Zarif’s Leaked Interview and the Conflict Between the “Revolution” and the “State” in Iran

ByFiras Elias

Leaked excerpts from an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif once again raised the discussion about the potential conflict between the “revolution” and the “state,” specifically at the level of decision-making in Iran. In addition, the leaked audio recording raised concerns over the direction of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, particularly regarding the role of the elite Quds Force in narrowing down Iran’s foreign policy options. The leaked audio resulted in various IRGC leaders and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issuing statements in which they expressed their disapproval of the content and considered the allegations similar to those propagated by Iran’s enemies. They predicted significant ramifications resulting from the leaked audio at the internal and external levels in the future.

The establishment of the Islamic Republic, based on Velayat-e Faqih (Jurist Leadership) and Shiite revolutionary ideology were the most prominent manifestations of the Islamic revolution led by Khomeini in February 1979. To strengthen the foundations of the Iranian republic, Khomeini enacted the Iranian Constitution in 1979 to develop a general framework regarding the country’s governance and administration. This Constitution enshrined the duality of the “revolution” and the “state” by establishing revolutionary institutions, which later would operate in tandem with the state’s official institutions that had been operating alone. The revolutionary character of the “Islamic Republic” was entrenched further when Khomeini named the head of the state “the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution” and the “Revolutionary Guard” who was tasked with maintaining the new political system. In addition, the Iranian Constitution affirmed the principle of the superiority of the revolutionary institutions over other state institutions when it granted the “Supreme Leader of the Revolution” the right to veto and annul decisions issued by the republic’s president. This marginalized the president and restricted his powers that had been outlined in the Constitution.

The duality of the “revolution” and “the state” has resulted in several consequences that complicate Iran’s power structure and have impacted the country internally and externally. The most important outcome of this duality has been the establishment of parallel institutions. There are “state institutions” that exist alongside “revolutionary” ones. For example, the Iranian army operates alongside the IRGC and there are dual strategies, meaning that “state institutions” may adopt a strategy at the internal or external levels, whereas, Iran’s “revolutionary institutions” may adopt a completely different strategy. There are also parallel economies: the Iranian state has a budget that is controlled by the Shura Council, the Audit Bureau, and various other specialized agencies whereas the “revolutionary institutions” control large economic institutions and networks that are not mentioned in the state budget. Among these institutions are the Mostazafan Foundation and the Martyr Foundation, which belong to the “Supreme Leader of the Revolution.” They are worth tens of billions of dollars, according to the estimates of Iranian economists. The IRGC also controls various companies, the largest being the Khatam al-Anbiya company which is involved in many Iranian economic sectors.

The state institutions have realized that the strong alliance bringing together the supreme leader with the Revolutionary Guard is a major challenge in administrating the country internally and externally. This challenge has been compounded by the “conservative” current and its growing role. It implements the instructions of the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guard particularly to restrict the “reformist” current, which aspires to diminish the state’s revolutionary character and limit the IRGC’s role in political life. The relationship between the “state” and the “revolution” experienced several clashes, particularly when Mohammed Khatami became Iran’s president until the current period, following Hassan Rouhani’s assumption of the presidency. On every occasion, the “revolutionary” current imposed its agenda on the “state,” because it prioritized the “revolution” over the state. This is enshrined in Iran’s constitutional articles, with the state’s primary mission to continue the “Islamic Revolution.” Khomeini confirmed this after the end of the war with Iraq when he said: “The export of the revolution is the most important priority of the country,” and his successor, Khamenei, has reiterated this on numerous occasions.

The conflict between the “revolution” and the “state” reached its peak when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took over power, especially as his rise to power reflected rising popular resentment in Iran against the “conservative” current and the IRGC. This growing resentment was an outcome of the 2009 Green Movement and its ramifications. Rouhani’s reform program attempted to limit the influence of the Revolutionary Guard in domestic and foreign policy. As a result, the IRGC has impeded Rouhani’s reform program, specifically the policies targeting its economic influence and regional role. The conflict escalated further after the nuclear agreement was signed in April 2015, and following the commitments made by the Rouhani government when it signed a number of agreements to combat money laundering, terrorist financing and drug trafficking, all of which are related in one way or another to the internal and external role of the IRGC.

In response to the pledges made by the Rouhani government when it signed the nuclear agreement, the Revolutionary Guard developed ballistic missiles and expanded its regional influence. It established many land, sea and air corridors to supply its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen with missiles and drones. The supreme leader and the IRGC embraced the policy of “turning towards the East,” specifically towards China and Russia. The outcomes of this policy include Iranian-Russian cooperation in Syria, and the signing of the Iran-China 25year cooperation agreement. For Khamenei and the leaders of the IRGC, this policy is an effective substitute to reviving the nuclear agreement, which created a significant gap between the Iranian revolution and the state.

The manifestations of Iran’s internal conflict are resurfacing once again, further eroding the legitimacy of the Iranian political system. The revolution can no longer mute the resentment felt by Iranian state officials. In the leaked audio, Zarif criticized the IRGC indirectly because of its domination of Iran’s foreign policy. This criticism was directed specifically to the international community, to send a message to the negotiating parties in Vienna that there is a “moderate” current in Iran apart from the IRGC and its allies. This creates the impression that there is a real division in Iran between the “reformists” and the “conservatives” and the international community must consider this division when making its moves towards Iran.

Zarif talked about these differences when he clearly indicated that Qassem Soleimani had raised the Quds Force’s notoriety and influence before his death last year, and he often sacrificed diplomacy for the sake of IRGC military operations throughout the region. The IRGC also cooperated with Russia to sabotage the nuclear agreement, which significantly hindered Iranian diplomacy. According to Zarif, the Quds Force is more than just a major regional wing of the IRGC and it has a great say in Iran’s foreign policy in general, and in the country’s nuclear policy in particular. From Zarif’s point of view, the Quds Force believes that its power and role extends far beyond regional and military affairs. Its leaders also believe that they have the legitimacy needed to interfere in internal and external affairs, especially in times of crisis. This mentality has not changed after Soleimani’s death. Therefore, it seems that Zarif is implying that the IRGC will play a significant role in deciding the outcome of the upcoming Iranian presidential election, even more than the Iranian voters or competing wings.

Al-Sharq newspaper, which is close to the “reformist” current, has discussed Zarif’s leaks and indicated in an article that those “who say that there are insults against Soleimani and the IRGC, are not familiar with Iran’s reality yet,” to emphasize the important role of the IRGC in Iranian foreign policy. Zarif has not revealed any secret and raised something that is not clear to the Iranian people. The necessity of “holy defense” is a clear priority for the IRGC and it supersedes feeding the Iranian people. What the foreign minister said is normal. Diplomacy is at the service of the battlefield. This has nothing to do with the IRGC and the army. However, events on the battlefield are what determine the future, not diplomacy. Zarif’s leaks are likely to result in many ramifications on the course of the relationship between the “revolution” and the “state “in Iran, in particular, the “revolutionary” current is likely to use these leaks to cement its domination over the country. This refers to the “conservative” current and the IRGC. The present relationship between the “revolution” and the “state” also demonstrates that the course of the conflict between the two has become very narrow, and they are now interacting on any event that occurs at home. This is what the leaks revealed, indicating the depth of the crisis that the political system is experiencing today, specifically the difficulty in harmonizing the relationship between “revolutionary” and “state” institutions. Zarif’s leaks have indicated that there is a great degree of resentment engendered by the “state movement” towards the “revolutionary” currents and their hegemony. There is also serious disagreement at the ideological and political levels concerning discourse and vision between the two currents on many external issues, specifically concerning Iran’s relationship with Russia, attempts to revive the nuclear deal and Iran’s regional role. These disagreements may negatively impact Iran’s domestic and foreign policy in the future.

Leaks such as Zarif’s will impact the relationship between “state institutions” (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and “revolutionary institutions” (the IRGC), leading to much more sensitivity and caution in the future, especially with regard to important external issues such as the nature of Iran’s relationship with its allies or regarding internal issues such as the decision-making process between the two currents. The relationship between both institutions will also be impacted by security considerations and the risk of infiltration and further leaks. Amidst the controversial new information revealed by Zarif, the IRGC’s leadership called for reviewing the country’s regional policies. The military establishment, often referred to as the “field force,” seems to be determined to completely securitize Iran’s foreign policy, increase the budget of the Quds Force, and promote the military adventures of the “Islamic Republic.”

Zarif’s leaks may end the foreign minister’s political career, which is not something new, especially when someone rebels against the general line of the government and its domestic and foreign policies. On the other hand, these leaks indicate the great complexities faced by the Iranian political system, particularly the relationship between the “revolution” and the “state,” and the escalation of the power struggle between the different wings of the political system. Undoubtedly, the continuation of these conflicts will weaken the political system and further erode its legitimacy at home. Zarif’s apology to Soleimani’s and Khamenei’s family indicated the power of the revolution in comparison to the state institutions which represent nothing more than a thin façade veiling a hegemonic political system. These state organizations promote diplomacy while the IRGC pursues a military approach based on the Iranian Constitution and the directives of Khamenei.

However, it can be said that there are deep divisions at the highest levels of the Iranian political system between the two currents because they have different visions, discourses, and approaches from one another, at least on general lines. As a result of the great interdependence that brings together the supreme leader, the “conservative” current and the IRGC, the “state movement” will be forced to review its political approach and formulate a new approach for political action inside Iran. Today, the “state movement” is in an exceedingly difficult defensive position to re-engineer Iranian political life so that it is line with a policy of strict militarism. Considering this complex reality, it can be concluded that the strategy of minimizing losses is the best approach the “state movement” can adopt to confront and challenge the rise and dominance of the “revolutionary” current in Iran.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Firas Elias
Firas Elias
International Strategies and Policies Researcher