Can Iran's "Deep State" Make a Comeback?

Following victory in last month's presidential election, Hassan Rouhani must now overcome the hardliners associated with the Iranian "Deep State."

iran deep state 6/4/17

DESPITE CLAIMS of fraud by losing conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s Guardian Council on May 30 confirmed President Rouhani’s re-election. Given that Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei holds substantial power over many of the government’s most powerful institutions, the principal analytic question now is how much can Rouhani achieve in the face of “resistance” by hardline elements supported by the Supreme Leader. 

The current expectation among most Iran observers is that Rouhani faces major challenges ahead despite his significant electoral success. Illustrative are the comments of a former CIA Iran analyst, writing in The Cipher Brief: “The down side for Rouhani is that, if history is any guide, his second term will be a lesson in frustration as hardliners in the judiciary, IRGC, and the Supreme Leader’s office will try to undermine his initiatives.” 

The difficulty in judging the level of success that Rouhani can have in pursuing the agenda that he laid out in his electoral campaign – greater social and political freedom and further engagement with the world — is that many of the skirmishes with hardline elements are likely to occur in the closed corridors of power in Tehran. The May 30 public attack by the head of Iran’s judiciary on Rouhani’s campaign promise to release two reformist leaders under house arrest provides clear evidence of hardliner intent, but probably represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the conflicts ahead. 

How, then, to gauge the level of influence of Iran’s hardliners (or Iran’s “Deep State” as others have characterized Khamenei’s power structure)? Predata’s analytics rely on publicly available metrics, but they potentially offer insight into Iranian perceptions of which individuals and organizations matter. To capture these perceptions, Predata built an index of digital attention to the individuals and organizations who have been routinely identified as elements of Iran’s “Deep State”. This index is comprised of Persian-language sources that focus on: the Office of the Supreme Leader and associated organizations; the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); the businesses run by the IRGC; foundations controlled by Khamenei appointees; Iran’s military; Iran’s judiciary; Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting; and the Iranian law enforcement and intelligence services. 

The graphic above presents the trendline of this signal (identified as IRNDeepState) since 2010. For purposes of comparison, the graphic also includes the signal for the reformist coalition that supported Rouhani (IRNReformists). 

  • The overall pattern indicates that Iranian attention to Iran’s Deep State institutions and individuals has been in a secular decline since the 2013 election that brought Rouhani to power. While hardly definitive, this pattern suggests an Iranian perception that the hardliners have lost some of their mojo in recent years.
  • The recent spike in attention to Iran’s Deep State organizations and individuals around the 2017 election campaign is consistent with the patterns evident in 2013 presidential and the 2016 parliamentary elections and thus is not indicative of hardliner momentum. Nonetheless, should the signal continue to spike in the weeks ahead, it would suggest an Iranian perception that the hardliners are making a comeback.