Iranians head to the polls today to choose between “bad and worse” in yet another unfair-and-unfree presidential election. The primary challenger, Ebrahim Raisi – who is considered a frontrunner to succeed Khamenei – has received the support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – the protector of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution that has long cast a dark shadow over the country.
The Guard’s political interference has at times been so blatant that incumbent President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday publicly called on it not to meddle. During the final debate last week, Rouhani criticized the Guards for mobilizing support for Raisi.
Some in the West point to this as proof that Rouhani is the “lesser of two evils,” yet the political effect of this difference is minimal. Rouhani cannot overcome the Guards and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on matters of foreign and security policy—to the extent that he even has differences with them. Rouhani’s feud with the corps goes back to the Iran-Iraq War and is less politically convulsive than can sometimes appear to outside observers.
Since 1989, the Revolutionary Guards’ intervention in Iranian politics and commerce has expanded dramatically under the watch of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has relied on the corps to consolidate his power.
While Rouhani has installed more intelligence ministry than Guard veterans in his cabinet, the corps overshadows all other security and military institutions.
Khamenei and the Guards exercise formal and informal means to check the elected branches. The corps’ decision-making hierarchy is dominated by a tightly-knit network of Iran-Iraq War (1980 – 1988) veterans loyal to the supreme leader. During the reform era (1997 – 2005), Khamenei and the Guards curtailed the agenda of former President Mohammad Khatami and purged reformists from the parliament.
As a partly conscript military organization, however, the 150,000-strong Guard Corps somewhat mirrors society, though more so the pro-regime base since Iranians who don’t support the regime often prefer to enlist in the regular army. The Revolutionary Guards purged their ranks after the massive demonstrations following the 2009 presidential election: many officers and the rank-and-file refused to attack protesters. Senior commanders have become more careful about vetting officers. Khamenei-picked clerical commissars enforce ideological conformity and the corps’ Counterintelligence Organization, souped up after 2009, roots out dissent.
Factionalism among the Guards, however, remains. For instance, former senior commander and parliamentarian Mansour Haghighatpour told a pro-reform newspaper the Guards foiled his re-election bid in the northwestern district of Ardebil last year because he voted for the 2015 nuclear accord.
The Revolutionary Guard has promoted Raisi before he announced his presidential run. Raisi, who owes his power to the supreme leader, has long been close to Iran’s security services. After Khamenei last year appointed Raisi the trustee of Iran’s wealthiest endowment, the Reza Holy Precinct, top Guard commanders visited him in Mashhad. Media affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard then began promoting Raisi with the senior title of “Ayatollah.” That indicated Raisi was being groomed for the higher office of supreme leader, which nominally requires the senior clerical rank (the media has now returned to calling Raisi a mid-ranking cleric).
Even before the withdrawal of Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a former senior Guard commander, from the presidential campaign, Raisi generated the most buzz in hardline circles. Prominent Guard theoretician Hassan Abbasi even claims there’s a “strange” aura to Raisi’s campaign rallies. Photos of guardsmen in Syria declaring their support for Raisi are now commonplace in Iranian social media. The corps’ weekly Sobh-e Sadegh’s latest edition all but endorses Raisi without naming him directly.
Some in Khamenei’s close circle successfully pushed Raisi to run for president even though he’d initially refused. Cleric Ali Panahian, head of the pro-Khamenei think tank Ammar Base, told a militant seminary in Qom this month that Raisi consented to run with reservations. Panahian viewed Raisi as “one of the sources of support” for the Islamic Republic regardless of “the result of the election.” Panahian has dubbed Raisi the “seyyed of the dispossessed” (“seyyed” is an honorific given to descendants of the Prophet Muhammad).
The Guard Corps has also directly mobilized supporters for Raisi’s campaign rallies. A reporter who attended Raisi’s Tehran campaign rally this week said the vast majority of attendees were members of the Basij – an all-volunteer, paramilitary organization that falls under the corps’ command. Eyewitnesses outside the campaign rally videotaped men on motorcycles and more than a dozen buses – hallmarks of the Guard’s mobilization.
The Revolutionary Guards might try to tip the results in Raisi’s favor. Polls by their media seem to predict a Raisi victory. The Guard Corps has attempted to station forces at Tehran’s ballot stations on election day, drawing the protest of a senior official from the interior ministry, which counts the votes and is under the control of Rouhani. Iranian parliamentarian Mahmoud Sadeghi this week warned about the spread of undercover security agents in Tehran, some of whom vowed to crush the “green sedition,” referring to the 2009 Green Movement. The Guard may want to rig the results by a few points to avoid the mistake of declaring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner by a large margin, which instantly led to widespread suspicions of fraud and massive demonstrations.
Rouhani’s supporters may well accuse the corps and the supreme leader of fraud if Raisi wins. Rouhani has been leading the polls and the public expects high turnout of the reformist base, which could only benefit Rouhani. The president has loudly and repeatedly warned against the Guards’ meddling in this election.
For his part, Khamenei has not overtly expressed his preference for president but has criticized Rouhani throughout the campaign, and has vowed to “slap in the face” anyone who “wishes to disrupt security.” He obviously fears a repetition of 2009 that rocked the regime to its core.
Whatever the result of the election, the Guard Corps will remain the most powerful network in the country. A Raisi presidency would be beholden. A Rouhani victory, however, cannot roll back the Guards’ influence. The Islamic Republic’s history leaves no doubt that republican institutions are incapable of overcoming the unelected powers of the supreme leader and his praetorians, who perceive reform as an existential threat. The prospect for gradual, peaceful reform within the Islamic Republic is bleak.