The deep entanglement of Iran’s military apparatus in the country’s politics, economy, and society is a well-known fact. Its interventionist role must be curbed to avoid catastrophe.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a force of roughly 125,000 personnel officially tasked with protecting the Islamic ruling system, also has its fingers in almost every sector of the economy, engaging in all manner of commercial activities, often without paying tax or answering to anyone, least of all the government. Along with their Basij paramilitary branch, the IRGC responds to anti-establishment protests and calls for democratic change in Iran with an iron fist.
Although there are no free and fair elections in Iran, the IRGC views even the sham elections as an impediment to their domination if their candidates are not chosen.
As the constitution allows, candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections are rigorously vetted by unelected and hand-picked ideologues, but voters time and again refuse to choose military’s candidates, even from the limited pool offered to them.
In 2005 and 2009, the military vigorously intervened to elect and reelect their candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president, with disastrous results. People revolted in the streets and the regime paid a high price. In 2013 and 2017 the military’s candidates did not have a chance, and Hassan Rouhani was easily elected and reelected.
Even Ahmadinejad, the military backed candidate, during his second term began to show defiance to the Supreme Leader, who enjoys the dogged loyalty of the IRGC.
Nevertheless, we were recently reminded again of the IRGC’s influence when Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was left in the dark about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to Iran, after which Zarif immediately tendered his resignation. Instead of meeting with the foreign minister, Assad met with IRGC Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani, further proof that the military represents Iran in the region; not the foreign ministry.
Meanwhile, Rouhani has also attacked the military’s role in the economy. He has said that companies set up by state actors outside the jurisdiction of the government play a counter-productive role, since they are not accountable to private owners and not accountable to the government. He reiterated that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also spoken several times about the military disengaging from economic activities.
Judging by their rhetoric, the IRGC are pursuing the following agenda:
First, with the help of the state broadcaster, dozens of websites, and Friday prayer leaders, they divide society into “true Jihadi revolutionaries” and Westernized Iranians who are not to be trusted.
Second, they are bent on keeping Iran from normal relations with the West by labeling the nuclear agreement as “treason” and not allowing Iran to accept laws against money-laundering and terror-financing demanded by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). In this case they are completely opposed to Zarif. The FATF requirements are not just Western demands. If Iran refrains from accepting these conditions, no one will do business with the country’s financial system; neither China nor South Africa—not even the Russians, as Zarif has publicly argued.
Third, they try to portray the Rouhani government as the culprit for the country’s economic problems, while they are the ones who are responsible for creating non-transparent monopolies, and along with Khamenei, have pursued a foreign policy that has led to Iran’s economic isolation.
Fourth, IRGC affiliates and their hardliner allies constantly call for Rouhani’s resignation.
The power struggle between hardliners and centrists within the ruling establishment presents an opportunity for civil society and democratic forces to strengthen labor unions and various other grass-roots organizations.
But while the infighting can be exploited by pro-democracy civil society, one mustn’t forget that centrists such as Rouhani and Zarif prevent war and they should be defended on those grounds.
In historical examples of successful transitions to democracy, there has always been an alliance of democracy and civil society activists with centrists. The two must band together to prevent the military from tightening its grip on the country to a stranglehold, as has been the case in Pakistan and Egypt.