OPINION – Will the Revolutionary Guards take over Iran?

Rafsanjani's death heavily affected civilian-military relations. If the supreme leader dies, things could get worse

OPINION – Will the Revolutionary Guards take over Iran?

by Teshgom Kamal

The writer is an independent researcher based in Istanbul. He writes on Iranian foreign policy and domestic politics.

The death of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Jan. 8 sent shockwaves through the Iranian political leadership. Even the anti-establishment political opponents who disliked Rafsanjani did not welcome his death.

A close look at the complicated security setup of the country can help us unravel the reasons behind the general sense of disillusion after Rafsanjani’s death and the implications of his absence for the Iranian politics.

Iran is a country with two armies. There is the National Army, which is in principle responsible for the protection of the country, and there is the Guardian of the Islamic Revolution (GIR), which is tasked to protect the Islamic Revolution, which is defined in terms of the present theocratic political system. There are five intelligence institutions.

The Ministry of Intelligence (Wazarat e Ittela’at) functions under the executive and the Army Intelligence Protection Organization (Sazman e Hifazat e ittela’at e Artish) under the National Army.

The remaining three are the GIR Intelligence Organization (Sazman ittela’at e Sepah), the GIR Intelligence Protection Organization (Sazman e Hifazat e ittela’at e Sepah), and GIR Protection Organization (Sazman e Hifazat e Sepah), all of them associated with the GIR.  

The GIR is the favorite force of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader. Despite acting as a united force firmly standing behind the supreme leader, the GIR suffers from various structural and organizational problems, some of which have been created in order to minimize the possibility of any military misadventure.

No single commander is allowed to emerge as an all-powerful man in the GIR. The commanders gain their legitimacy and influence through their level of devotion to the supreme leader. Also, there is no chain of command or hierarchy in the GIR as such, that would allow for any commander to rise through the ranks.

The GIR is subdivided into largely independent divisions under different commanders of equal ranks, who directly report to the supreme leader. Each division is given a certain part of the country to control.

The apparent logic is that every division should be able to independently operate and resist if the country should be attacked or occupied. However, as noted earlier, the hidden objective is to avoid any military misadventure by an ambitious commander. 

Moreover, unlike many regular military forces, such as the Turkish army, the Pakistani army, etc., the GIR is not a self-made military force formed of professional soldiers, where the seniority principle rules.

Devotion is the key criterion for being promoted as a high-ranking commander in the Iranian armed forces in general and the GIR in particular.

The ruling religious authorities emphasize the superiority of “purity of intention” (isalat e niyyat) over “purity of action” (isalat e amal).

Therefore, it is not a matter of surprise that the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces for 27 years was Hasan Firoozabadi, a veterinarian by profession, with no formal military training. On the other hand, Mohsen Rezaee, a senior GIR commander, is denied any position. As a result, the GIR commanders are in a constant competition to win the heart of the supreme leader.

Financial corruption is another major problem plaguing the GIR. A few days ago, it was reported that three top GIR commanders had been arrested on the charge of financial corruption. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once referred to the GIR commanders as “our smuggler brothers”.

Rafsanjani had strong connections to a number of GIR commanders. Many of them owe their wealth and power to Rafsanjani, who allotted them development projects after the Iran-Iraq War.

Even commanders such as Qassem Soleimani, under whose boots the entire Middle East is being suffocated, had some sort of respect for Rafsanjani. Also, those conservative politicians who disliked Rafsanjani, in practice, could not ignore him, a fact that was very evident during his funeral.

Although Rafsanjani was no pragmatist, he had successfully passed himself off as a pragmatic politician. Hence, he had enjoyed a degree of respect beyond the Iranian borders as well. For instance, he had close relations with the Saudi royal family.

He also had good relations with the ruling elites of Turkmenistan. At the moment, Iran is suffering a historic low in its relations with both of these countries. More importantly, in recent years, Rafsanjani had successfully sold himself as a pro-minority politician to the ethno-religious minorities, particularly the Baloch Sunnis, for whom the supreme leader’s gate has been closed for years.

The importance of Rafsanjani was tightly associated with the death scenarios of the supreme leader. The Iranian political elites had miscalculated that the reportedly sick supreme leader would die before the healthy Rafsanjani, so that the latter would play his due role in the appointment of a new supreme leader.

Rafsanjani was expected to take advantage of his relationship with some GIR commanders, and exploit the existing rift among them.

If alive, he could have created a kind of balance of power, though not an ideal one, among different powerful GIR commanders, as well as between the GIR (as a whole) and political forces.

The most ideal expectation was that he would materialize his Supreme Leadership Council project, according to which the supreme leadership position would be filled by a group of juris consults rather than one single person.   

With the demise of Rafsanjani, civilian-military relations have been heavily affected, and this will become more evident as time passes. The situation would become worse after the death of the supreme leader, once the country is left to the mercy of a bunch of GIR commanders.

There are various names being mentioned as possible successors to Ayatollah Khamenei, such as Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroodi, Ayatollah Larijani, Ayatollah Raessi, etc. But all these people should be seen as part of a tactic to divert attention from the efforts being made to promote the supreme leader’s son, Mujtaba Khamenei, as the next supreme leader.

It is quite understandable that Ayatollah Khamanei does not want his children to have the destiny of Ayatollah Khomeini’s and Rafsanjani’s children. Khomeini’s son Ahmad Khomeini’s death is still shrouded in mystery, and his grandson Hassan Khomeini was disqualified by the Guardian Council from standing in the Assembly of Experts election last year.

Rafsanjani’s son Mehdi, on the other hand, is behind bars. Therefore, none of the above candidates is Ayatollah’s Khamanei’s priority, nor do any of them have the potential to generate a consensus among the GIR commanders.

In reality, the fabricated lack of personal power and capacity as well as a clash of interests among the GIR commanders would help Mujtaba Khamenei emerge as a legitimate and unifying force for these commanders, and consequently as the next supreme leader.

Under the shadow of a young, inexperienced and weak supreme leader like Mujtaba, surrounded by GIR commanders, any president who does not follow the instructions of the GIR would be removed either through a post-modernist coup (the way Turkey’s late Necmettin Erbakan was pressured to step down from the premiership in 1997), or through impeachment by parliament, as the majority of its parliamentarians either have good connections with the GIR or are themselves its former members.

Essentially the presidency in Iran is a weak position subject to legal and extralegal interference from non-republican institutions. The lack of a powerful backer like Rafsanjani would limit the options of the president further.

Ideally, in such a situation, the president should seek his voters’ support through a public appeal, the way Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did on the occasion of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt.

But this requires an efficient charismatic leader of Erdogan’s caliber, one for whom thousands of people should be ready to sacrifice their lives. Such a personality would not be able to cross the Guardian Council barrier. More importantly, in the case of Turkey, the July 15 putschists surrendered to the will of the people, which is not the case with the GIR.

The best example in this regard is the heavy crackdown of the post-2009 controversial presidential election riots, during which hundreds of people were arrested, tortured, and killed.

As far as President Hassan Rouhani is concerned, the conservatives have already started testing the waters to make him a single-term president.

Only a few days ago, Abbasali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for the Guardian Council, stated that being president does not guarantee Rouhani will qualify to run in the 2017 presidential election. Kadkhodaei cited as examples dozens of parliament members prevented from running for reelection in every parliamentary poll.  

To ensure a smooth transition of power from the current supreme leader to his son, it is very important to have a person like former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, or Parviz Fattah (head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee), in the presidential office.

Even figures such as Ali Larijani or Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf would not serve the purpose, because they are self-made people, and despite being conservatives, they maintain their own independent personalities. 

While Rouhani relied on Rafsanjani in the previous election, this time he needs to stand on his own two feet. He also does not mind filling the vacuum created by Rafsanjani’s departure and emerging as an inter-fractional broker.

In the last couple of years, every statement of the supreme leader has been followed by a counter-statement from Rouhani. But he may not continue this. Instead he will try to get closer to the supreme leader. 

Yet, this involves the risk of losing at least a portion of his reformist supporters. Although the reformists are currently merged with the moderates, they would eventually reclaim their reformist identity.

To be specific, despite the heavy crackdown on the reformist and Green Movement activists over the last eight years, the nature of slogans and the number of people attending Rafsanjani’s funeral suggest that the Green Movement is still alive, and has the potential to re-emerge and reorganize in a more radical way as soon as they feel that Rouhani has betrayed them.

*Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy

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