By any measure, President Hassan Rouhani reelection with 57 percent of the vote compared to the 37 percent for his opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, was a major triumph. More to the point, the ballot represented a clear choice between two visions of Iran. Rouhani and his moderate followers want Iran to normalize relations with the United States and its Western allies. Raisi and the hardline Principalists want to keep the regime’s engagement with the world to an absolute minimum while pursuing the mandate of exporting the Islamic revolution in the region.

In the lingo of the regime, “revolutionary export” refers to the mission of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its foreign operations branch, the Quds Force (QF), to impose a more Islamist-friendly system on neighboring countries and beyond. By mobilizing Shi’ite minorities in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, among others, the IRGC-QF has successfully established proxy groups in these countries.

Lebanese Hezbollah has been pivotal in creating a hostile presence on the northern border of Israel and has protected Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. All along, the Assad family in Syria has provided invaluable strategic services for the revolutionary export mission, including land and air corridors for weapons delivery. When the Arab Spring threatened the Assad regime, the IRGC-QF helped with crowd control. As the civil protest spiraled into a full-fledged civil war, the IRGC-QF sent troops to safeguard the Assad regime.

The election campaign echoed the deep divide between the two camps. Many of Rouhani’s followers criticized the hardliners for wasting blood and treasure on the Syrian civil war. In an unpreceded criticism, Rouhani himself questioned the rationale for such involvement. He also implied that Iranian foreign policy “activism” was determinantal for rejoining the international community and attracting foreign investment.

Rouhani’s victory, however, did not put an end to the hardliners because Iran has a unique political system in which the state sector competes with parastatals such as the IRCG-QF, the Supreme Leader’s network, and the Haqqani School circle, an ultraconservative group of clerics led by Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi with deep roots in the judiciary. The parastatals, which command substantial resources independent of the state, make it hard for the president to deliver on the promise of normalizing Iran’s relations with the West and thus avoiding further sanctions.

There are several issues that pose a major challenge to Rouhani’s agenda. The IRGC’s Aerospace Force (IRGCAF) has pushed the envelope of UN Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran to stop developing and testing missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload. On January 29, 2017, the IRGCAF tested the Khorramshahr, a midrange missile, deemed to be nuclear capable. The Trump administration reacted by putting “Iran on notice” and imposing new sanctions. Since then the IRGCAF has tested only one short-range missile but such self-restraint may be temporary. Brigadier Gen. Amirali Hajizadeh, the head of the Aerospace Force, has recently revealed the construction of a new underground missile facility in southwestern Iran. Hajizadeh boasted that Iran is “increasing its missile capacity” — a goal which requires more testing of missiles incompatible with Resolution 2231. It is not clear whether the Rouhani government can prevent the IRGCAF from resuming such tests.

The Trump administration’s hard line policy on Iran, supported by the Republican-dominated Congress, is likely to further complicate Rouhani’s position by imposing more sanctions or even taking kinetic action. Some analysts have suggested using the Aegis Ballistic Missiles Defense ship-based systems on US Navy destroyers and cruisers in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to intercept Iranian missile tests. From Rouhani’s perspective, such an action is a significant complication because it would undoubtedly inflame Iranian public opinion.

Rouhani will also find it hard to limit IRGC-QF involvement in Syria and elsewhere in the region. While the Assad regime seems secure for the time being, the Guards’ plan to secure the territory vacated by ISIS may include a further military investment. It has been reported that the Revolutionary Guards have requested fighters from the powerful Badr Brigades based in Iraq to move across the border. Both Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, and Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, also seem determined to assist the Houthis in Yemen in a crucial battle for the port of Hodeida. 

The recent American-Saudi agreement to launch a joint anti-terror campaign, which explicitly adds Iran to the targeted radical Islamist camp, would make Rouhani’s position even more challenging. Indeed, the State Department, which has already sanctioned the QF, may follow up by putting the IRGC on its terror list and imposing new sanctions.

More consequential, the IRGC-QF forces in Syria may get involved in a direct skirmish with the American units operating there. In a preview of such a development, American warplanes recently struck a convoy of an Iran-led force made up of Iraqi and Syrian militias travelling in the direction of Al Tanf, a location liberated from ISIS by Jordanian and US forces in March 2016. The strike destroyed four Russian-made T-62 tanks and a ZSU-23-4 Shilka, a self-propelled radar-guided anti-aircraft system manned by an IRGC unit. The IRGC-QF hopes to prevent anti-Assad forces backed by the US from seizing control of the southeast areas bordering Iraq. On June 2, the CIA announced the creation of an Iran Mission Center, under Michael D’Andrea, the former head of the Center for Counterterrorism. Sources close to QF expect D’Andrea – known as the Dark Prince or Ayatollah Mike — to intensify pressure on the IRGC and QF, including possible targeting Soleimani.

Rouhani’s promise to improve Iran’s human rights also faces major pushback. The president has little leverage over the Haqqani School-inspired judiciary and the Basij force, an IRCG division in charge of enforcing civilian compliance with Sharia laws. Despite making similar promises in 2013, Rouhani failed to stop arrests of human rights advocates and executions, nominally tied to drug offenses, rose. As of May 25, Iran had executed 350 people.

Other forms of persecution and harassment have also increased. There has been a renewed push for prosecution of so-called lifestyle crimes, including enforcement of the Islamic dress code for women. Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrols), supported by the Basij militia, launched a renewed campaign to force observance of Islamic norms of behavior in public and even private spaces. Hardliners use human rights to discredit the presidency and to delegitimize Rouhani in the international arena.

The United Nations has censured Iran for its human rights violations twice. Both Congress and the Trump administration are preparing to tighten scrutiny of Iran’s human rights record under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountably Act. Enacted by Congress in 2015, the legislation expands the penalties against individual and organizations found guilty of human rights violations.

Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where he researches Iran’s foreign policy. He is the author of  Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback  (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). His writings have appeared in Harvard-Iran Matters,  the National Interest, Middle East Policy, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of International Affairs,  Insight Turkey and  Asian Affairs among othersHis new book is Iran’s Foreign Policy after the Nuclear Agreement: The Politics of Normalizers and Traditionalists, Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming. He tweets at @Farhadrezaeii