This article was published by on April 9, 2019.
On April 8, the Trump administration designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s elite military force, as a foreign terrorist organization. The reaction in Tehran was stern and swift. From Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who called the designation evidence of American “rancor” and helplessness against the IRGC, to members of the Iranian parliament who put on IRGC uniforms to show solidarity with the organization, the authorities in Iran have leaped to show unity in the face of a historic U.S. decision.
Even Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a man with a tense relationship with the IRGC, came to the corps’ defense. Zarif openly suggested that Iran should retaliate by declaring U.S. Central Command to be a terrorist entity, a decision that was announced by Tehran a few hours later.
But put aside the rhetorical solidarity for a moment, and it is clear that the Iranian regime is still divided. Zarif’s loud support for the IRGC comes just six weeks after his failed attempt to resign from the Rouhani government. The designation of the IRGC might put him in an even tougher spot. Indeed, the rest of Zarif’s tenure will be guided by two realities: His increasing frustration as a member of President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet and the inability of the various power centers within Iran to reach a consensus and pursue a single foreign policy. Iran is structurally split into networks of pressure groups that put narrow factional ambitions over the national interest. This condition is as old as the Islamic Republic. And the Rouhani administration’s puny efforts to protect his erstwhile allies from unelected rival branches of the regime only weaken an already fractured policymaking process.
Earlier this year, Zarif in protest of the fact that he had been kept in the dark about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran. Assad met Khamenei and the famed IRGC general Qassem Suleimani. But there was no sign of the foreign minister. Nor was Zarif asked to sit in on a meeting between Rouhani and Assad. The snub was a bridge too far. His absence from the two meetings, Zarif lamented, had damaged his credibility as Iran’s top diplomat. “My office is five minutes away from the presidential palace.”
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