The folly of trying to empower Iran’s moderates: What Biden must understand as he reengages the mullah-led nation
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS | JASON M. BRODSKY | JAN 25, 2021
U.S. policy on Iran has at times fallen victim to the belief that Washington has the capacity to empower moderates within the regime. Given its pledge to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the new Biden administration may be similarly tempted. But instead of chasing ghosts, the White House should prepare to defend against a strong, deep bench of hardliners eager to stymie the United States’ best-laid plans.
True enough, the regime needs to negotiate. It is suffering severe financial strain at the very moment it needs financial stability given an eventual leadership transition with an octogenarian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But his power base is secure. Over the last few years, Khamenei has taken steps to protect his legacy and continue what he has constructed as an existential fight against America by installing a new group of younger hardliners into positions of power.
The collective advancing ages of the clerical guardians of the Islamic Republic required Khamenei to groom new leaders who will control the process of choosing his successor in the Assembly of Experts while seeking to maintain the regime’s ideological purity in Iran’s elected state through the Guardian Council’s vetting. This process already resulted in its 2016 disqualification of the more reform-minded Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, from running for a seat on the Assembly of Experts.
These actions were prescient. Over the last several months, the mullahcracy has lost some of its most influential clerics — Ayatollahs Ebrahim Amini, Mohammad Yazdi and Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Their deaths were a significant loss, representing the gradual dissolution of the first generation of the clerical gerontocracy. And these men weren’t ordinary members of the theocracy. Some appeared on lists of potential successors to Khamenei at various points, despite their older ages.
Amini hailed from the more pragmatic wing of the Nezam. He was a long-time member of the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts. He reportedly visited Khamenei in 2009 to complain about his son Mojtaba’s interference in the 2009 presidential election in support of the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An ally of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Amini lost the contest for the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts in 2016.
Yazdi was a political and theocratic heavyweight as he headed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s office in Qom, served as a deputy speaker of parliament, and was quickly anointed by Khamenei as his first chief justice after he assumed the supreme leadership. While there, Yazdi infamously abolished the Office of the Prosecutor, leading to widespread abuses of due process as judges doubled as prosecutors. He went on to powerful posts such as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, and served as a member of the Guardian Council.
And earlier this month, the regime lost archconservative Mesbah-Yazdi. Nicknamed crocodile, he was a kingmaker in conservative politics and a founder of the Haghani School, which educated an influential subset of regime elites. He held radical views, once writing in a book that Iran has a right to and should pursue development of “special” — widely interpreted to mean nuclear — weapons. Mesbah-Yazdi also told his followers that “accepting Islam is not compatible with democracy.”
Would-be negotiators in Washington should recognize that whatever the goals of a Biden-led deal might be, empowering moderates is unlikely to succeed. The regime has already seen to it that they are sidelined in the most sensitive state organs. Amini, Yazdi and Mesbah-Yazdi have been replaced by new leaders like Ebrahim Raisi, Ahmad Khatami and Alireza Arafi — all conservative Khamenei loyalists — because they will shape the future of the regime.
Raisi, who was educated in Mesbah-Yazdi’s Haghani School, once headed one of the regime’s largest religious foundations and has ascended to the helm of the judiciary — a position that Yazdi held. He is also a deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a position the more pragmatic Amini previously occupied. Khatami, an ultraconservative cleric known for his fiery rhetoric, replaced Yazdi as a member of the Guardian Council. Arafi, another conservative protégé of Khamenei, was appointed to the Guardian Council in July 2019 after being chosen by Khamenei to chair Al-Mustafa International University, an ideological recruiting ground for the regime. He replaced Mohammad Momen, a moderate conservative. They join Sadegh Larijani, a former chief justice himself who also chairs the Expediency Council, in this new conservative clerical crop. Like their predecessors, each is seen by some observers as potential candidates to replace Khamenei as supreme leader. Some may also be contenders to succeed the nonagenarian Ahmad Jannati as chairman of the Assembly of Experts or secretary of the Guardian Council.
Collectively, their careers have depended on and been nurtured by Khamenei personally. They have little incentive to compromise on the policies that they view as successful. And they will undoubtedly shape the personalities and politics of the Islamic Republic in a post-Khamenei era.
The United States must understand the limitations of its power in trying to influence a system that is built on anti-Americanism. The ideological successors of Khamenei are entrenched. Rushing to rejoin the JCPOA before Iran’s next presidential election won’t change that dynamic, as it’s the supreme leader and not the president who has the final word on foreign policy decision-making. The mythical moderates just don’t occupy the positions that matter.