The election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has created hope for a less belligerent Islamic Republic that will end Tehran's nuclear intransigence and the brutal repression of Iran's long-suffering people. To some, Mr. Rouhani is a "moderate" who should be lauded for his pragmatism as a former nuclear negotiator and for bringing a more temperate tone to the presidency after the bellicosity of his predecessor. To others, he is a "regime loyalist" and a "master of nuclear deception," consistently mendacious in negotiating over nukes, and cold-blooded in his full-throttle support for Tehran's involvement in Syria's killing fields.
His supporters and detractors agree on this: Mr. Rouhani inherited an economic mess that will worsen unless he cuts a nuclear deal with Western powers to lift sanctions and see Iran reintegrated into global energy and financial markets.
To achieve this, Mr. Rouhani needs to check the influence of Iran's clerical-military revolutionary elite without upsetting the interfactional balance of power between Iran's supreme leader, the clerics, the business community, and Iran's competing security forces. The challenge is that these security forces – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its Basij paramilitary group, and the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MOIS) – are adept at politically emasculating independent-minded Iranian presidents and punishing any politically reform-minded Iranian.
Consider that the first large-scale, anti-regime demonstrations in the history of the Islamic Republic took place two years after the 1997 election of another independent-minded president, Mohammad Khatami. His shocking landslide victory unleashed demands for political reform from Iran's student movement.
The reaction was swift and harsh: As Mr. Khatami launched his "dialogue among civilizations" with the West, the IRGC, Basij, and MOIS engaged in a different civilizational dialogue by throwing protesting students from the roof of a Tehran University dormitory. At the time, as head of Iran's powerful Supreme National Security Council, Mr. Rouhani praised the crackdown.
In the aftermath of the fraudulent June 12, 2009 presidential election, as the Iranian public took to the streets chanting the slogan "where is my vote," security forces brutally suppressed Iran's pro-democracy Green Movement, and found, tortured, and murdered "saboteurs," "foreign agents," and "velvet revolutionaries."
The enmity between state and society had reached new heights. As a result, during the 2013 presidential election, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took no chances. Keen to avoid similar uprisings, Mr. Khamenei severely restricted the choice of candidates. Though the security services were again on the streets of Iran's major cities, they had little to fear: Mr. Rouhani's surprise election was widely celebrated.
With Mr. Rouhani's victory, expectations are once again soaring that the new Iranian president will bring relief from despotic rule and a sinking economy. However, IRGC and MOIS hardliners will be there to crush any signs of political dissent should he fail.
Hassan Rouhani himself understands how unchecked security services can thwart the policies of an independent-minded leader. In 1979, a majority of the students who seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran were either IRGC members or future recruits. Following the hostage taking, the moderate Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan's cabinet resigned and hardliners consolidated their rule.
In the 1980s, Iranian President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani worked to release American hostages in Lebanon; the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah, fearing a loss of power, took more hostages. In 2000, opposed to Mr. Khatami's softening towards the U.S., the MOIS – with help from the hardline judiciary – convicted ten Iranian Jews of spying for Israel. The 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington was suspected to have been an IRGC attempt to derail President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's secret nuclear negotiations with the Obama administration.
In 2011, the IRGC was at the apex of its influence. It had accumulated unprecedented power under a supreme leader who needed its loyalty and a president who had risen from its ranks. But when Ayatollah Khamenei turned against President Ahmadinejad, the IRGC dutifully followed.
Mr. Rouhani understands that he is dispensable. To undercut the IRGC's power, he purged his cabinet of IRGC veterans and replaced them with former MOIS officials in the ministries of intelligence, interior, justice, energy, cooperatives, labor and welfare. His cabinet has the lowest number of former IRGC officials, and the highest number of former MOIS officials, of any in the Islamic Republic's history.
Even still, there is little indication that security services will play a less sinister role in a Rouhani presidency. With Mr. Rouhani trying to diminish the influence of the IRGC and the Basij, the IRGC commander Major General Mohammad-Ali Aziz Ja'fari is likely to be more aggressive in crushing public protests in order to outflank the MOIS, and demonstrate his utility to the supreme leader. His colleague, Major General Qassem Suleimani, the IRGC's extraterritorial operations Quds Force commander, may also engage in more provocations abroad to undercut efforts to engage with the West.
The result is more repression at home and more conflict abroad. Canada is well positioned to continue its human rights record in siding with Iran's people against what Foreign Minister John Baird called Iran's "regressive, clerical military dictatorship." Ottawa should add the IRGC, MOIS, and Basij as human rights violators under Canada's Special Economic Measures Act, which already includes Syria, Zimbabwe and Sudan.
Canada can lead the way in making clear the consequences to those in Iran's security services who choose the path of repression. If this helps Mr. Rouhani become a genuine moderate, all the better.
Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he leads FDD's Iran projects. Ali Alfoneh is an FDD senior fellow and author of Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards is Transforming Theocracy into Military Dictatorship .