On Tuesday, the English-language service of Fars News, an outlet close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps proudly declared that President Hassan Rouhani was leading a Guardian newspaper poll on the question of who should be given a Nobel Peace Prize.
Fars pointed out that Rouhani had garnered a comfortable 63% of the votes, putting some distance between him and Malala Yousafzai — the fifteen year-old girls’ education activist shot by gunmen in Pakistan — who was in second-place with 20%.
Even so, Fars News may see the result as validation for an article it published last week with the headline “Egyptian Expert Calls for Granting Nobel Peace Prize to Iranian President”.
Does this apparent promotion by Fars of Rouhani for the Nobel Peace Prize mean that the IRGC-linked outlet is now firmly behind the President?
In short, no.
Fars News is well-known for its position as a voice for the IRGC, whose role in Iran’s internal politics and economy has recently been challenged by Rouhani. Unlike other IRGC-linked outlets, Fars has an English service that is read by and aimed at Western audiences, therefore the topics it chooses and the way it frames them offer insights into what issues the IRGC — or a selected group within the IRGC — want to present to a Western readership.
It is unlikely that Fars has suddenly switched its position to one of backing the President wholeheartedly.
Rather, Fars has sought to complicate Rouhani’s foreign policy, and particularly his “engagement” with the United States, a move that many in the IRGC continue to view with suspicion at best.
A clear example of this was the effort Fars put into stirring up a controversy surrounding Rouhani’s comments on the historical veracity of the Holocaust during an interview with American broadcaster CNN. While Rouhani’s — admittedly, fairly tentative — recognition of the Holocaust when questioned by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was considered an important step by many Western media outlets, Fars attempted to put out the line that the President had not actually acknowledged the Holocaust at all by casting doubt on the accuracy of the translations used by CNN.
The story propagated by Fars — that Rouhani had not actually referred to, let alone acknowledged, the Holocaust as a historical fact — was picked up by outlets such as the Wall Street Journal. Despite the tribute in the US press, Fars’s attempt to derail “engagement” was unsuccessful on this occasion. President Obama and Rouhani had a historic telephone conversation, symbolising the embrace by both administrations — at least for now — of the thaw in US-Iranian relations.
Another way Fars has attempted to complicate the President’s foreign policy is by stressing that he follows — and is therefore subordinate to — the Supreme Leader’s guidelines on international questions.
Of course, Rouhani, wary of a hardline backlash, is also keen to emphasise that he is not deviating from Ayatollah Khamenei. However, Fars uses such opportunities to highlight the Supreme Leader’s view that “the US administration is untrustworthy, conceited, illogical and unfaithful to its pledges”. While this kind of statement is hardly surprising, it reiterates the sceptical position assumed by Fars News on the question of “engagement” with Washington.
By emphasising Rouhani’s allegiance to Khamenei, Fars is attempting to cultivate a situation whereby the Supreme Leader can take the credit should “engagement” turns out to be successful in reducing sanctions and easing Iran’s economic hardships. Equally, if the President’s policy founders, then blame can be laid at his feet for failing to be sufficiently cautious and for trusting the West against the Supreme Leader’s better judgement.
On other international issues, Fars emphasises Rouhani’s “firmness” in the face of the plots of the “enemy”. In recent weeks Fars has joyously reported that the President has “lashed out” at — or in the interests of variety,”blasted” — the West, either for “mistreating the Non-Aligned Movement” or “for supporting the Salafi and Takfiri militants in Syria.”
On the issue of Iran’s nuclear program in particular, Fars stresses Rouhani’s statement that Iran “will not compromise its right to use peaceful nuclear technology.”
Once again, this is not so much evidence of Fars throwing its weight behind Rouhani per se but an attempt to push its (and the IRGC’s) chosen line of “firmness” against Tehran’s “enemies” in the West.
Fars’s is perhaps better understood by considering the views of Sepah News — the IRGC’s official public relations outlet.
Sepah News shas continued to report and highlight the hard-line stances taken by IRGC commanders against the West and in particular the US. On Wednesday, for example, Sepah News reported IRGC deputy commander Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri’s announcement that the current shift in US-Iranian relations was an opportunity for Tehran to redress the crimes committed against it by Washington. Recalling the 4 Aban protests — the anniversary of the storming of the US Embassy in 1979 — Jazayeri warned that the US would not be satisfied with “anything less than the surrender of Iran against its will.”
Like other senior IRGC officials, Jazayeri is pushing the line that Rouhani is engaging with the US from a position of strength and therefore has a window to make advances in Tehran’s relations with the West — i.e. through the lifting of sanctions.
His rhetoric, however, is also a warning to the President that if his policy of engagement fails, he will lose what backing the IRGC have given him thus far, and the IRGC can blame him for being weak, and even surrendering to the enemy.
Returning to Fars, a good example of how it follows a similar tactic to Sepah News is seen in an article published on Monday with the headline “President: Iran Stands Firm against Enemies of Its National Interests.”
Fars quotes Rouhani as saying:
We should believe in ourselves, resist and don’t be afraid of the others’ plots….We can resist against all powers who seek to move against our national interests, but with prudence and not mottos.
Fars places this in the context of the President’s comments at the end of September when he “lashed out at the US-led pressures and sanctions imposed against Iran, calling the West’s embargos as unlawful and contrary to the norms of civilized societies.”
In doing this, Fars is attempting to frame Rouhani’s policies as firmly opposed to any form of compromise, thus limiting the President’s flexibility in his relations with the United States.
However, the salient point from the article is Rouhani’s continued use of the word “prudence” — a key term from his Presidential election campaign — to define his foreign policy philosophy and the rejection of “slogans”, a code for hyperbole and aggression.
Clearly, even if Rouhani had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Iranian president and Fars News would not be on the same page.