Is the leadership in Iran trying to change course or are we witnessing a new tactic?
The signals coming from Tehran make both assumptions plausible. To begin with, the official discourse has shown a certain degree of moderation.
In his special message for the Iranian New Year (Nowruz) last Tuesday, for example, “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei abandoned his usual themes of “wiping Israel off the map”, “rubbing America’s nose in the dust” and leading the “Resistance Front” to victory. Nor did he repeat the usual claims that the Islamic Republic was benefiting from foreign sanctions and that its achievements had aroused “the jealousy of big powers.” Instead, he designated the coming year as “The Year of Curbing Inflation” and implicitly admitted that Iran remains a poverty-stricken country.
“We are not the only country hit by inflation and difficulties of life,” he said. “Even the rich and advanced nations now face difficulties of their own.”
He also denied that the Islamic Republic was siding with Russia in the Ukraine war, calling the claim “an utter lie.”
Khamenei’s new tone has been echoed by messages from and speeches by the ayatollah’s senior aides, including President Ebrahim Raisi, Islamic Majlis Speaker Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, and a roster of regime ayatollahs and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals.
At the same time, over 8,000 out of an estimated 20,000 recent protesters have been pardoned, ostensibly to mark the new year.
Perhaps a more interesting sign has come with the purges carried among security forces with some of the more hardline officers moved aside or sent into early retirement.
The diplomatic corps is also undergoing a silent purge, with at least 30 ambassadors replaced and the nominal foreign minister, the hardliner Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, shut out of key dossiers such as normalization with Saudi Arabia, concluding a new security accord with Iraq, and negotiating a timetable for the withdrawal of Iranian troops from Syria. Instead, Khamenei has recalled figures long associated with the rival faction once headed by the late Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It was Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a former defense minister and current secretary of the High Council of National Security, who was sent to Beijing to conclude a deal aimed at restoring diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.
The same Shamkhani has also taken over the dossier of relations with Iraq and launched a normalization process with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, while Kamal Kharrzi and Abbas Araqchi, two diplomats who served under Rafsanjani and President Muhammad Khatami are given the even tougher task of disengaging Iran from the Syrian quagmire without endangering Bashar al-Assad’s position in parts of the country under his nominal control.
All these moves on the diplomatic chessboard indicate a sidelining of the Quds Force, which under the late General Qassem Soleimani had exclusive control over Iran’s policy in what Tehran likes to call “West Asia” instead of the Middle East.
Khamenei has always harbored a deep suspicion of Islamic Republic’s professional diplomats, believing that, being foreign-educated, most of them were seduced by the West and did not share his dream of creating “the New Islamic Civilization” as an alternative model for mankind.
Some career diplomats fanned the fires of that suspicion in a number of ways. For example, in a number of op-eds he wrote for US newspapers, former Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif designated himself as “Iran Foreign Minister” making no mention of the Islamic Republic, let alone paying homage to Khamenei or the regime’s founder “Imam” Khomeini.
Tehran’s recently retired Ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, followed the same style. In his farewell message, he said he had worked to “serve the interests of the Iranian nation,” making no mention of the Islamic Republic or Khamenei.
According to a study by Mahin Nava’i, over 100 Islamic Republic diplomats have at the end of their official terms or after retirement either remained in the countries of their posting or kept their families there. Though only a handful defected to join the opposition, many bought property in Europe, Britain, the US, and, above all, Canada.
No one could assert this as fact, but some analysts believe that Khamenei had also grown wary of Gen. Soleimani’s increasing tendency to run his “West Asia” fiefdom as he pleased with a dwindling intellectual input from Khamenei’s household.
The ayatollah’s decision to tighten his personal control over key foreign policy dossiers may have been partly prompted by the past six months of nationwide protests that he believes were sustained by unprecedented support from Western powers and their allies in “West Asia.” Thus, offering a less hostile profile in foreign relations could help to dishearten the protestors.
At the same time, the “Supreme Guide” is trying to reinterpret the protests as a symptom of economic discontent; a theme he emphasized in his New Year message. In that vein, he forgot his shibboleth of “resistance economics” and called for “investment and production,” goals that cannot be achieved without distancing Iran from the “lone wolf” strategy it has pursued since 2005.
This is why Tehran now seems keen to revive the stalled “nuclear talks” amid unconfirmed reports of contacts between the Biden administration and Tehran’s man at the UN, Saeed Iravani.
If there is indeed a change of course, the most important part of the scheme is the prospect of normalization with Saudi Arabia.
It was the Rafsanjani team, including his favorite son Mehdi, who first broke the ice with the Saudis in 1995. That was followed by the signing of a security accord and an agreement on trade and economic cooperation. The first major Saudi investment in the Islamic Republic came in 1996, when a Saudi company bought Iran’s largest producer of vegetable oil.
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz visited Tehran in 1997 with pomp and ceremony amid high hopes for closer ties.
The Saudis helped persuade the Islamic nations to let Iran host the Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit in 1997. Ignoring his hostile rhetoric, in 2007 the Saudis even invited President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, an arch-foe of Rafsanjani, to visit the kingdom in the forlorn hope of keeping the newly brokered deals on track. Soon, however, it became clear that, flush with massive oil revenues due to high prices and rising exports, the Tehran leadership was reverting to its dream of hegemony in “West Asia.”
Are we heading for a Deja-vu of the Deja-vu? Only time will tell.