The Khamenei loyalists’ religious faction, which includes the Iranian elite Revolutionary Guards in its ranks, won a big victory in last week’s Iranian parliamentary elections over incumbent President Mahmud Ahmedinejad’s party, taking 75 percent of Iran’s 290 parliamentary seats.
Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman last week, Hasan Kanbolat, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara, claimed that the election results represented the Iranian regime’s success after long-standing efforts to prepare the public for war. “The Iranian regime’s defiant discourse against the West and Israel, which aim to deter Iran from developing its nuclear program, has prepared Iranians for a battle. Iranians have chosen those who would respond in the harshest manner to intimidation by the West,” stated Kanbolat.
Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is known for his confrontational stance towards the West, particularly over Iran’s nuclear program, which is accepted as being developed for peaceful purposes by the Iranian people. The elite Revolutionary Guard, which is under the command of the supreme leader and loyal to him, made harsh statements over outside criticism of Iran’s nuclear program.
In parallel remarks to Kanbolat, Celalettin Yavuz, deputy head of the Ankara-based Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (TÜRKSAM), asserted that the much-speculated US and Israeli threat to Iran plays into the hands of hard-liners in Iran. Yavuz proposed that the Iranian people had been united under religious hard-liners -- who have a more extremist tone in addressing the West compared to those who are currently in power -- in the face of escalating threats to the country, explaining the recent victory of Khamenei’s followers in gaining seats in the March 2 elections.
“The more the US and Israel threaten Iran, the more Iranians will give support to extremists,” Yavuz noted. Both Iran’s threats to close the Hormuz Strait -- through which one-third of the world’s seaborne oil is transported -- following the expansion of US and EU sanctions against the country’s oil trade, and to attack the NATO missile shield system came from the Revolutionary Guard. Although they are conservative and maintain an anti-Western tone to a great extent, current top government officials like Ahmedinejad and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi have been rather cautious of expressing such threats openly.
On the eve of 2012, the deputy commander of this elite military force, Hossein Salami, and Iran’s navy chief Habibollah Sayyari announced Iran’s threats to close Hormuz, saying that carrying out the operation would be a cakewalk for Iran. Similarly, another senior commander, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, mentioned a likely attack on defense shield installations in Turkey, implemented as part of NATO’s early warning radar system last November.
Salehi has several times reiterated his belief that these “feckless remarks” targeting Turkey were not related to Iranian foreign policy and asks Turkey to disregard statements unless they are released by top government officials.
Although the makeup of the Iranian parliament has changed, and it seems unlikely that anyone from Ahmedinejad’s faction will be elected in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, Yavuz said there would be no breakthrough in Iranian foreign policy orientation. Rather, he emphasized that the supreme leader always has had the last word in foreign policy decisions in Iran but added that his views will now be expressed in more explicit terms as a result of loyalists gaining a parliamentary majority. Some analysts depicted the elections as being undemocratic due to the lack of representation of reformist candidates. However, high turnouts – 64 percent, even higher than the 50 percent recorded in the 2009 election, in which reformists were able to stand – may also be proof of the Iranian people’s trust in the democratic process. Reformist leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have been under house arrest for more than a year, so were unable to participate in the recent elections.
The political rift between Khamenei and Ahmedinejad started in 2011, when Ahmedinejad attempted to supersede Khamenei in Iran’s political hierarchy, in which the supreme leader holds ultimate authority. Before the dispute, the two leaders were in complete political alliance. Ahmedinejad managed to maintain his position as president for a second time in 2009 with the help of Khamenei, by commanding the Revolutionary Guards to muzzle those in the opposition claiming the presidential elections were rigged.
Iran: Turkey’s rival or partner?
While the Arab Spring revolutions and uprisings were sweeping through the region, both Turkey and Iran tried to consolidate their positions in the face of new regimes and political currents and to broaden their influence in the Middle East. Similar political aspirations in the region have brought the two countries to the point of a covert but fast-moving rivalry, particularly in terms of Syria and Iran.
Kanbolat and Yavuz both estimated that the rivalry between the two would continue in the post-Ahmedinejad period, saying that Iran would continue to challenge Turkey’s position in the region.
Meanwhile, Yaşar Hacısalihoğlu, a professor in the international relations department of İstanbul’s Yeni Yüzyıl University, claimed that Iran has come to realize the interdependent nature of its relationship with Turkey, as it heads towards becoming a fully isolated country under the pressure of wide-ranging US-EU economic sanctions on its oil trade as a result of the disagreement over its continued nuclear program.
“To act at the expense of Turkey in the Middle East would be to Iran’s disadvantage. Iran needs Turkey’s partnership as a mediator with the West,” said Hacısalihoğlu. He claimed that an even more staunchly anti-Western stance of a post-Ahmedinejad administration would not prevent them from seeking diplomatic ways to avert threats to its nuclear program, as Iran does not dare to confront Turkey over regional issues due to its vulnerability in the face of such a threat.
Worried about the risk of revolutions springing up within its own territory, Iran wishes to preserve the status quo by unconditionally backing President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule in Syria, where Turkey is repeatedly calling on him to step down in line with the choice of the Syrian people.
Furthermore, Iran is encouraging Shiite political groups to monopolize power in Iraq, in line with its aim to create a sectarian alliance, while Turkey dismisses sectarian differences in its approach to the Middle East.