In conversation with professor and author Muhammad Sahimi on Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, the country’s deep state, the nuclear deal with the US and the Trump administration’s state.
Muhammad Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and analyst of Iran’s political developments and their relations within the rest of the Middle East. He’s also co-founder and editor of the new website, Iran News and Middle East Reports.
Professor, you write in your article that the secret and semi-secret networks of military security and intelligence forces that profess support for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is setting itself up to decide the future president of Iran. Explain that for us.
Well, in Iran – like in many other countries – we have forces that act behind the scenes. We never see the faces of the leaders. We hardly know how they operate. But the effect of what they do appears in various forms, and various forums, from internal elections, national elections, to areas of human rights activists, journalists and so on. This is what I call a deep state, which is a separate sort of shadow government, separate from the formal Iranian government and Iranian state. These forces are hardline forces, and they are usually allied with Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, although in the past there have been occasions when they have expressed even their unhappiness with the Supreme Leader. These forces are very unhappy with what President Hassan Rouhani has done over the past four years. They are not happy with the nuclear deal with the United States and its allies, because they think that Iran gave up too much, and received too little. At the same time, they had a big stake in keeping the sanctions imposed on the Iranian economy by the United States and allies, because that way they could control the black markets, and the export/import of the country. It was estimated that during the economic sanctions, perhaps as high as 90% of the black market was controlled by them, and the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president … have … companies and corporations that are believed to be linked with the leaders of these deep state, large contracts without any bidding. They have lost all of that and more, and therefore they are very unhappy about what’s going on in Iran. At the same time, President Rouhani has opened up the political space, to some extent. There is a little bit more freedom. University campuses are far more active than they were four years ago. And therefore the deep state, the radical forces behind the scenes, feel that they are losing ground, and therefore they want to replace President Rouhani with somebody that they can trust and has their interests in heart. So that’s what we are observing as the election approaches on May 19.
And Professor Sahimi, you also write in your article that if the Trump administration retains its tough stance on Tehran, it may end up boosting a reactionary hardliner and powerful cleric, linked to the massacres of thousands of political prisoners. If I understand correctly, the cleric you are referring to here is Ebrahim Raisi. We will go into who he is in detail in the second segment, but for now, give us a sense of who he is, and how you think he is connected to this deep state you’re speaking about.
Well, Ebrahim Raisi currently is the custodian of Imam Reza Shrine. The Imam Reza Shrine is in the religious city of Mashhad, in northeast Iran. It has vast holdings valued at tens of billions of dollars. And therefore Raisi has access to vast resources that he can use one way or another, for his election campaign. He has always been a hard line cleric; he has always worked – before becoming custodian of the shrine – always worked within the judiciary. In Iran, the judiciary is highly political. It’s not really independent as it should be, and it’s controlled by hardliners, in particular Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Raisi is very loyal to them, and has always served the hardliners and the Supreme Leader. His emergence on the scene was totally unexpected. After he was appointed the custodian of the Imam Reza Shrine, suddenly the hard line websites, and mass media, and social networks, began praising him, and elevating him in the eyes of the public. He also began giving speeches, unlike before, where he was completely quiet. He began giving public speeches, talking about various issues. And in particular, he even started talking about foreign policy issues, and he used those occasions to criticise what was happening within Iran, and what the Rouhani administration is doing. Therefore, people started thinking that he may be a candidate, for either the presidential election that we will have in five weeks, or at the higher and more important level, as a possible successor to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We know Khamenei is ill. He has said himself publicly that he probably will leave the scene in the next few years. We also know that there is a secret commission, or committee, that has the task of putting together a short list of possible successors to the Supreme Leader, in case he passes away. And it is widely believed that Raisi is a member of that short list. We also know that he is supported by Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, who is also a cleric, and has very strong connections with some of those hardline leaders that are active behind the scenes, and a part of the deep state that I talked about in my article in New York(?). Therefore, he has the support of both public and behind-the-scenes hardliners. And therefore he can be a very strong competitor to President Rouhani in the upcoming elections on May 19.
And what are some of the key differences between the coalition that supports the current president, and those that oppose him? For example, you say in your article that commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard have been fiercely attacking Rouhani in public. Even accusing him of treason, and have a more hard line approach enforcing and want to be involved in forming policy. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?
Of course. The Rouhani administration… President Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have been advocating their relationship with Iran’s neighbor, and other countries in the Middle East. They have been advocating opening up better relationships with the United States, if of course there is a willing partner in the United States for that. They have been trying to expand relationships with Europe. All of this means that if Iran’s political space and relations with the West opens up there will be more investment in Iran. There will be more competition for projects in Iran, and therefore the economic interests of the hardliners, and the deep state will be threatened. They don’t want that. At the same time, they believe that Iran gave up too much and received too little, in terms of nuclear agreement with P5+1, whereas the majority of people think that it was a good deal, because it basically, at least for now, removed the shadow of possible war with the United States from Iran. They also advocate a much tougher line towards Syria. We know Iran is deeply involved in Syria. And while moderates and reformists think that we should try to protect Iran’s national interests, in terms of national security, and territorial integrity, and not abet Iran to a particular group or particular person, the hardliners are very much wedded to the fate of President Bashar Assad in Syria. And they have always been insisting that in any possible deal regarding the future of Syria, President Assad must remain in power, at least for the short term. So there are major fundamental differences between what the moderates and reformists want, on the one hand, and what the hardliners, and their leaders behind the scenes in the deep state, want on the other hand. One advocates better relations, a more moderate foreign policy, more open space for foreign investment. The other side wants a closer society, not any relations with the United States. And a much tougher approach to the problems in the Middle East in which Iran is involved. And that shows in all aspects. The other aspect that we see is the hard line that Iranian hardliners have towards Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the region. Whereas Iran’s foreign minister, Mr Zarif, has proposed several times to meet with the Saudi foreign minister to go over some of these differences. That has ratcheted up the tension between the two sides, and they are almost in a state of war. So there are major differences between the two sides; two fundamentally different views that the two sides hold.
And Professor Sahimi, give us a rundown of who the current candidates are for the presidential elections coming up, and what you assume will be the viability of those candidates.
Well, on the moderate and reformist side, they have agreed to support the current president Hassan Rouhani. On the conservative side, there are multiple candidates. One is … He was the director of the voice and message of the Islamic Republic, which is the national network of state on television and radio network. The other one is Mostafa Mir-Salim. He’s another conservative. He’s backed by one of the oldest and most conservative political parties in Iran, the … or coalition. Then Ahmadinejad supporters have put up one of his vice-presidents, Hamid Baqai, who was the principle vice-president to Ahmadinejad in his second term. And then we have Ebrahim Raisi, the cleric that I talked about, the man that had always worked in the judiciary. And many people believe that he will be the final, and ultimate candidate, of the conservatives.We have to remember that all of these candidates, and others, minor candidates, must be vetted by the Guardian Council, which is the constitutional body that vets the candidates. And those that are disqualified cannot run, and those that are deemed qualified can run. Then at that stage, for example, if conservatives have multiple candidates, probably what will happen is that some of them will withdraw from the race in favor of the main candidate. And although at this point it’s not clear with the race if it will be the final candidate. Many people believe that he will be, precisely because he’s supported by the powerful military intelligence forces, Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, and other hardliners, that are connected to the deep state behind the scenes that often operates in Iran.
Muhammad, Iran… you wrote an article titled ‘Iran’s Deep State Could Unseat Rouhani With A Khamenei-Backed Hard-Liner in the Upcoming Elections’. I understand that you wrote that article to draw attention, obviously, to the complex deep state that’s involved on the Iranian side. We are somewhat familiar with it on the US side, but we don’t really understand it on the Iranian side. Give us a sense of what you mean by the deep state, particularly with the Revolutionary Guard, with the theocratic council that is also responsible for governing Iran, as well as the presidency.
Well, the deep state that I’m referring to is a network of security and military intelligence agents, and their hardline allies among the clerics. They are also supported by various factions, or part of political factions, in the society. The reason I call them deep state is often it’s not clear who orders what, and why some of the things happen without apparently any connections to any official. Let me give you an example. From 1988 to 1998, a large number of dissidents, and political activists, were mysteriously murdered. And nobody knew who was the culprit, until Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997 in a landslide victory. And then after he was elected, those murders and killings actually intensified.President Khatami appointed a commission to look into this situation then, because it was getting totally out of hand. Then in January of 1999, it was suddenly announced that the people who did this, the culprit behind all these murders – at least some of them – were agents of the ministry of intelligence that was supposedly controlled by the government.When they were arrested, they said that they had received a religious fatwa from some clerics to commit those murders, because those clerics had deemed those dissidents as not loyal to the Islamic regime in Iran, and to the fundamentals of Islamic teaching. But it never became clear who actually gave the fatwa. There were a lot of speculations, there were a lot of rumors. But when some journalists tried to dig in more deeply and find out who had done this, they were stopped. In fact, many of those journalists were thrown in jail. So this is, for example, one example of how these secret networks of agents among military intelligence and security work. There are other aspects. For example, we hear also speeches around the country that are against nuclear deals. A lot of clerics speak against various issues that are not, for example, considered as urgent, or anything of that sort. But they are mainly intended to stir up the public against the government. Behind all of this is believed to this network of agents and their commanders and their supporters.In Iran we also have a large number of corporations that are owned by mid-level officers of IRGC, and these corporations have played a very important role in the Iran economy. Often, we have a situation in which there are companies that are truly owned by the private sector. But they cannot really compete with these IRGC-linked companies, simply because of the power that these companies have enjoyed by their backers.This is the way they operate in Iran, and they affect the economy, they affect the politics, they affect the national debate, and at times they also affect foreign policy. For example, there was a lot of opposition expressed by many of the commanders of IRGC against nuclear negotiations. Some appear to support it, but a large number of them appear to oppose it. And those who express support, they’re attacked by those who are not supportive of the negotiations. So basically, what we have is sort of a shadow government that is behind the scenes, and operates from behind the scenes. Many years ago a reformist strategist, Dr Saeed Hajjarian, who was assassinated in 2000, but survived the assassination and is semi-paralysed, said that the best job that a president in Iran can do is lift the curtain so that people can see what is happening behind the curtain, or at least partially lift the curtain. Because he knew, he was an intelligence agent himself in the 1980s, he knew that there was lots of things happening behind the scenes that people didn’t know about, and many people behind the scenes that they’re pulling their strings. So, he said the best thing a president can do is lift this curtain of secrecy, so that people can see some of the things that are happening behind the scenes. So this is what I am referring to as the deep state. And of course we know that this is not unique to Iran. I believe even in this country, in the United States, we have a deep state. And people have been talking about it – at least over the past few months since President Trump came to power, and also some things that happened – said about his links with Russia, and so on and so forth. So that’s basically what I’m talking about when I talk about the deep state in Iran.
And, professor, you recently said in an interview you did with Scott Horton, that the current president, Hassan Rouhani, has stopped awarding major infrastructure contracts to those linked to the military and the state apparatus.What are the economic interests that oppose the current President Hassan Rouhani, and what are their various reasons for opposing his re-election?
Well, in Iran, the IRGC, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp. has an engineering arm called Khatam al-Anbiya. Khatam al-Anbiya was the arm of IRGC during the Iran-Iraq war that would build temporary roads and bridges, and so on. And other things for the Iran military, in it’s fight with Iraq. When the war ended, the IRGC commanders asked then President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to allow Khatam al-Anbiya, the engineering arm of IRGC, to enter economic activity. They both allowed it, which was in fact, a big mistake. And by entering the economic arena in Iran, they started gathering strength.When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, it was just when Iran’s nuclear dossier was sent to the United Nations Security Council, and sanctions started to be imposed on Iran. In response to that, Ahmadinejad, who himself was linked to IRGC, started granting large projects, development projects, to Khatam al-Anbiya, the engineering arm of IRGC, worth tens of millions of dollars. The Ahmadinejad administration granted IRGC projects in building roads, building oil pipelines, and developing giant gas fields in the Persian Gulf, and so on. So, they benefited from his presidency, and they gathered a lot of economic strength.At the same time, we all know that those forces that are allied with IRGC, and basically operate secretly, which I call the deep state, also control a lot of jetties and ports that are not under the control of the government of President Rouhani. Through that, they can import a lot of cheap products from, for example, China, and make a lot of money. And that has basically destroyed a lot of local industry in Iran, because they cannot compete with the low prices that these guys import from China. When President Rouhani came to power, he tried to put a stop to this, because he said that this has damaged the true private sector in Iran. And also by examining the performance of the engineering arm of the IRGC, and the companies that are connected to it, he denied some of the projects that had been promised to them. And that created a lot of unhappiness among IRGC commanders and its engineering arm. So that is one aspect that they are not happy about. They are not getting the type of projects, the type of work that they were getting during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. The other aspect of it is that a lot of people in the parliament, and also in the government, have started talking about taxing Khatam al-Anbiya. Well, if Khatam al-Anbiya, the engineering arm of IRGC, is participating in large economic projects, and has a lot of income, the argument went that they also should pay taxes. And, of course, that depends directly on the Supreme Leader, who is Commander in Chief of the armed forces. But that also generated a lot of discussions within the country, about why some of these large firms, and large foundations that are linked with the Supreme Leader and hard-liners, and have large incomes, don’t pay taxes. So, that also generated a lot of unhappiness around the rank and file of hard-liners, the IRGC commanders, and so on. So that is one main reason they are not happy about this. And as I also explained previously – in the first part of this interview – the fact that the commercial relationship between Iran and European countries is gradually expanding, means that more investment, foreign investment, will come into Iran. If, for example, major European oil companies carry out the contracts that they have signed with the Iranian government, that means that they will bring new technology, and new know-how into the Iranian oil industry, which is critical to Iran’s economy. But that also means that Khatam al-Anbiya, which was getting large oil contracts and oil projects from the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it’s not really equipped with the latest technology and know-how, cannot compete with this type of investment, and this type of foreign oil companies.So, that’s another aspect that they are not happy about. So, we have these complex situations that one side doesn’t want really Iran to expand its relations with outside the outside world. And one side does want that, and of course, that has created a lot of friction between the two factions.
Professor Sahimi, if you remember the last presidential election, the Green Movement in Iran was very dynamic. Many people suspected that the Green Movement was being shaped and supported by the United States. But I think many people remember the youthful support that the Green Movement had received. What’s happening with that movement, and will it have any relevance in this election coming up?
Well, in my view, and in the view of people like me, the Green Movement is alive and well, except that it is a little under the surface. When we had elections, presidential elections back in 2013, the leaders of the Green Movement – although they were under house arrest – asked people to take part in voting. And by and large the Iranian people did that.Although the leaders of the Green Movement are still under house arrest, many believe that they support the current president, Hassan Rouhani, because under the current conditions that’s probably the best that we can have. And therefore my guess is that, if the election as it appears to become highly polarised in which one side, the reformists and moderates, support President Rouhani. And the other side, the hardliners, ultra-conservatives and the deep state supports the other candidate, who appears to be Ebrahim Raisi, then the election will be highly polarised. And if that happens, then people usually show up in large numbers to vote. And, of course, the Green Movement is part of this national movement to prevent a hardliner to get elected and become the Iranian president. So the Green Movement, in my view, is alive and well. It is there. It always looks for an opportunity to show up again. And let me also add this explanation, because … (audio drop) In my view, the Green Movement was a homegrown movement and it’s still a homegrown movement. Now, whether the United States, or Israel, or European countries try to exploit it, in order to incite people against the Iranian government, or Iranian establishment, is a separate question. But the movement itself was homegrown. It was a genuine movement. It was led by former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karroubi. And also his wife, Dr Zahra Rahnavard, and everything about it was Iranian and nationalist. But the question of whether, for example, the CIA wanted to exploit it, or whether Western governments wanted to exploit it, and things of that sort, these are separate questions. It doesn’t have any effect, in my view, on the legitimacy of the Green Movement as a homegrown, and as an indigenous, democratic movement within Iran.