Prior to the 1979 Revolution Iran had experienced an epic transformation during the Pahlavi monarchy. During this time Iran transformed from a mainly tribal state into a more modern one based largely on its oil and manufacturing sectors.
But this tremendous growth did not come without its costs. The same reforms that had accounted for much of the growth had also alienated many influential Iranians. Land reforms had uprooted many rural Iranians who then ended up in the slums and shantytowns of the swelling cities. This upheaval of much of Iran’s traditional past and the sufferings as Iran strove forward in its march towards modernization led to a resentment of the West and fueled a growing militancy which eventually led to the Shah’s ouster.
Since the revolution, Iran’s domestic politics have mainly revolved around two main ideologies: one being an intense nationalism based on historical achievements and rich culture and the other being centered on an influential role for promoting Shia Islam within the region. These two ideologies have created an enormous internal tension, as those who believe firmly in Persian exceptionalism that prefer a return to more historico-cultural roots based on Iranian identity have clashed with those from a combined religious-secular side that work to push Iran as the leader of the Muslim world and regional political hegemon.
Atop the Islamic Republic’s power structure resides the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Through his role of being responsible for the general policies that guide the Republic, he sets the direction for all foreign and domestic initiatives for the state. He also directly commands both the military and intelligence sections of the country, as well as appointing members of the judiciary, the supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and a number of other representatives, clerical commissars, throughout the government. Second only to the Ayatollah is President Rouhani. In his role as the chief executive, together with the Council of Ministers and Parliament, he is responsible for the day-to-day running of state affairs. Unlike the common Western concept of “President,” he does not control the military nor define state policies. Under the presidential layer is an intricate web of interwoven power centers, both formal and informal, that constitute the heart of the Republic. These are somewhat mysteriously lorded over by members of the leadership elite. The connections, and competitions, between the various power centers create a complex web mainly designed to ensure that no single leader within the structure is capable of posing a threat to the control of the Supreme Leader.
Prior to President Rouhani’s election Iran suffered from a fractured elite leadership and an international community resolved in preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon through crippling sanctions. Iran’s technological achievements throughout history are a main source of pride and its ability to successfully develop a nuclear program is seen as a continuation of this exceptionalism. As such, the nuclear program has become somewhat woven into its national identity and is therefore of great importance not only as a security tool but also of national pride. Tired of a history filled with foreign oppression and occupying a unique geographical space between Asia and the Middle East, Persians tend to possess an intense sense of uniqueness and honor that often drive them to resist outside influences even when it creates hardship as in the case of sanctions. As such, Iran’s nuclear development program as a tool in domestic politics continues to play a major role. Additionally, while recent presidencies have seen more pragmatic leaders that are somewhat removed from the religiosity of the revolution, the revolution itself still remains a powerful source of legitimacy.
From the top the leadership of Iran appears to have moved into a stage where it is now more willing to engage foreign leaders and move the state towards globalization. In the years following the revolution much effort was spent on securing power domestically and instituting a system whereby that power could be protected and maintained. Today, it seems Iranian leaders are keen to rejoin the international community. In the most recent presidential election the majority of the focus was on economic reform and the ability for the next leader to effectively manage the country’s struggling economy. In addition, the ability to lead the nation’s merger back into the global environment with religion taking almost no role was a prominent talking point. Consequently, Hassan Rouhani, a man who had campaigned on a platform based on restoring the economy, improving relations with western states, increased access for the general public to information, more personal freedom, and increased women’s rights, was elected as the nation’s seventh president.
On the nuclear issue President Rouhani is seen as a nuclear centrist: a person who is willing to accept some temporary constraints on the uranium enrichment program in order to relieve international sanctions and allow Iran back into the international world order. He firmly believes that Iran has the right to enrich its uranium but that it also needs to possess the ability to work with the international community and be flexible as it continues toward modernization. He walks a tightrope on the nuclear issue, however, as much of Khamenei’s power base, which has final say on the nuclear issue, is comprised of nuclear supporters that believe a nuclear Iran is a necessary geostrategic deterrent to ensure Iran’s security and status. Thus, Rouhani must show positive progress while not “weakening” Iran in order to retain the support of Khamenei, who remains relatively guarded on the issue outwardly.
Politically speaking, President Rouhani does not belong to either of the two main camps, reformist or conservative, but is rather seen as a moderate. This is important as it means that he has to walk a tightrope to draw support from both sides, which becomes of great importance as he manages priorities between nuclear discussions and the domestic issues he campaigned on. The pressure at the moment is on from the reformist side with the nuclear agreement. Domestic issues have largely been ignored and Rouhani has seen a slip in his popularity as the economy continues to flag, several important pro-reform (Green Party) leaders – Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – remain under house arrest, and other campaign promises have failed to materialize. He will clearly be hoping that once sanctions are lifted there will be a boost to the economy, lifting him to re-election.
The relieving of sanctions, however, will also bring another key issue back into focus, one that is especially important to the conservatives who currently hold the majority of power: the issue of foreign investment and involvement inside Iran. Given Iran’s deep resentment and mistrust of outside entities this will be a major hurdle to overcome as the lifting of sanctions will bring a flood of outside companies and nations eager to do business. How Iran deals with the inevitable pressure for further reforms and the increased flow of foreign involvement in its domestic dealings may well hinge on whether those deals are viewed as legitimate business dealings or whether it is some sort of grand plan by western states to control Iran.
Iran is at an important crossroads at this moment. It is still too early to tell whether the lifting of sanctions and inevitable foreign wave will be met with open arms or whether mistrust will take hold and prevent them from accepting change. With the more pro-reform populace pushing for inclusion back into the global economy and the conservative elite keen to continue its tight hold on power, it remains to be seen just how this quiet power struggle will be settled.