As talks enter what negotiators hope is the final stage of a nuclear agreement in Vienna, one of Iran’s most outspoken hardliners has issued a bizarre statement about the future of US-Iran hostilities.
Speaking on Iranian television on July 11, Mohsen Rezaee, secretary to the Expediency Council, said, “If Americans have bad intentions towards Iran and want to launch a military attack, they can be assured that we will immediately respond by capturing at least 1000 of their soldiers. Then they will have to pay a few billion to free each one of them. That might solve our economic problems.”
The comments also coincide with the latest trial of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, which resumed in Tehran on July 13.
Though Rezaee’s statements come at a particularly sensitive time for relations between the two countries, the strategy is not new: in 2009, Rezaee claimed to have influenced the decisions of US president George W Bush, who Rezaee said decided to reverse plans to attack Iran based on comments he made.
But do Rezaee’s statements have any political agency or give an accurate reflection of the mood among some of Iran’s hardliners? His own efforts within the official arena of Iranian politics have been fruitless, but this does not mean he is without influence.
Does Rezaee think he could make a difference? Or was he motivated by his own political gain?
Razaee may believe that speaking out at a time when hardliner media has been relatively restrained was important — a much-needed effort to present the country as tough and principled and not willing to stay silent on important issues. Over the past month, Revolutionary Guards commanders, and the media arm of the Guards, Sepah News, have adopted a relatively gentler tone towards the United States. It is a departure for Iranian hardliners, who regularly speak out against US politicians, particularly regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Three months ago, Ayatollah Khamenei responded with harsh criticism and threats when US vice president Joe Biden and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said the US could still consider military action against Iran — and hardliner media followed suit. But for at least a month now, hardliners have avoided overt rhetoric. So if Rezaee hoped to curry favor with the Supreme Leader by threatening US soldiers, it seems an inopportune time to do it.
In many ways, Rezaee symbolizes the failure military figures face when trying to pursue political ambitions in Iran. Over the past 18 years, Rezaee has run for president three times and as a member of parliament once. He has also tried to form a political party twice. Each time he has been soundly defeated. He does not belong to any of Iran’s major political coalitions, and, after his successive failures, he returned to the Revolutionary Guards, a move that met with the approval of the Supreme Leader. So Rezaee’s views cannot be attributed to a specific political faction. They are his own personal views.
He also might have thought the statements could buy him some political clout. Until 1997 Mohsen Rezaee was the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, and he has recently returned, saying publicly that he will work closely with the scientific institutions closely affiliated with them. There have also been rumors that he might be appointed as the Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff.
The Pirate Economist
In 2009, Rezaee ran for president against the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a televised presidential debate on June 8, Ahmadinejad told Rezaee, “Two years ago you said on TV that a war [with the United States] would start in a month. Then you said that because of this statement, the Americans cancelled their [planned] attack.”
Rezaee confirmed this, saying that US president George W. Bush had planned to attack Iran three times, but that his own disclosures placed Bush in a defensive position, choosing to reverse his decision to attack each time.
Debating the merits of Rezaee’s recent comments on social media, most Iranians reacted negatively. “Mohsen Rezaee’s thinking is exactly like that of a pirate: We take hostages, we ask for ransom and we put our economy in order,” said one Iranian journalist.
“The subject of Mohsen Rezaee’s dissertation for his Ph.D. in economics must have been ‘Solving Iran’s Economic Problems by Capturing American POWs,” commented another Iranian.
Others wrote that Rezaee’s comments were reminiscent of Ahmadinejad, suggesting that he should either retire or keep his opinions to himself until he decides to run for the presidency again.
There was also talk of Rezaee’s military record during the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, with people urging Iranians to remember his promises to destroy the enemy and then, as commander of operations, failing to secure an Iranian victory.
But these anti-Rezaee comments do not necessarily signal support for the West or an anti-military stance from Iranians, at least those who enter the online debate. They reveal instead the decline in Rezaee’s reputation; he has increasingly become a negative character, even among some hardliner sympathizers.
It is unlikely that Rezaee really meant what he said when he talked of holding US soldiers, and certainly his statement about capturing 1000 in the space of a week reflects a bravado that does not chime with either current Iranian politics or the reality of the country’s military capability. But this is not what matters. What matters is that he has a voice, and that it is heard among the many other voices jostling for an audience when the world’s media is focused on Iran. And he could well be trying to take some of the credit for successful negotiations, should they be successful — not unlike his attempts to cast himself as a hero in 2009. Who knows, he could claim his words changed the Americans’ minds, and a good nuclear deal emerged because of this.
Iranian politicians who find themselves on the sidelines of negotiations are trying their best to claim a role in the outcome of negotiations. Why would Mohsen Rezaee not do the same?
To read more stories like this, sign up to our weekly email.