Gilsinan: Rouhani and his allies are considered moderate in the United States because of their stance toward the United States, right?
Sadjadpour: There’s often but not always a correlation between moderate foreign-policy views and moderate domestic-policy views. One way to think about the distinction between principlists and pragmatists in Iran is the philosophical debate among U.S. Supreme Court justices. Late Justice [Antonin] Scalia believed in an originalist or textualist interpretation of the Constitution, while liberal justices like [Stephen] Breyer see the constitution as more of a living document that must evolve with the times.
Khamenei and Rouhani have philosophical differences about how to best sustain the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khamenei and the hardliners want to maintain the original principles of the Islamic Republic, whether that means Islamic mores [at] home or a resistance foreign policy abroad. Rouhani and the moderates believe that policies Iran adopted in 1979—such as “Death to America”—don’t necessarily serve the country’s interests in 2016.
The battle between these two camps is just getting started and could take years if not decades to resolve.
Gilsinan: I want to stick with the American analogy. If you disqualified all the Democrats, and then voters, however far left or right they were, were left choosing between Cruz and Trump, it would change what a “moderate” looked like in that context. Is the range really that narrow in Iran?
Sadjadpour: Trying to analogize Iranian politics to American politics is always thorny. Winston Churchill said about Russia that it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a limited democracy, wrapped in a military autocracy, inside a theocracy. The supreme leader and Revolutionary Guards have consistently outmuscled the country’s semi-elected institutions, partly by strictly controlling who can get elected to these institutions.
Imagine if America was ruled for life by a Supreme Christian leader, always male, who was firmly backed by the U.S. military, Supreme Court, and American media, and presidential and congressional elections were only open to carefully vetted candidates who vowed not to challenge this framework.
There is no doubt that there are fierce factional battles in Iran, and real differences of opinion among Iranian politicians. These distinctions can make a limited difference in people’s everyday lives, and may prove important in choosing the next supreme leader.
But from a macro perspective the same man has been supreme leader for the last 27 years, and Iran’s longtime revolutionary principles—such as opposition to the U.S., the rejection of Israel’s existence, and the mandatory veiling of women—haven’t changed for 37 years.
Noam Chomsky once wrote that “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” He was ostensibly describing the U.S., but it aptly captures the domestic politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I know many observers of Iran would argue that Iran is actually much more tolerant and democratic than I’m describing. Yet many of these folks have not set foot in Iran in years for fear of being imprisoned.