelude to nuclear negotiations in 2015. Indeed, he knows only too well that the deteriorating economic situation in Iran cannot be alleviated as long as the US sanctions are in force, and he understands the reality that US sanctions cannot be removed without some kind of a dialogue leading to an acceptable compromise with the US.

Whether he will stick to his defiant position by accelerating, as he has done, Iran’s exit from the JCPOA (thereby risking the threat of further isolation by losing European support) or opt for a gradual policy of de-escalation by allowing for previous ‘back channel’ approaches with Saudi Arabia and the US to try arriving at some form of an acceptable modus vivendi, remains to be seen. Indeed, despite angry rhetoric and heated passions, it is still quite feasible to resume mediation efforts from a number of trusted and tested parties in order to gradually achieve some form of quiet de-escalation based on an obvious understanding that there is nothing to be gained by any further confrontation or all out war.

However, until such time he is forced to yield, the Iranian Supreme Leader will, nonetheless, continue basking in his ideological aversion to all manner of rapprochement with the US, much to the delight of his hard-line constituency.

Finally, it is important to note that all of Iran’s current challenges are happening at a time when the Islamic leadership is quietly but critically involved in a struggle to decide the future of succession to Ayatollah Khamenei as the next Iranian Supreme Leader. In this campaign, for which Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, is considered to be a leading challenger, all competitors try to frustrate their opponents from scoring any ‘winners’ such as arriving at some form of a do-able compromise with the US.

Although, succession is a battle that is set to continue well beyond 2020, potentially reaching its climax by the time of the next presidential election in 2021, once again the absence of Soleimani is bound to greatly affect its eventual outcome by enhancing the chances of more moderate forces who seek serious change and a different outlook for the future of Iran.

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