Iran’s presidential election campaign has opened an opportunity for rare criticism of the country’s interventionist foreign policies.

At an April 29 rally in Esfahan province in support of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the former mayor of Tehran and head of Hezb-e Kargozaran-e Sazandegi, the Executives of Construction Party, criticized his country’s muscle flexing in Syria. Karbaschi suggested that the approach of providing large amounts of military aid and Shi’ite militiamen to bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was misguided.

 “We, also, want the peace in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to be restored, the oppressed to be defended and the Shi’ites to be empowered,” Karbaschi said. “But these shouldn’t be done only by sending money and killing people… our government should use its diplomatic power to resolve the regional issues.”

Karbaschi’s comments were personally as well as politically risky. On May 2, he was indicted for “insulting the martyrs of the defenders of the shrine” – a reference to the Shrine of Zeinab in Damascus which Shi’ite militiamen are ostensibly sent to Syria to defend. It remains to be seen whether the judiciary will follow through and summon him to court.

Conservative media have harshly attacked the former mayor. Keyhan newspaper, which is known for its hawkish stance against the Rouhani administration, charged that “Karbaschi’s speech was attacking the central foreign policy of the Islamic Republic… In the elections rally, by questioning the sacrifices of the martyrs of the defenders of holy shrines, he had said that there is no need to deploy troops and we should negotiate with the terrorists….”

The article also claimed that Karbaschi’s comments were a continuation of the June 2009 “sedition,” a term used by conservatives to refer to unprecedented mass protests that followed the fraud-tainted re-election of then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Attacks on Karbaschi can be viewed from two different perspectives.

They could signal that the highest echelon of Iran’s decision-making hierarchy – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – are willing to pay any price to retain the Assad regime.

In fact, Gen. Mohammad Khakpour, the commander of IRGC’s ground forces stated recently that Iran “will continue its advisory help as long as they [Syrians] need it.”  Khakopour has also acknowledged that Iran’s role in Syria has gone beyond advising to “techniques and tactics…. And because of this, the forces have to be present on the battlefield.”

One could also argue that the Rouhani’s opponents in the conservative camp are trying to weaken his position in advance of the May 19 elections.  The death in January of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and leader of the pragmatist camp, has deprived Rouhani of one his most influential allies. In fact, analysts have expressed concern over Rouhani’s political future. That is perhaps why, Karbaschi, who is one of the most prominent figures in the pragmatist camp, has begun campaigning for Rouhani.

By attacking Karbaschi, opponents of Rouhani are in reality targeting the incumbent president, hoping to associate Rouhani with Karbaschi’s comments. Perhaps recognizing this intention, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, was quick to dissociate the administration from Karbaschi’s criticism and said “Diplomacy is important…. But in dealing with blind terrorism, use of strength is [more] appropriate.” 

Open criticism of Iran’s Syria policy has not been limited to the political elite in this campaign season. In another recent incident, a student at University of Tabriz challenged Hassan Abbasi, who was speaking at the university. Abbasi is an IRGC commander and prominent conservative theorist who is known for his fiery defense of Iran’s intervention in Syria.

In a video that has surfaced on the social media, the student said “… and your theory is [to] take advantage of nationalistic and religious sentiments of the people, and the defense of non-existing shrines in Homs and Idlib….” One should keep in mind that university students are among the most politically active class of the Iranian society, and colleges are known to be a more open place for criticizing the country’s policies.

Rouhani, himself, has shown flashes of candor in confronting Iran’s “deep state,” which controls not only military intervention abroad but cracks down harshly on real or imagined threats at home.

In a May 5 televised debate, Rouhani suggested that writing “Death to Israel” on Iranian missiles undercut the chances for Iran’s economic recovery following the lifting of sanctions under the 2015 nuclear deal. US officials have pointed to such threatening rhetoric as justifying a continued antagonistic stance toward the Islamic Republic, including more sanctions.

Hardliners have counterattacked Rouhani as being too soft in regional affairs.

Mehdi Taa’eb, the commander of Ammar Cyber Headquarters, stated that Rouhani is responsible for “any drop of blood that is shed in Yemen. His JCPOA [the nuclear deal] stopped us from developing our missiles; we wanted to get involved but his negotiations prevented us…” 

The nuclear agreement seeks to continue restrictions on foreign assistance to Iran’s missile development for eight years, although Iran has continued to test missiles.

While it is doubtful that Rouhani, even if re-elected, will be able to change the direction of Iran’s interventionist policies in the foreseeable future, the campaign has given rare evidence that an ongoing internal debate over those policies exists.  

Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations.  Follow him on Twitter @azodiac83