The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has begun to mount a new campaign against former President Hassan Rouhani, whose second term in office ended on 3 August 2021. However, he continues to be involved in decision-making bodies, especially the Assembly of Experts. This is due to various factors, most importantly the renewed debate over which entity is responsible for bringing down the Ukrainian plane, as well as intensified efforts by opposition currents to get a nuclear deal in Vienna. There are also new factors that may come into play following Rouhani’s meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and as a result of the ongoing controversy regarding the Revolutionary Guard’s role in setting Iranian foreign policy. Finally, the Guard wants to send an implicit message to President Ebrahim Raisi that it is important to align with the Guard on both domestic and foreign policy.
A Systematic Campaign
January 3rd of this year marked the second anniversary of the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force within the Revolutionary Guard. This incident continues to loom large, particularly after various Iranian officials warned of "retribution" for his killing, while a website affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei posted an animated video on 14 January 2022 depicting former US President Donald Trump being assassinated while playing golf. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guard have also begun to mount a campaign against former President Hassan Rouhani, former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and other officials from his government and cabinet.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the Guard’s Aerospace Force, said in an interview with Kayhan newspaper on 11 January 2022 that Qassem Soleimani had explicitly warned Rouhani during a meeting with the Guards’ top leadership before the start of the former president’s second term about "the consequences of speaking against Supreme Leader Khamenei." He added that Soleimani had said to Rouhani: "You cannot possibly proceed with this slander, or else we will see to it that you are silenced." During this period, Rouhani had indicated he disagreed with the Supreme Leader’s positions on various occasions, particularly regarding statements that the Supreme Leader or the Guards had made which downplayed the importance of the nuclear deal or affirmed Iran’s commitment to pursuing its ballistic missile programs and supporting proxies in the region.
This campaign against Rouhani occurred at the same time as a similar political effort in the Islamic Consultative Assembly led by conservative fundamentalists, who were trying to launch a legal case against some of Rouhani’s supporters and officials from his government during his two terms in office, on charges of corruption. This included his brother Hossein Fereydoun, who was involved in negotiations for the nuclear deal in 2015 and had met directly with US officials during this time. He was also accused of embezzlement during Rouhani’s second term in office.
There are many reasons for the Revolutionary Guard’s concerted efforts to mount a campaign against former President Hassan Rouhani and members of his government and cabinet, including:
1. Escalation of Ukrainian Plane Controversy: Controversy continues to rage over the Ukrainian plane that was shot down on 8 January 2020. Iran had also launched missiles against two US bases in Iraq in which American forces were present, in response to Washington’s military strikes that had led to the killing of Qassem Soleimani five days before. The reasons for the downing of the plane remain unclear, but it is evident that Iran was at the ready that night, especially since it was expecting Washington to engage in a military response.
Some countries involved in the incident—either those which had nationals onboard or which owned the plane—threatened Iran with prosecution under international law over disagreements about financial reparations that Iran should pay to victims’ families. There was also a conflict between Rouhani and the Guard’s leadership after the plane was downed, due to the Pasdaran’s efforts to cover up the incident. When they did not admit responsibility, the president threatened to reveal their role himself, which would have caused an acute crisis between the two sides. This ultimately led the Guard to acknowledge that it had downed the plane as a result of "human error." This was a clear signal that the Guard was trying to get even with Rouhani even after he had left the presidency.
2. Anti-Nuclear Deal Sentiment on the Rise: Many reports have claimed that a nuclear deal in Vienna is looking more likely, as negotiators begin an eighth round of talks and officials release statements that progress is being made. However, it cannot be denied that opposition to the nuclear deal is growing within Iran, and that the Revolutionary Guard is behind this. The deal is seen as a "necessary evil" in light of the stringent US sanctions and other obligations imposed on Iran after the US withdrew from the deal.
This current continues to blame former President Hassan Rouhani and his political team for putting their faith in this deal. They even believe that Soleimani’s killing was a result of the deal, because the US withdrawal from the agreement produced heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington. This escalated to the point that Qassem Soleimani had directly threatened US President Donald Trump. On 26 July 2018, Soleimani said: "You’ll deal with us: with me, with the Quds Force—not the Iranian Armed Forces. We are closer than you think." He added that the Red Sea was no longer safe for the US.
3. Guard’s Concerns over Rouhani-Khamenei Meeting: The Revolutionary Guard is evidently worried about the recent meeting between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former President Hassan Rouhani (the exact date of the meeting has not been disclosed). Some of the Guard’s leadership feel this may be the preamble to Rouhani becoming involved again in certain decision-making circles such as the Expediency Discernment Council. Others have argued that the meeting was nothing out of the ordinary. However, the media affiliated with Iranian political moderates stated that the meeting sent a message that there was no conflict between the Supreme Leader and the former president.
The Guard views the meeting as undermining its efforts to keep any groups supportive of the nuclear deal away from power. This does not apply to the current government or the negotiating team, on the basis that the government has no choice but to participate in these talks so that it will not be held liable for the collapse of the nuclear deal and have to deal with the ensuing international fallout, which Iran would not be able to handle at the moment.
4. Reservations about the Guard’s Role in Foreign Policy: Ebrahim Raisi’s ascent to power has strengthened relations between the Guard and the presidency, in a way that had not been the case during Rouhani’s two terms. However, there are still some reservations about the Guard’s involvement in these circles. The Iranian public is particularly concerned about the role that the Pasdaran are playing in foreign policy, especially while domestic crises continue to worsen. These crises include power outages during the summer, rivers drying up, and declining salaries. According to those who supported the protests that broke out in Iran over the past year, one of the underlying reasons for these crises is that the country’s resources are being depleted by the Guard to support allies in the region.
5. An Implicit Warning to President Raisi: Despite the current political dynamic between the president and the Guard, the Guard nevertheless feels it is important to send a tacit warning regarding the consequences of pursuing a more independent policy, particularly while Raisi is still in his first term. Hajizadeh was quoted in Kayhan as saying that Qassem Soleimani had asked Rouhani whether he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Ahmadinejad. By this, the Guard meant that it did not want the president to make unliteral decisions, even in domestic policy matters, as former President Ahmadinejad had tried to do. In other words, the Pasdaran wanted to send a message to Raisi that his ability to carry out his plans, to remain in office, and to successfully seek a new term in the upcoming elections would all depend upon continued cooperation with the Guard.
A Pivotal Moment
In conclusion, this demonstrates that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is trying to consolidate its influence in both domestic and foreign policy spheres, regardless of whether the Vienna talks succeed. The Guard is preparing for a pivotal moment— determining what shape the regime will take in a post-Khamenei era. It does not want to give ground to any rival institutions in the regime regarding determining the agenda during the coming period, even those with a similar political outlook.