Iran’s hard-liners are on a relentless path to gain unrivaled political control. Their victory during the February 2020 parliamentary elections was a crucial step along this road.
If, as is widely expected, they win the presidency in May 2021, their already strong partnership with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will put them in a good position to influence the crucial struggle to choose his successor. In short, it might be said that the hard-liners are currently enjoying a most advantageous position.
Yet their escalating power grab is also fraught with dire risks. Their efforts could, in fact, enfeeble the very institutional mechanisms that the regime needs to gain—or regain—support in key constituencies. On the regional front, Iran may have thus far avoided getting dragged into a regional war with the United States and/or Israel.
But their policy of “controlled escalation” has not immunized Tehran from suffering retaliation from its enemies. Indeed, the July 2nd fire in the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant illuminates these perils after Iranian leaders admitted that the incident was not an accident.
If it gives them pause, the Natanz affair will probably steel their resolve not only to consolidate their power but to transform the very nature of Iran’s political system. Their challenge is to ensure that the costs will not exceed the benefits the hard-liners hope to reap as they advance this ambitious project to reconfigure Iranian politics.
The trap of securitization
In many respects, this power grab goes against the grain of the multidimensional control system that Iran’s leaders have astutely used to prevent any opposition from posing a major threat to the regime.
That system was buttressed by a massive security apparatus headed up by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its offshoots. Iran’s rulers preferred to rely on myriad institutions including the parliament, president, and Office of the Supreme Leader in order to channel and arbitrate political and social conflicts.
Recourse to massive repression was usually a last resort, one that was deployed when these institutions proved incapable of containing or deflecting dissent. Brute force like that used against demonstrators last year was not a sign of the regime’s success but rather of its weakness.
A transition to a “securitized” regime would deprive the IRGC (and the supreme leader) of the political shield it gains from a system that has allowed some measure of real debate and controlled competition.