Who speaks for Iran?
From the day the mullahs seized power in Tehran the question has been debated by politicians, diplomats and analysts across the globe. The reason is that listening to different voices within the Iranian ruling elite one has always heard ambiguous, at times sharply contradictory, accounts of almost any event.
“Part of the ambiguity is inspired by the tradition of taqiyah or dissimulation,” says Hassan Khayyami, an Iranian analyst. “The idea is never to allow anyone to know exactly what you think or what you intend to do. Keeping people guessing about your next move is important.”
However, not all of the ambiguity here is due to the tradition of dissimulation. Another reason may be Iran’s failure to develop proper institutions with clearly demarcated areas of responsibility. The result could be discordant voices even at the highest levels of decision-making in Tehran.
Three recent examples of this discordance include Tehran’s assessment of the latest developments in Syria and Iraq with particular reference to the loss of territory by ISIS.
Early in the week General Qassem Soleimani who commands the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps and is thus in charge of “exporting the Islamic Revolution” wrote a sentimental letter to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, congratulating him on “the end of ISIS”.
Khamenei appropriated the compliment and wrote back to claim that it was “Iran’s jihadi youths” led by General Soleimani who had “finished off” ISIS.
A day later, President Hassan Rouhani injected a note of caution into that assessment. Speaking to reporters on his way to Sochi, Russia, he said “ISIS isn’t finished, only its pillars have been shaken.”
On Thursday, Rouhani’s analysis was echoed by the Commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps General Muhamad-Ali Aziz-Jaafari. At a press conference in Tehran, the general said ISIS remained “a threat to Muslim nations.”
“What could be announced isn’t the complete, hundred per cent destruction of ISIS,” he said. “What (has happened) is the destruction of ISIS control over territory. Loss of territory and complete destruction of ISIS are two different issues.”
Unlike Khamenei and Soleimani, neither Rouhani nor Aziz-Jaafari claimed that Iran had played the leading role in fighting ISIS.
Things became more complicated when Iran’s new Minister of Defense General Amir Hatami addressed a Tehran seminar on Iranian “martyrs” of the war in Syria.
Just before the seminar, a list of 401 Iranian officers “martyred” in Syria was circulated. Interestingly, “the places of martyrdom” mentioned on the list did not include a single location anywhere close to areas controlled by ISIS. This made it clear that Iranians had never fought ISIS in Syria and had died battling non-ISIS armed groups fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime. In other words, Tehran could not claim any credit for the expulsion of ISIS from Raqqa and other territories it controlled.
The second issue that revealed discordance in Tehran’s official narrative concerns Iran’s role in the current war in Yemen.
Earlier this month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed-Javad Zarif assured his counterparts in the European Union that Iran did not have “a single military personnel in Yemen.” He also offered “assurances” that the missile fired by the Houthis on the Saudi capital Riyadh had not originated in Iran.
Zarif’s “assurances” were taken up by EU’s foreign policy spokeswoman Federica Mogherini who was touring European capitals and Washington to advocate “Iran’s constructive role” and the need for protecting the nuclear deal that former US President Barack Obama had made with Tehran.
However, on Thursday General Aziz-Jaafari told a press conference in Tehran that Iran did, indeed, have military personnel in Yemen. But he claimed the Iranian military in Yemen were there only as “advisers and consultants” to the Houthis and their armed branch known as Ansar-Allah.
One should recall that in Syria, too, Iran had taken a long time before admitting it had any military presence, starting with the claim that they were “only advisers.”
The general also speculated that the missiles used by Houthis “may have been in Yemen before the current war started.” In other words, Iran may have provided the missiles but not after the start of the Yemeni war.
According to some sources, not independently confirmed, Iran may have sustained some casualties in the current fight over the Yemeni city of Taez and was consequently compelled to admit it had some personnel in Yemen.
The third, and potentially more important, example of discord concerns Iran’s controversial missile program.
When US President Donald Trump raised the issue, Khamenei’s reaction was total defiance. In a message to the Iranian military he ordered them to “expand and intensify the missile project and develop missiles of longer and longer range.”
A few days later, on October 31, however, General Aziz-Jaafari told a seminar in Tehran that Iran had in effect frozen its missile program. This was exactly what Trump, backed by French President Emmanuel macron, had demanded.
“The range of our missiles remains limited,” he said. “What we have at the moment is quite enough (for the time being).”
On November 8, Heshmat-Allah Falahat-Pisheh, member of the parliament’s National Security Commission went even further by claiming that Khamenei himself had ordered a freeze of Iran’s missile ranges in 2011.
However, just days later, General Amir Haji-Zadeh, the man who heads Iran’s missile program boasted that Iran had increased its missile range from 2,000 to 2,500 kilometers by developing a new generation of Shahab copied from the North Korean Rodogn1 missile.
Different voices within Iranian leadership say the Islamic Republic is doing different things on key issues. But whatever they do, many still believe they are up to no good.