Iran has returned to nuclear negotiations with the international powers in Vienna today, after many months of hard work. But does the West really know who it’s negotiating with?
Under Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line Islamist cleric, the West will face Iran for the first time in negotiations regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Javad Zarif is gone. He was a soft-spoken and smiling former Iranian foreign ministry. All the policies within the Islamic Republic were and remain determined by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Al Khamenei. But Zarif’s charm offensive made dealing with Khamenei’s regime more palatable for Western diplomats, at least optically.
The new hard-line face of Iran’s nuclear negotiations is Ali Bagheri-Kani, a deputy foreign minister who will adopt a new approach, have different priorities, and present a new set of challenges. U.S. and European diplomats are aware of this — but what they may not realize is that Bagheri-Kani represents a systemic change well under way in the clerical regime, whose consequences should alarm the West.
Raisi was groomed to become president to “purify” the Islamic Republic. Khamenei’s inner circle believes that the final stage in the Islamic Revolution is purification. This will allow Iran to create an ideal Islamic state. Purifying the state includes further deepening the Islamization of society and improving administrative efficiency, while ending rife mismanagement and Iran’s consequent economic woes which they blame on Western-oriented bureaucrats running the state.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change’s new report reveals for the very first time that Raisi is shifting the power balance in the Islamic Republic for only the second time in 42 years. He wants to purge the entire system. A select group of technocrats have emerged to be the power base within the clerical regime. These technocrats are from the same hardline university and are dedicated to running the government to ideological ends. This is a challenge that the West has never faced before.
A school for the new elite
This emerging cohort of “ideological technocrats,” which includes Bagheri-Kani, have one important affiliation in common: the Imam Sadegh University (ISU), an elite institution designed to indoctrinate the next generation of Iranian bureaucrats.
ISU is exclusive and a cult-like organization that is reserved only for those who support the most extreme regimes. It was founded in 1982 by hardline religious clerics under the leadership of Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani. Their goal was to merge the hawza (Shia seminary) with the modern university to nurture officials capable of running an Islamist state — think hardline clerics in suits.
To achieve this, they put compulsory religious-ideological training akin to indoctrination at the center of every programme at ISU. Applicants are screened rigorously to preserve the purity of the establishment; ISU even inspects interviewees’ homes for signs of non-Islamic and anti-regime influences. Once the candidate has passed these tests, they are allowed to enroll at ISU. They enforce strict gender segregation in all areas and discourage students from engaging with other ISU citizens.
Students are encouraged to be a bit extreme and peer pressure is encouraged. In the resulting cult-like atmosphere, most students consider themselves children of the late ISU founder Mahdavi Kani, referring to him as “father”.
Since Raisi’s arrival, the alumni of the university, known as Imam SadeghisBagheri Karani and other state officials have taken key roles in the management of ministries and bureaucracy. Ehsan Khundoozi is the economics minister, and Hojatollah Abolmaleki is the minister of social welfare and labour. Peyman Jebelli heads Iranian state broadcasting.
Continue reading: ‘They’re Very Close.’ U.S. General Says Iran Is Nearly Able to Build a Nuclear Weapon
The Imam Sadeghis represent a new, elite social class in Raisi’s Iran. For decades, technocrats were mistrusted by Iran’s ruling clergy which, since the Islamic Revolution, perceived them to be too close to the West. Abroad, they were seen as the “pragmatic” and “non-ideological” branch of the regime, as opposed to the ideologues in uniform who staff the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC).
However, the rise of the Imam SadeghisAll that has changed is Hassan Rouhani. After 2013, when the so-called ‘reformist’ Hassan Rouhani became president, the hardline technocrats were embraced by the clerical class as a bulwark against creeping modernisation and secularization of Iranian society — just as the IRGC had been a decade earlier, allowing them to consolidate elite status in the political arena.
The ranks of technocrats are now clean, and new ones have begun to emerge Imam Sadeghi elite have joined the radical clergy and the Revolutionary Guards as the third part of the alliance at the heart of Raisi’s government. This shift represents the final stage of Khamenei’s total consolidation of power. The Islamic Republic’s pillars are all now indoctrinated, and they can carry out the next phase of revolution.
What Iran’s new technocrats mean for the state, and the world
The rise of Iran’s ideological technocrats has significant implications for the regime domestically and externally.
Domestically, state bureaucrats will now prioritise grand ideological objectives—namely the creation of Khamenei’s ideal Islamic society—over the needs of the Iranian population, resulting in the further neglect and deterioration of their social and economic well-being, as well as more suppression. Seyed Mohammad Hosseini, an Imam Sadeghi who serves as Raisi’s deputy to the Iranian parliament, declared plans just last week to elevate the role hardline Islamist women can play in the regime’s “cultural jihad” to help eradicate Western and non-Islamic influences from Iranian society.
The new alliance between the hardline clergy, the Revolutionary Guards and the technocrats will also have significant implications beyond Iran’s borders. Iran’s ministries will grant more bureaucratic support, both in terms of money and manpower, to the Guard’s external ambitions. This will further blur the line between diplomatic and military domains.
Already, this new ideology synergy is emerging between Iran’s most powerful organizations. Meysam Letifi is the Imam Sadeghi in charge of public sector recruitment, recently echoed the worldview driving the IRGC’s expansionist Islamist policies abroad when he stated that he rejects the concept of the nation-state as “Western” and instead bases governance on the Shia Islamist model of governance (“the Imam and Ummah” ) that legitimizes exporting the Islamic Revolution to neighbouring Muslim nations.
There are clear risks facing the West. Any money allocated to the regime through sanctions relief via a U.S. re-entry into the 2015 nuclear deal is more likely than ever to advance the regime’s repressive ideological objectives at home and destabilizing expansion abroad. It will also increase the costs of any nuke deal, making an acceptable outcome more unlikely.