Insight: Nuclear deal heightens tension between Iran president and Guards
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani takes questions from journalists past a bouquet of flowers at a news conference in New York
By Babak Dehghanpisheh
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The article on Iran's semi-official Fars news agency appeared routine: the minister of roads and urban development said the ministry does not have a contract with construction firm Khatam al Anbia to complete a major highway heading north from Tehran.
Two things made it stand out: Khatam al Anbia is one of the biggest companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and company head Ebadollah Abdullahi had said just three days earlier that it did have the contract.
The December report was one of a series of signs that President Hassan Rouhani, who came into office last August, is using the political momentum from a thaw with the West over its nuclear program to roll back the Guard's economic influence.
Existing government contracts with the Guards have been challenged by ministers and some, like the highway contract, that were left in limbo when Rouhani succeeded the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been rebuffed.
Senior commanders in the Guards, established 35 years ago this week to defend the clerical religious system that replaced the Western-backed Shah, have criticized the nuclear talks but been more muted over the curbs on their economic interests.
Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in December that Ahmadinejad's government had insisted the Guards get involved in the economy.
"But we have told Mr. Rouhani that if he feels the private sector can fulfill these projects, the Guards are ready to pull aside and even cancel its contracts," he said, according to the Iranian Students' News Agency.
In the same speech, Jafari lashed out at the nuclear negotiations, saying Iran had lost much and gained little and took aim more directly at Rouhani. "The most important arena of threat against the Islamic revolution - and the Guards have a duty to protect the gains of the revolution- is in the political arena. And the Guards can't remain silent in the face of that," Fars quoted him as saying.
Mohsen Sazegara, one of the founding members of the Guards who now lives in the United States, said that was no surprise. "It was predictable that the Guards would have a cold and harsh response," he said.
"It's because they see themselves as running things. And more importantly they're not happy that their hands have been cut out of some oil, energy and road projects. And they've shown this displeasure in a number of ways."
IDEOLOGY UNDER THREAT
The interim nuclear deal agreed with the West in November threatens the ideological basis of the power of the Guards, set up to counterbalance the military and protect the 1979 Islamic revolution from external and internal interference.
The nuclear program, which Guard commanders call a source of national pride, is being curbed in return for sanctions relief and a diplomatic thaw with the country the Guards have long said is their biggest enemy, the United States.
Despite the criticism from the top, the Guards are not a monolithic organization and there are elements within it which have reacted more pragmatically. At least one senior commander has spoken publicly in support of the nuclear deal.
For now, backing for the nuclear talks from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest power in the country which the Guards, at least in public, must defer to, has kept the hardline elements within their ranks in check.