Iran’s internal power plays have produced many moments of political theater, but never one like this: The foreign minister checks himself into a hospital because of stress, blaming it on hard-line critics of the recent thaw with Washington.
A cascade of events Wednesday suggested there was no end in sight to the ideological skirmishes following President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the U.S.
Those overtures will be put to the test next week in Geneva when nuclear talks with world powers resume.
For Rouhani, the immediate prize would be winning pledges from the West to roll back painful sanctions in exchange for concessions on Tehran’s nuclear program. But on a deeper level Rouhani’s gambit also exposes sudden insecurities among the West-bashing factions that have shaped Iranian affairs for decades.
If Rouhani’s brand of diplomacy pays off in the eyes of Iran’s top policymaker, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it could bring sharper limits on the reach of powerful factions led by the Revolutionary Guard — which has already been warned by Khamenei to stay out of politics and let Rouhani’s overtures run their course.
The Guard will remain a pillar of Iran’s establishment, no matter what happens with Rouhani’s efforts. But Khamenei’s directive to give Rouhani political breathing room was a rare roadblock for a group whose power and influence has expanded steadily in the past decade. The Revolutionary Guard’s network now extends beyond its fighting forces to cover sectors as diverse as the nuclear program and airport security.
Possible attempts by Khamenei to separate the Guard from the worlds of politics and foreign affairs would mark a profound change on how Iran interacts with the West and offer more flexibility in diplomacy.
“Opposition or frustration by hard-liners is a natural reaction,” said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz. “But nothing can derail Rouhani’s policy of outreach to the U.S.,” as long as Khamenei remains nominally in his corner.
The latest counterpunch followed a drama that began with a report in the hard-line newspaper Kayhan that contained alleged misquoting of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that criticized the overtures with Washington. This was followed by Zarif seeking medical help because of what he called muscle spasms “due to being nervous.”
“A bitter day,” the U.S.-educated foreign minister posted online.
Zarif claimed the newspaper Kayhan misquoted him as saying Rouhani’s 15-minute telephone conversation with Obama was “inappropriate.” It also quoted Zarif as saying he believed it was wrong to hold a lengthy face-to-face meeting in New York with Secretary of State John Kerry.