Once, he was everywhere — in key government meetings, at 2015 nuclear talks in Vienna, and at the United Nations General Assembly. But now President Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoon is far less visible once again, standing back from the limelight as he has tended to do for most of his career. But this time, there is another reason: the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence unit (RGI), and the hardliners who back its agenda.
Revolutionary Guards Intelligence is the official bailiff for the Iranian Judiciary. But, for all practical purposes, it also dominates the bulk of Iran’s security operations.
So just what does the RGI have in mind for Hossein Fereydoon? And if it really goes out to get him, will it be seen as open warfare on President Rouhani?
Rouhani’s Right-Hand Man, and a Previous Target
Fereydoon has been the main conduit for his brother’s communications since 2004, when talk about a possibly Rouhani candidacy for presidency was first underway. He was by his brother’s side during nuclear negotiations in Vienna in the summer of 2015, making it clear that he was his brother’s most trusted confidante. He has links with both the Ministry of Intelligence and extensive financial networks, though many say he lacks the charisma and the credibility to become a powerful figure among public opinion.
Hardliners have increased their attacks on Hossein Fereydoon since the nuclear agreement, often using sympathetic media to do so. They have made it clear they do not like his influence in government and they want him out.
In recent years, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the son of former President Rafsanjani, has also been a “person of interest” for the RGI. Before the events of 2009 and his arrest in 2015, the ambitious and influential Mehdi Hashemi was known for his sharp business acumen and contacts in both finance and the media, and ran businesses in both sectors. He was well connected politically. And he was dear to his father, who held him in high esteem.
In order to bring about Mehdi Hashemi’s downfall, the RGI first had to lay the groundwork. So they set out to destroy his network. Following the trials that emerged after the disputed 2009 presidential election, a number of figures close to Hashemi were forced to confess to their involvement in or connection to illegal business dealings. Many lost their jobs. With the pressure mounting, Mehdi Hashemi was forced to leave Iran, though he was still a man of influence in the country’s business world, and his family connections meant he did not incur too much financial damage or damage to his reputation. But the RGI wanted more than to just damage and incapacitate Hashemi. They wanted to damage the credibility and the standing of the former president too. Eventually, in June 2015, Hashemi was sent to prison, and the Revolutionary Guards were thought to be at least partially responsible. Perhaps they had concluded that it was not enough to keep Mehdi Hashemi out of the country or locked up inside his home. They would have to destroy him.
The Domino Effect
Another high-profile target for the RGI was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close ally of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Efforts to destroy him also resulted in damage to the prospects of others with links to Ahmadinejad.
As Kashan’s Friday Prayers Leader Abdolnabi Namazi disclosed in 2011, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had ordered Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, to arrest members of Mashaei’s network, assisted by the cooperative intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, though they held off on arresting Mashaei himself.
When Ahmadinejad got wind of this cooperation, he fired Moslehi — but Ayatollah Khamenei retaliated and reversed his decision. Ahmadinejad responded by confining himself to his home for 12 days, but this had no influence on the outcome. On the contrary, Ahmadinejad ended up losing credibility with the country’s principlists, hardliners who tend to lash out against anyone they deem to not be acting in line with the original values of the revolution as they see it. Mashaei had no real influence with them. The RGI continued to hound Mashaei, and again stopped short of arresting him. But the result had been achieved: Mashaei’s network was discredited.
Ahmadinejad was protective of Mashaei, just as President Rafsanjani had protected his son. But when Ahmadinejad lost influence and credibility and his presidency came to an end, there was no good reason to arrest him, and no need to further anger his supporters. He had lost influence and power, and the Guardian Council disqualified him from running for president in 2013, ending his political career, some say permanently — though he has attempted to reboot his political career over the course of the last year. According to some, he spends a lot of his time at home, a marginalized and forgotten man.
Then and Now
Hossein Fereydoon’s situation bears some similarities to the stories of Mehdi Hashemi and Mashaei, but is also quite unique.
The Revolutionary Guards Intelligence was not always eager to stand publicly against Ahmadinejad, but that is not the case with Rouhani: they are quite happy to lash out at him. So they likely have every intention of destroying Fereydoon — which could be seen as a declaration of war against the government and Rouhani himself.
In 2015 there were rumors that the Revolutionary Guards wanted to arrest Esmail Samavi, Rouhani’s nephew and the director of the president’s Press Division office. Among other things, they were hoping to force Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was then in prison, to confess that he had received sensitive information through Samavi. Rouhani pushed back, and in November 2015, the judiciary publicly announced that there were no plans to arrest Samavi. Rouhani fought hard to protect his nephew, and it is likely that Rouhani will stand up for his brother with twice the strength.
Rouhani, like former President Rafsanjani, has shown that he can be patient and bide his time. In fact, his willingness to weigh into political battles is rather similar to Ahmadinejad’s — he is not afraid to attack hardliners or give his opinion on controversial matters.
Ammunition for the 2017 Presidential Election
If the Guards did arrest Hossein Fereydoon, they would be sending a message that they intended to make Rouhani a one-term president — and political chaos would likely ensue. It is more likely that hardliners want to pressure Rouhani to dismiss Hossein Fereydoon himself. Again, there is a precedent: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sacked his brother Davoud Ahmadinejad from his position at the presidential inspection commission. Still, given their closeness, it is unlikely that Rouhani would publicly commit such an act.
Rouhani could just let the RGI do their work and not intervene, allowing the Guards to diminish Fereydoon’s circle of influence so that he himself does not have to go head to head with his enemies in the RGI. But the risks are considerable: Why would Rouhani want to allow his valued advisor and brother to be completely undermined when he has no guarantee that the RGI will stop there? After all, there is much to play for in the run up to the 2017 presidential election, and hardliners will continue to attack in every way they can, especially by using Fereydoon as propaganda for their own agenda.
If Rouhani defends his brother — as he is likely to do and as Ahmadinejad did for Mashaei, he will make it difficult for hardliners to act against Fereydoon — but he will also provide opportunities for them, giving them more ammunition with which to attack Rouhani.
Of course, Hossein Fereydoon might resign voluntarily. If the Rouhani camp is ready to compromise, this would be one of the least costly options.
It is hard to know what the next step will be for the Revolutionary Guards and hardliners, but this, after all, is what Iranian politics is known for: battles under the surface, characters with uncertain agendas and futures, and, at the last moment, a twist that no one was quite expecting.