June 26, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1101

Recognizing The Limitations Of Its Regional Power, A Frustrated Iranian Regime Turns Its Wrath Towards Its Domestic Rivals

June 26, 2014 | By Yigal Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1101


With the start of summer 2014, the Iranian regime faces a serious crisis, as it begins to recognize that its efforts to create a balance of power with the Sunni world and the West are failing while at the same time external and internal threats to the regime are increasing. To ensure its survival, the regime is now turning its attention to suppressing domestic opposition, with which it has been in escalating conflict in recent years, particularly since the June 2013 presidential elections.[1]

The Crisis In The Nuclear Talks And The Failure Of The Option Of Making A Deal With The U.S.

In order to survive, especially vis-à-vis the Sunni world and the West, the Iranian regime needs to attain the status of a nuclear power. In order to continue to advance its nuclear program in the face of international opposition, Iran's ideological camp – which includes Supreme Leader Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the religious establishment – has been compelled to enter into dialogue with "the Great Satan" (i.e. the U.S.), which was the only power willing to grant Iran this status under certain conditions. Dialogue with the U.S. has been promoted by the pragmatic camp – headed by Hashemi Rafsanjani and President Hassan Rohani, whose collective success in the June 2013 presidential elections was a substantial achievement and created a genuine popular challenge to the regime's religious-ideological monopoly on power in the country.

With the close of the six months of negotiations outlined in the Geneva deal, it became evident that Iran is not getting what it wanted from it, at least not for the foreseeable future. It is receiving neither recognition of its hegemonic nuclear status in the region, nor a removal of the sanctions against it, which spell economic collapse for the country.

The ideological camp never wanted, and never had confidence in, attempting to make a deal with the Americans to achieve its aims, and has been struggling and defending itself against the pragmatic camp for a year on a series of issues that impact the regime's very existence. Consequently, it is now hinting that with the failure to achieve the desired goal by taking the path advocated so strongly by the pragmatic camp – i.e. dealing with the Americans - the pragmatic camp will now lose its status,”and the loudspeakers of the enemies of the [Islamic] Revolution and the elements in [Iran] that collaborate with enemy scenarios will fall silent... Unity and cohesion in the nation will grow stronger and the rightness of the revolution [i.e. the ideological camp] will be proven to all."[2]

Shi'ite Iran's Existential Crisis In The Face Of The Sunni Threat

After steadily deteriorating since the U.S. handed the reins of power to the Shi'ites in Iraq after centuries of Sunni rule, Sunni-Shi'ite relations in this country reached a nadir under Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. Al-Maliki's regime, never fully recognized as legitimate by the major Sunni countries, chiefly Saudi Arabia, implemented a policy of marginalizing and suppressing Iraq's Sunni elements, some of which are subversive.

In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept the Sunni tribes and veteran subversive Sunni organizations in Iraq into a rebellion against the Shi'ite regime, taking wide swaths of Iraq; at the same time, the Kurds further cemented their control in their own areas in the north of Iraq.

This new reality of loss of Shi'ite control over the country has been accompanied by covert and overt moral support from the broader Sunni world – constituting a threat to the existence of the Shi'ite regimes in Iraq and Iran. These regimes' sole ally is the current U.S. administration, which for years has been striving for a breakthrough in relations with Iran, despite the lack of reciprocation on the part of Iran.

Because of the Sunni world's support for the Sunni struggle in Iraq, the Iranian regime now fears an open military conflict there. Such a conflict would constitute an all-out religious, military, and political confrontation with the Sunni world, which comprises 90 percent of the Muslim world. For this reason, in their statements about the Sunni threat in Iraq, Iranian officials have been careful not to explicitly threaten the Sunni world – even when the Shi'ite regime in Iraq lost much of the country to Sunnis and faced threats of attacks on Baghdad and the Shi'ite holy cities of Najaf and Kabala. Instead, Iranian officials have expressed an essentially defensive position. While Sunni spokesmen explicitly spoke of a Sunni-Shi’ite war, Iranian statements underlined commonalities shared by the two sects such as hatred of the U.S. and Zionism, and were rarely militaristic. Even in their militaristic statements, they have placed the responsibility for defeating the Sunnis on the Iraqi people. Rather than Iran. All this attests that the Iranian regime is well aware of the limitations of its strength.

The Sunni world, for its part, sees U.S.-Iran relations as an ongoing American move against it, and one that is aimed at tipping the religious, sectarian, cultural, and geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East in favor of the Shi'ite minority. In light of the escalation in the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in Iraq, this U.S. policy is seen by the Sunnis not only as political and diplomatic, but also as clear military intervention in favor of the Shi'ite minority against the Sunni majority (though, in practice, the U.S. has made military intervention conditional on the restoration of Sunni participation in the government).

Iranian Regime Directs Its Frustration Against Its Rivals At Home

As noted above, the Iranian regime has turned to dealing with the U.S. as its only hope for gaining regional nuclear hegemony over the Sunni world. However, having failed to achieve this goal, and having failed to obtain U.S. military assistance against ISIS,[3] the Iranian regime began focusing its frustration on domestic rivals. Indications of this that have emerged in recent days include:

a. A wave of arrests of pro-Rohani youths, as reported by the website Kaleme, which is close to supporters of protest movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi who has been under house arrest for the past two years.[4]

b. The arrest of regime critic Mehdi Khazali for insulting officials.[5]

c. The arrest of Rafsanjani associate Abdol Hossein Herati.[6]

d. The arrest of journalist Rihana Tabatabaei, for her to serve the remainder of her two-year prison sentence.[7]

e. The sentencing of academic and reformist Sadegh Zibakalam to 18 months in prison, for an article he wrote asking why the regime is investing in nuclear technology against opposition from the international community while Iran's economic continues to deteriorate.[8]

f. The issuing of a court summons to journalist and regime critic Shams Al-Vaezin.[9]

g. The arrest of attorney Hamid Mahdavi, an associate of pro-reform movement Ayatollah Bayat-Zanjani.[10]

h. The sentencing of Hassan Younesi, the son of a Rohani advisor, to six months on probation, for insulting judiciary head Amoli Larijani on Facebook.[11]

i. Summoning the ministers, of agriculture, energy and science to a Majlis impeachment vote over their poor performance.[12]

The Sunni World Responds

Because the U.S.'s position is perceived political, and perhaps even military, intervention in favor of the Shi'ite minority against the Sunni world, another wave of anti-American Sunni terrorism could break out. An indication that this is on the way can be seen in increasingly harsh criticism of U.S. policy in the Saudi media, criticism which is rooted in the general anti-American discourse in Saudi Arabia over the past year. This Saudi anti-American rhetoric reached its height in a June 23, 2014 article in the official Saudi daily Al-Riyadh warning that there could be another 9/11-style attack on U.S. soil because of the latter's Middle East policy.

* A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y.Carmon is the President of MEMRI.


[2] Statement by Mojtaba Zalnour, former deputy representative for Khamenei in the IRGC, who is affiliated with the ideological camp. Rasa News (Iran), May 24, 2014.

[3] Initially, the Iranians had hinted that they would be willing to cooperate with the Americans if the latter agreed to fight the Sunni groups – thus effectively becoming a proxy for Iran. However, once they realized that President Obama was demanding that the Shi’ites relinquish their favored status in IRaq and share the Iraqi administration with the Sunnis, Iran changed its position, announcing that it opposed American intervention in Iraq and a national unity government in Iraq. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1099, Iran's Dilemma: Cooperate With U.S. Against Sunnis In Iraq – Or Maintain Anti-U.S. Ideological Stance?, June 20, 2014.

[4] Kaleme (Iran), June 23, 2014.

[5] Etemaad (Iran), June 22, 2014.

[6] Etemaad (Iran), June 22, 2014.

[7] Etemaad (Iran), June 22, 2014.

[8] Etemaad (Iran), June 22, 2014.

[9] Etemaad (Iran), June 22, 2014.

[10] Saham News (Iran), June 22, 2014.

[11] Shargh Daily (Iran), June 23, 2014.

[12], June 25, 2014.

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