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North Korea and Iran’s presidential inauguration

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is about to inaugurate Hassan Rouhani for his second four-year term as president. The process generally occurs in two phases. First Khamenei will hand his decree to Rouhani in order to assign him his official duties as president. Then Rouhani will be sworn in in Parliament.

The oath will be administered by Khamenei’s confidant Sadeq Larijani, who was appointed by the supreme leader as head of the judiciary. This is ironic as Larijani previously said he believes the government does not derive its legitimacy from people’s votes.

One of the invitees to the inauguration is North Korea, whose ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam flew to Tehran earlier this week via Russia. He is regarded as the second most powerful figure in North Korea, and second in line behind Kim Jong-un. Relations between North Korea and Iran are deeper than commonly recognized. They cooperate on various levels, including in military and nuclear programs.

Iran is a client of North Korean arms and weapons. The former also relies on the latter’s specialists and engineers for proliferation and advancement of Tehran’s ballistic missile capabilities and nuclear program, which are supervised by Khamenei’s office and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the US recently blacklisted for its expansive role in terrorism. Other leaders attending the inauguration are from Syria and Iraq.

Although the decree that Khamenei will hand to Rouhani will list the latter as in charge of foreign policy, the real decision-makers are the supreme leader and the IRGC’s senior cadre. Khamenei’s decree mandates Rouhani to preserve the Islamic revolutionary principles founded in 1979. Rouhani will most likely keep his mostly Western-educated technocrat team, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

In the next four years, Rouhani will continue to try to strike business deals and earn revenue for the ruling clerics, strengthen military and nuclear cooperation with North Korea and facilitate the IRGC’s military adventurism.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Rouhani has refrained from publicly challenging Khamenei in the way former Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami dared to do. Rouhani has also refrained from crossing the domestic and foreign policy red lines of the IRGC, whose budget and regional role have increased significantly under his rule. In his first term, Rouhani saved the government from potential collapse due to UN economic sanctions.

He comes from within the system, and is fully cognizant of the power mechanism through which he can maintain the blessing of Khamenei and the IRGC while projecting a diplomatic facade to the world. If Khamenei had to pick a favorite president during his nearly three-decade rule, it would most likely be Rouhani, because the supreme leader does not want to be held accountable for shortcomings such as high unemployment.

In the next four years, Rouhani will continue to try to strike business deals and earn revenue for the ruling clerics, strengthen military and nuclear cooperation with North Korea and facilitate the IRGC’s military adventurism. To pressure Iran over its regional expansionism, aggression and human rights abuses, foreign leaders must decline its invitation to attend the inauguration as Tehran will use attendance to project international legitimacy and credibility.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.