For the outside world, Iran seems to be ruled by a cohesive, monolithic regime. The domestic political reality within Iran is nonetheless much more complex. Iranian politics have always been characterized by two opposite ideologies: the anti-Western and anti-Sunni set and the pragmatist, reformist one.
Based on these ideologies, the Iranian authorities are split between the Revolutionary Council headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani and his ally former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. These two groups share almost no common ground on how to define Iran’s national security and interests, let alone the instruments to achieve these goals.
The agreement between Iran and the P5+1 states will only raise the tension to new heights between these two camps over Iran’s foreign policy towards the West and the Sunni world.
On the one hand, the radical conservatives - headed by Khamenei, the head of the Council of the Islamic Revolution, Mohammed Jafari, the head of the Revolutionary Guards, and general Qassem Suleimani, the head of al-Quds Forces - have developed the perception that Iran is besieged by a sea of Sunni and Western states who aspire to weaken Iran and topple its conservative regime. In their view, the elimination of one of its allies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, will lead to a domino effect in which the Assad regime would fall and lead to the triumph of Sunnis over Shiites in Iraq.
This domino effect would culminate in the fall of Tehran and the toppling of the Shiite revolutionary regime. In this geo-strategic game, General Suleimani was assigned the role of expanding Iran's sphere of influence and preempting the domino effect from taking place.
In this view, Saudi Arabia's attempt at increasing the glut in the oil supply, whereby the price of oil is artificially halved, is aimed at destroying Iran’s economy. The Iranian leadership thinks that a nuclear bomb in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards is the best insurance policy against any intervention of the West in the domestic affairs of Iran.
On the other hand, the reformists are convinced that Iran’s security and democracy are intertwined and that openness to the West and putting an end to the UN regime of sanctions will ensure the security and prosperity of the nation.
The reformists and conservatives also differ over the role of the army, the transparency of the democratic institutions, the status of women and their equality with men, and Iran’s interference in the domestic affairs of regional states such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon and its relations with West.
The reformists oppose the conservatives’ repetitive attempts at manipulating the presidential elections, hinting at the latter's role in rigging the elections in 2009 in order to keep the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power and use the Revolutionary Guards to suppress the demonstrators who contested the results. They also oppose using the al-Quds Forces for having kept the Assad regime in power.
In Iran’s political system, the Revolutionary Council and the Supreme Leader sit above the elected parliament and president. Under these conditions, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, needed to reach an agreement that not only could be ratified by the Iranian parliament, but more importantly one that would be acceptable to Khamenei and his conservative allies. It’s not surprising that the latter condemned the agreement as being bad for Iran.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also called the agreement a bad one (but for totally different reasons) and called for tougher sanctions on Iran. This policy, however, plays into the hands of the radicals in Iran. It strengthens their perception that Iran is under siege by the West, Israel and the Sunni world and that a nuclear bomb would fend off any foreign intervention in its internal affairs.
Iran could not only develop a nuclear bomb under tough sanctions, but tougher sanctions would even prompt the conservatives to accelerate the process of enriching uranium. The West should therefore be guided by the principles of strengthening the reformist camp and broadening its public support by improving the economic conditions in Iran and simultaneously making sure that the conservatives do not proceed in developing the nuclear bomb once sanctions are lifted.
Yakub Halabi is an Arab citizen of Israel, assistant professor of international relations and fellow at the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies, Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.