The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was founded nearly 40 years ago as a military organization, but for over 30 years it has played a key political role in Iran. This role can be compared to that of political parties in single-party regimes — with the important difference that the IRGC’s interference is both enshrined in law and extends beyond this legal provision.
Iran’s Guardian Council must approve election candidates, whether it is parliamentary or presidential elections. But in any election environment, the Guards use a range of tactics to increase the chances of their favored candidates, including gathering intelligence and incriminating evidence about rival candidates through eavesdropping and even, in some cases, sending these rivals to jail.
Even if a rival candidate not favored by the Guards is elected, the Guards Corps still puts obstacles in his (or occasionally her) way, gradually chipping away at the elected official’s support base to affect his performance in the next election. The Guards also sets conditions for the political activities in which individuals can take part.
If the IRGC favors the victorious candidate, however, it does everything it can to help him push through the policies it supports and to increase his chances for another victory in the next election.
Reformist President Mohammad Khatami — not a favorite of the Guards — is a good example of someone who received hostile treatment from the IRGC. Controversial former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an example of a politician whose policies benefited the Guards and was supported by them.
Threatening the President
Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards at the time of Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), explicitly threatened Khatami over his policies, and a number of IRGC commanders, including General Ghasem Soleimani, wrote an open letter to the president, stating: “Our patience is at an end” [Persian link].
On the other hand, the Revolutionary Guards supported Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both times that he ran for president. Both former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mehdi Karroubi, Ahmadinejad’s rivals in the 2005 presidential election, accused the Guards of interfering in the election. Four years later, in the disputed election of 2009, the IRGC explicitly supported the candidacy of Ahmadinejad. Delivering speeches during the campaign, Ali Saeedi, the Supreme Leader’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards, supported Ahmadinejad and IRGC top commander General Mohammad Ali Jafari disputed campaign promises made by his competitors. “The Guards interfered in the elections to prevent the reformists from winning power,” conceded General Jafari years later, in 2014 [Persian link]. Ali Saeedi also admitted to Guards interference in an interview he gave in 2012, in which he said that the Guards supported Ahmadinejad because Ayatollah Khamenei viewed him “favorably” [Persian link].
And, in 2017, even the media outlets close to Ahmadinejad accused the Revolutionary Guards of interfering in Iranian politics, even though Ahmadinejad had been the beneficiary of IRGC interference in two presidential elections [Persian link]. By the time of the 2009 presidential election, which coincided with the twentieth anniversary of Ayatollah Khamenei’s ascent to the Supreme Leadership, the IRGC had become an important and highly influential player on the Iranian political scene and nobody, not even the Guards Corps itself, denies this.
What Does the Constitution Say?
But is the decisive role played by the Revolutionary Guards legal? And is it in the interest of Iranians?
When asked these questions, IRGC commanders and those who benefit from their support say that the IRGC is not merely a military institution and, according to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, its duty is to protect the regime from security, military, cultural and social threats. The Guards go even further, and say that because their political rivals present such dangers, the IRGC must use the tools at its disposal as a security and military organization to eliminate these threats.
But the constitution of the Islamic Republic gives the IRGC and the regular army a shared responsibility for protecting the regime. “The Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran is responsible for guarding the independence and territorial integrity of the country, as well as the order of the Islamic Republic,” says Article 143 of the constitution. And Article 150 declares: “The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, organized in the early days of the triumph of the Revolution, is to be maintained so that it may continue in its role of guarding the Revolution and its achievements.”
In other words, the constitution gives equal weight to the army and the Revolutionary Guards in guarding the Islamic Republic system but, with the all-out support of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei over the last 30 years, the IRGC has gradually become the main player in Iranian politics.
In the first decade following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and during the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, it was customary to claim that the military was not allowed to interfere in the political affairs of the Islamic Republic. The regular army, of course, was trained and took shape long before the revolution and, for all practical purposes, played no role in politics or elections. But the fight to prevent the Guards from interfering in politics and elections began almost from the very first day that the IRGC was established, and it continues today.
Victory Despite Commanders’ Views
Five years before his victory in the country’s presidential election, Hassan Rouhani, who served as deputy to the Second-in-Command of Iran's Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1988 to 1989, said: “During the elections [to the third parliament in the spring of 1988], there was this belief in the Guards that if some of their members are elected to the parliament then their problems would be solved better and the fronts [in the war with Iraq] would be supported more effectively…So they encouraged some officials and commanders of the Guards to become candidates and they themselves became active in this area.” He added that when Al-Faw fell to Iranian forces during the war with Iraq, the Guards were holding a seminar in Kermanshah, which “most of the commanders” attended.
Al-Faw is a port city on a peninsula in southeast Iraq, situated on the right bank of the Shatt al-Arab river. The defeat of Faw was one of the biggest Iranian victories during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. But the fall of this strategic town made Ayatollah Khomeini angry with the commanders of the Guards because Mohsen Rezaei, the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, had said that Faw could not be taken and, as Rouhani later said, most commanders were far from the area when it was taken. Ayatollah Khomeini was so angry that it gave rise to rumors that Rezaei had been arrested. In his memoirs, Hashemi Rafsanjani writes that, after the fall of Faw, Rezaei was in a very unstable psychological state. During a meeting, it was decided that Rezaei would appear on TV and settle the false rumors about his arrest.
Khomeini’s Red Line
During the decade that Ayatollah Khomeini was the leader of the Islamic Republic, the Guards tried to enter into politics and interfere with elections but, at that time, such interference was seen as contrary to the values of the Islamic Republic. Until the end of his life, Ayatollah Khomeini opposed military interference in politics, stating that it was against a modern system of government. “You must prevent politics from infiltrating the Guards,” he said. “If politics get into the IRGC then it will lose its military nature.”
But when Ayatollah Khamenei succeeded Khomeini, such restrictions on the Guards were soon removed. During the 1996 elections for the Fifth Islamic Republic Parliament, Guards interference was so widespread that Gholamhossein Karbaschi, secretary general of the reformist Executives of Construction Party, wrote a letter to then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani and complained about it. This interference, Karbaschi wrote, “has made a considerable number of people view the Guards in a negative light.”
In the elections for the Seventh Parliament in 2004, a considerable number of IRGC commanders and senior officers were elected to the parliament and when they lost their seats in later elections they simply returned to their posts in the Guards. One of them, Esmail Kowsari, represented Tehran in the parliament for eight years. After losing his seat, he was appointed deputy chief of the Revolutionary Guards’ Sarallah Headquarters, the IRGC unit responsible for the security of Tehran.
Many Warnings but No Action
Jafar Shirali Nia, a historian of the Iran-Iraq war, has quoted Mohsen Rezaei’s statements made during the elections for the fifth parliament in 1996. They show that, even with the Faw debacle and Ayatollah Khomeini’s unhappiness with him, Rezaei continued his political and electoral activities. In a meeting with the members of a Guards’ unit called the “77th Mohammad the Messenger of God Division,” Rezaei said: “You must not just sit and learn about guns and tanks…Today is the day when the army of the Messenger of God must embark on its glorious political operations…The army of the Prophet must come to the field and vote for the Hezbollah.”
In the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic, there are many examples of Guards interference in elections under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei and the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani. But the above example does show how far the IRGC had expanded its political activities. Despite repeated warnings by President Hashemi Rafsanjani about the interference of the Guards in elections, it appears that he did not want to go against the wishes of Ayatollah Khamenei and had no interest or motivation to fight against the trend — though toward the end of his life he continued to warn about the dangers posed by this interference.
In his memoirs, Rafsanjani wrote that in 1997, a few months before the presidential election that brought Mohammad Khatami to the presidency, Mehdi Karroubi “asked me for help to prevent the repeat of vilification and libel by the Guards and the [Islamic Republic Radio and TV] that took place during the parliamentary elections.” Rafsanjani believed that Khatami’s victory in that election, despite rumors that the Guards were set to change the election results, was one of the successes of his own presidency (1989-1997).
The Revolutionary Guards Corps has overstepped both the Iranian constitution and international democratic norms regarding the necessity of keeping the military out of elections and politics. But this aside, the IRGC has crossed the red line set by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of both the Islamic Republic and the Revolutionary Guards, and who was adamantly against the interference of the military in politics.
On the 30th anniversary of Ayatollah Khamenei’s ascent to the leadership or, in other words, the 30th anniversary of the Guards’ entry into public political and electoral activities, this part of the Iranian military has turned into a fixed political player inside and outside Iranian borders. Its decisions about who and what it supports or opposes have profound consequences for the government, the parliament and anybody in politics at any level.
And the most prominent figures of the Islamic Republic do not agree on whether this breach of Iranian laws has been beneficial or destructive.
In practice, complaints against political and electoral interference by the Revolutionary Guards have proved futile because of how the regime is structured and operates. In theory, during elections, candidates who suspect the Guards Corps has violated their rights, or these candidates’ legal representatives, can lodge complaints with election watchdogs, which the Guardian Council appoints to all polling stations. The Guardian Council is responsible for supervising presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as the elections for the Assembly of Experts. (The elections for city and village councils are supervised by the parliament, which is also responsible for accepting complaints.) If the complaints are ignored, then the candidates can complain to the judiciary.
During the 2017 presidential election, Rouhani’s government filed complaints with the judiciary about violations in the election, including those by the Revolutionary Guards. But now, after two years, the judiciary has done nothing about them.
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