In just seven months’ time, Iranians will go to the polls to cast their votes in favor of the next President of the Islamic Republic. Against the bloody backdrop of the past three years, and amid a litany of broken promises and economic woes, there is every chance that turnout will be low in June 2021. But for conservatives in Iran the debate over the next presidential candidate is a hot topic, and news and features are accordingly being published on this every day.
The latest comment on the matter came from a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. In Iran, presidential hopefuls stand little chance of success without the backing of the IRGC. But on this occasion, it seems, the IRGC might even be keen to see one of its own take on the premiership.
"What did the politicians, who have been charge for 40 years, achieve?" demanded Ismail Kowsari, deputy commander of the Sarollah Revolutionary Guards base in Tehran and an adviser to the IRGC’s commander-in-chief, Hossein Salami. Speaking to Khabar Online, Kowsari advanced the idea of an IRGC candidate standing in next year’s election, adding: “Some IRGC brothers are better-educated than those who consider themselves politicians.”
Kowsari also lashed out at previous commentators who had suggested a “military” candidate could stand in June 2021. “I don’t know why some people want to start a psychological war,” he said, “by calling it ‘the military’. They mean the guys from the IRGC."
The Form and Spirit of the Law in Iran
In most countries set up on the basis of civilian or clerical rule, the exclusion of the military from politics is an accepted principle.
This includes – or has included, up until now – the Islamic Republic of Iran, due to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s explicit prohibition of the army from entering politics. Such an incursion, Khamenei repeatedly said, would be inherently “corrupt” by nature. Even in his last will and testament, the first Supreme Leader emphasized: “The armed forces, be they the military, law enforcement, the Revolutionary Guards or the Basij, should absolutely have no involvement with any [political] party or group and should stay away from political games."
Accordingly, Khamenei’s edicts were enshrined in the laws and regulations of the Islamic Republic. Amongst others, the prohibition is mentioned in Article 40 of the Armed Forces’ Penal Code, Article 47 of the IRGC Statute, Article 16 of the IRGC’s Employment Law, Article 29 of the Army Law, and Article 16 of the Law on Employment of the Police Force.
For this reason the IRGC’s interventions in politics have traditionally been sporadic, and covert. But the mood began to change from the late 1990s. In 1999, 24 of the IRGC’s most senior leaders sent a strongly-worded letter to then-president Mohammad Khatami, urging him not to remain passive in the face of street protests that they felt posed a threat to stability.
At the same time, the expansion of the IRGC’s economic activities has given it extensive soft political power. So great has this influence become that in recent years, IRGC commanders have felt confident in making public pronouncements about the law.
Notably, Ismail Kowsari himself served as an MP in the eighth and ninth parliaments, from 2008 to 2016. After failing to be re-elected in the tenth parliamentary elections, he returned to the military fold and became head of one of the most important security bases in Tehran, but seemingly did not lose his taste for politics.
In the interview with Khabar Online, Kowsari went on to qualify his statement by saying that any military official who wanted to run for president ought to hang up his uniform and formally retire from the military first. In which case, he declared, “there is no problem”.
A Takeover From Within?
A wealth of documentary and anecdotal evidence exists to support the notion that the IRGC has long sought to take over the overall management of Iran, up to and including the legislature.
Kowsari was far from the first military man to serve as an MP. From 2008 onwards, more and more former IRGC officials have played an active role in parliament, to the point that from 2020 the Speaker of Parliament was none other than Ali Larijani, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. The current Speaker is Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former chief of police and commander of the IRGC’s airforce. In addition, about two-thirds of the current presidium, the Iranian parliament’s executive committee, are drawn from the ranks of the IRGC and the Basij.
If the presence of the military in politics was a taboo in the past, then the situation today is almost its mirror image. A number of IRGC commanders now openly say that the only way to solve the current problems in the country is to hand it over to the armed forces.
In late summer 2020, Mohsen Rafighdoost, a co-founder and Minister of the Revolutionary Guards, told Khabar Online that the IRGC could be better-equipped than the government to deal with not just security-related, but economic matters. "Now,” he said, “the dollar is worth 26,000 tomans. Maybe if a military man comes and restrains this unruly, errant horse with his power, he can save the people from this situation."
Names on the Table
In another ominous statement, Ezatullah Zarghami, a former IRGC general and later head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, has declared that a “minibus”-worth of candidates were ready and waiting to compete for the presidency, including himself. Other serving and former IRGC and Basij leaders, whose names have recently been mentioned in connection with the top post, include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Ali Larijani, the Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezaei, the former energy minister Parviz Fattah, ex-MP and car magnate Mehrdad Bazarpash, and former defense minister Hossein Dehghan. The latter, a former IRGC air force officer with the rank of brigadier general, currently also serves as an advisor to the Supreme Leader.
An array of others have been mentioned who are known to have close relationships with the IRGC and who, depending on the circumstances, could become the IRGC’s preferred candidate. They include Saeed Jalili, former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Mohammad Mokhber, head of the Execution of Imam’s Order, senior cleric Mohammad Qomi, conservative politician Ali Nikzad, and former MP Alireza Zakani, who has tried to run for presidency twice before but was disqualified by the Guardian Council on both occasions.
Premature competition between all of these individuals and their supporters is becoming more and more open and ruthless. Seven months before the vote, criticism, insults and engineered scandals are already being traded between groups in the various camps. For his part, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has already expressed his preference for a “young revolutionary” to take up the top executive post.
It should be mentioned, however, that all former soldiers who have tried their luck in becoming president in the past have failed – from “perennial candidate” Mohsen Rezaei, to Bagher Ghalibaf in 2005 and 2013, to Ali Larijani back in 2005. The extent of the IRGC’s political clout has also drawn criticism from the last two Iranian presidents, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad referring to the Guards as “our smuggler brothers” and Hassan Rouhani decrying large portions of the economy being handed over to “a government with a gun”.
Iran's presidential election is scheduled to take place on June 18, 2021. The new president, whoever he may be, is likely to formally take office in August.