Having failed to shape the society to its liking, can the Islamic Republic adapt to a society that is increasingly demanding separation between religion and state?
Interagency rivalry is a well-known phenomenon in democracies, but it is much more prevalent in authoritarian regimes, particularly those with parallel institutions with overlapping fields of responsibility. In Iran, for example, the Foreign Ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of Iran’s armed forces, compete to shape foreign and security policy and utilize Iran’s foreign proxies. Jamaran News, which is run by the descendants of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and is politically aligned with former Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, recently republished several of its articles from 2020 and 2021 aimed at reconciling the Foreign Ministry and the Quds Force. While unlikely to solve Iran’s interagency rivalry, the articles provide important insights into the manner of cooperation between the institutions in charge of Iran’s proxy wars.
- February 9, 2020: Mohammad Sadr, who served as the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa director from 1997-2004, in an interview with Jamaran News, discussed the relationship between Khatami’s Cabinet and then-Quds Force chief Major General Qassim Suleimani:
- Referencing himself and Suleimani, Sadr said, “We cooperated for seven years. I was director of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East and North Africa Directorate, and we held weekly Middle East meetings, which for the most part centered around the issues of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and that part of the region. Commander Suleimani was present at the meetings, and we used to cooperate. That means there was total coordination between the Foreign Ministry and the Quds Force. Diplomatic moves were discussed. Of course, we were doing this, and then we would decide together what kind of help we were extending to Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Islamic groups … Back then, I would visit Syria to meet the secretary generals of these groups. My cooperation with Commander Suleimani was very successful … and there were no conflicts of opinion between the Foreign Ministry and Commander Suleimani. This was because the main decisions were made in the Supreme National Security Council, where we were both present. Besides, during the tenure of President Khatami, the president told us that all financial aid to groups in the region had to be approved by me. So, we had all the means at our disposal, and doubtlessly Commander Suleimani and I had very good cooperation with each other … Just to mention an example, when my tenure came to an end in the Foreign Ministry and Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president, Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah,” the leader of Hezbollah, “in his first meeting with him said: ‘The aid we received during the eight years of the reformist Cabinet was the highest amount ever received by us, and most of our needs were covered at that time.’”
- Discussing the Foreign Ministry and the Quds Force, Sadr said, “These two institutions are two wings of the same bird … Those who claim there was no coordination between the two institutions are badmouthing the reformist Cabinet. The reality is that there were weekly coordination meetings, the issues were raised in the Supreme National Security Council, and everything was supervised by the supreme leader. There is absolutely no conflict between the two.” When asked about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s February 2019 visit to Tehran, which was organized by the Quds Force without the knowledge of the Foreign Ministry and then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Sadr said: “That was accidental! The visit had a security dimension, and mistakes may happen. After all, nobody is infallible, but that issue was not so important. But of course, it would have been better if Mr. Zarif had been informed.”
- January 1, 2021: Eshaq Jahangiri, who served as vice president of Iran from 2013-21, discussed his relationship with Suleimani in an interview with Jamaran News:
- “From 2013 onward,” after the election of Rouhani as president, Suleimani “was trying to engage in a dialogue with me so the relationship between the Cabinet and the guard would reach a desirable level … There was a feeling that there was a conflict, and we had to engage in an effort to reach agreements. His own relationship with the president was very good. He was sincere with Mr. Rouhani and engaged in conversations with him at official and unofficial meetings. But he was more at ease with me … In domestic matters, he believed we had to expand the ring of supporters of the revolution … Perhaps it was because of his experiences in the atomized Iraqi society … How could he prescribe unity in Iraq but not try to unify the people within Iran?”
- “Recently, I had a lengthy discussion with Suleimani concerning certain individuals, particularly Mr. Khatami. I asked him how long we could continue this situation and whether it served the interests of the state,” referring to the political ostracization of Khatami. “He was interested in helping to solve the issue … and he talked with the supreme leader.”
- In a rare reference to the conflict between the Intelligence Ministry and the Quds Force, Jahangiri disclosed: “At a meeting with a brother from the security services, the gentleman said to Commander Suleimani: ‘You have done this, you have done that.’ Haj Qassim said: ‘It is of no use talking about the past. Let us see what we can do in the future.’ Commander Suleimani was committed to certain principles that were important and I recognized.”
- Discussing Suleimani’s role in circumventing the sanctions regime imposed by the United States, Jahangiri revealed: “There was a meeting in the presence of the supreme leader. I was not there, but Mr. President as well as Commander Suleimani told me about it. A friend had claimed that he could bypass the sanctions regime and sell Iran’s oil in the international market. Commander Suleimani, who was a real doer … responded: ‘You talk big, but you can’t sell a single barrel of oil. The Oil Ministry is the only institution capable of doing such a thing!’ But Commander Suleimani would help in all regards, be it circumventing sanctions when exporting or importing products … The Supreme National Security Council established the Headquarters for Countering Sanctions, which also existed under Mr. Ahmadinejad. Back then, it was called the Special Initiatives Headquarters … We managed coordination among different bureaucracies, the banking sector, and the like to circumvent sanctions. They were imposing sanctions on us to prevent us from selling our oil, and we were planning how to sell oil. They sanctioned our shipping companies, so they could not enter port facilities, and we were working on how to arrange for continued shipping to secure exports and imports. It was this headquarters that issued permits to state organs to engage in activities.”
is a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is the author of Political Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Demise of the Clergy and the Rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (2020).
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