Rouhani adds new twist to Iran’s power struggle

Rouhani adds new twist to Iran’s power struggle

Rouhani adds new twist to Iran’s power struggle
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, listens to his FM Mohammad Javad Zarif, Tehran, Iran, Nov. 24, 2015. (AP Photo)
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In a significant development, senior figures and former officials of Iran’s executive authority have provided compelling new evidence, further highlighting the institutional crisis within the regime. This evidence underscores the erosion and misuse of constitutional and legal powers, particularly those vested in the popularly elected institutions in Iran.
Former President Hassan Rouhani validated the contents of a controversial book written by Javad Zarif, the foreign minister during Rouhani’s tenure. Zarif’s book, titled “The Depth of Patience,” shed light on the deliberations surrounding the decision to retaliate for the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport in January 2020.
Rouhani echoed Zarif’s assertions on two crucial matters concerning the decision to strike America’s Ain Al-Asad base in Iraq. Firstly, the former president affirmed that neither he nor Zarif were informed of the decision to strike the base. Instead, Rouhani stated that he became aware of the strike on the morning of Jan. 8, 2020, the day it occurred, through his country’s official television news bulletin.
Secondly, Rouhani supported Zarif’s account of Iran’s advance notification to the administration of President Donald Trump regarding the impending strike on the US base. According to them, the Americans were informed of the strike before it took place by then-Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Rouhani said that he felt overlooked, noting that his deputy, Abbas Araghchi, had been approached at dawn before the strike to convey the message from the General Secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran to Washington through the head of America’s interest section in the country, the Swiss ambassador. According to Zarif’s account, Araghchi learned from the Americans at that time that they had already been informed by Abdul Mahdi.
Rouhani, who was barred by the Guardian Council from running for a seat in the Assembly of Experts in last month’s election, revealed that he was also not informed of the decision to close the country’s airspace on the night the Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, resulting in the loss of all onboard. This is despite the fact that, constitutionally and legally, Rouhani, as the president of the Iranian Republic, held the position of president of the Supreme National Security Council. According to the constitution, the president is responsible for preparing, organizing and presiding over any meetings conducted by the council, whether they pertain to domestic security, border security or foreign affairs.
Amid efforts by the Iranian regime to downplay Zarif and Rouhani’s assertions, as well as to mitigate the extent to which the constitution and laws were undermined and neglected by the country’s leadership, attempts were made to justify the lack of notification for Rouhani and Zarif regarding the decision to launch the strike. The regime’s mouthpiece newspaper, Kayhan, suggested that “the president was asleep during the attacks.”
In response, Rouhani’s official website reaffirmed the accuracy of Zarif’s account and explicitly refuted Kayhan’s accusation. The website asserted that the president was not informed of the impending strike. It further clarified that senior military officials had requested an urgent meeting at Rouhani’s residence hours before the strike, but later informed him that the meeting had been canceled. This sequence of events indicates that the president was not asleep at the time, as claimed by Kayhan.
Rouhani’s endorsement of Zarif's account, despite the potential implications for his political future within the current regime, adds weight to the credibility of what Trump asserted during a campaign meeting in November 2023. Trump claimed to have received a message from Iran before the missile strike on the Ain Al-Asad base. This assertion was denied by Ali Shamkhani, the former secretary-general of the Iranian National Security Council.
However, Rouhani’s support for Zarif’s narrative suggests that Iran was indeed keen to inform the Americans beforehand. The symbolic nature of the strike, coupled with the limited casualties, underscored Tehran’s desire to avoid provoking a strong American response. The primary aim of the strike appeared to have been to demonstrate Iran’s capability to exact revenge for the assassination of Soleimani, rather than to escalate tensions further.
Zarif’s detailed account, corroborated by Rouhani, along with the responses from official media outlets linked to the regime, shed light on the systemic crisis of overlapping constitutional and legal powers among government institutions in Iran. This includes the intricate power dynamics between the institutions of the supreme leader and the presidency, which persisted through successive administrations until the end of Rouhani’s tenure. Particularly noteworthy is the extent of the dominance and control exerted by the supreme leader, often in collaboration with the Revolutionary Guards, over other executive branches when making strategic decisions.
The validation of these assertions by prominent figures such as Rouhani and Zarif creates significant embarrassment for the regime both domestically and internationally. It also reveals a crisis in the structure of the Iranian regime during the era of Rouhani, whose positions and policies seemed to diverge from those of the symbols and head of the ruling regime.
This reached the point where some symbols of the influential institutions in the Iranian regime expressed a desire to bypass the presidential system in favor of a different system to increase their control over the entire system. This would allow them to check the efforts of some opponents, including reformists, who want to reduce the powers of the supreme leader, and the masses, who are dissatisfied with the performance of the regime, its internal and foreign policies and the complexity of Iranian crises at home and abroad. In addition, they want to redistribute power in the event of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s departure, including placing the entire system at the disposal of the influential institutions and ending the competition between the supreme leader and the presidency.
On the contrary, the ultimate authority over all Iranian institutions, including those related to foreign and internal policies, rests with Khamenei. He wields significant control over various institutions and authorities within the Iranian regime and possesses constitutional mechanisms to curtail the powers and executive authority of the president, including the ability to dismiss him if necessary. This dynamic elucidates the persistent conflict between the institutions of the supreme leader and the presidency throughout the post-revolution period in Iran, extending up to the era of Rouhani.

The former president affirmed that neither he nor Zarif were informed of the decision to strike the US base.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

However, there is growing discontent among reformists and other segments of society, who perceive an increased dominance of the supreme leader. They observe trends of elected institutions being marginalized, the value of popular mandates being diminished and the constitution and laws being manipulated, particularly concerning internal and foreign policies. Moreover, they are concerned about the consolidation of power by hard-line factions within the regime, perpetuating corruption and neglecting developmental projects.
Instead, these factions prioritize maintaining their grip on power, thus exacerbating internal economic, social and living crises. Consequently, there is a fear that such policies may once again fuel widespread protests against the regime in Iran.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
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