Iran's trailblazing new president, Hassan Rouhani (right), has locked horns with the powerful Revolutionary Guard as he struggles to achieve detente with the US and hopefully end 35 years of armed confrontation with "the Great Satan". It may be his most crucial battle.
Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, faces a crucial year that could produce a historic detente between the Islamic Republic and "the Great Satan" to end 35 years of fierce confrontation and dramatically alter the Middle East's geopolitical landscape.
But the urbane, soft-spoken cleric's biggest challenge is likely to be his efforts to win over the pampered and elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the hard-line military force created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1980 to protect the newborn fundamentalist regime and which now wields immense economic as well as political power in Iran.
Witness the storm of protest from IRGC chiefs when Rouhani's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the urbane statesman who negotiated the ground-breaking interim agreement on Iran's nuclear programme with the United States and its allies in November, observed that Iran should take the military threat posed by the US seriously as it has little fear of Tehran's military defences--heresy to the Revolutionary Guard and their hard-line allies.
Stressing that diplomacy rather than military confrontation will benefit Iran, Zarif declared: "Do you think the US, which can destroy all our military systems with one bomb, is scared of our military system?"
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Jaafari, the IRGC's overall commander who answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Zarif--and therefore Rouhani--of betraying the Islamic Republic and being "infected by western doctrine".
The exchange underlined how far Rouhani has moved since his landslide victory in presidential polls on 15 June 2013, when he pledged to move Iran forward into a new era, and the extent of the struggle he now faces from the IRGC and other hard-liners bitterly opposed to change.
The 125,000-strong IRGC is the most powerful military force in Iran, and Rouhani, a longtime insider who knows his way around Tehran's opaque power labyrinth, has been careful not to provoke the Guards --or Khamenei, their master--too far, as did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani's messianic predecessor who fell because he challenged Khamenei's authority.
Even so, Rouhani openly called on the Guards to stay out of politics, using Khomeini's own stricture that they should not be politicised. "The IRGC is above and beyond political currents, not beside them or within them," Rouhani told Guard commanders on 16 September 2013. "The IRGC has a higher status, which is that of the whole nation."
Rouhani, who has operated within the military and security apparatus since .the early days of the Islamic Republic, has also taken action that clearly demonstrate how he plans to clip the Revolutionary Guards' wings....