Analysis: The IRGC runs for high office in Tehran

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan. Image from Mehr News Agency.

It’s not every day that a former hostage-taker and a man essential to the founding of a designated terrorist organization throws his hat into the ring for president, not even in the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is why all eyes should be on 63 year-old Brigadier General and veteran of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Dehghan, who expressed interest in participating in the June 2021 Iranian presidential election.  

“I will enter [lit. come] with strength and I believe that the people must be saved from the current situation,” confirmed Dehghan. While all Iranian presidential contenders must first be approved by the 12-member Guardian Council, Dehghan’s statement validates older rumors in Iranian media about his presidential aspirations.

Several other IRGC-linked individuals, be they men who formerly donned the uniform in a leadership capacity or those who now serve as heads of key parastatal institutions and guard Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s wealth, are also reportedly considering a presidential bid. None, however, appear to have sparked the storm of analyses over military men in Iranian politics like Dehghan. 

And with good reason. The troika of Dehghan’s biography, the domestic implications of his candidacy, and its impact on U.S. policy are too large to ignore.

Dehghan’s Revolutionary Resume

Born in 1957 in Shahreza, Esfahan province, Hossein Dehghan’s resume reads as a veritable checklist for the role of consummate security official in the Islamic Republic. For starters, Dehghan partook in the U.S.-Iran Hostage Crisis, and has been pictured in Iranian media alongside a blindfolded American diplomat to burnish his revolutionary credentials. Dehghan also joined the IRGC in its earliest days and saw service during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, a defining conflict for revolutionary Iran with far-reaching implications, including for current U.S. policy

During the war, Dehghan served as commander of the IRGC’s Sarallah base responsible for Tehran from 1984-1986. Prior to that, Israeli scholars relate that Dehghan was sent to Syria and Lebanon in response to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel. His task was to lead IRGC forces in Lebanon and help establish what has become Iran’s most powerful proxy force, Lebanese Hezbollah. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, Dehghan oversaw IRGC assets in the Levant when the U.S. marine barracks was bombed in October 1983 by Hezbollah, killing 241 servicepersons. For the U.S., the attack is second only to 9/11 in terms of lives lost. 

After the war, Dehghan became the second Commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF), a branch of the Guard Corps that was established in 1985 with operational oversight of Iran’s missile arsenal. Despite lasting a mere 19 months there, his leadership came at a critical juncture. Iran’s interest in missiles for purposes of deterrence by punishment was peaked by the Iran-Iraq War. Immediately after the war, Iran commenced a flurry of missile-related activities to include production, procurement, and proliferation of whole systems and components parts, an obsession that continues to this day. 

Dehghan’s tenure at the IRGC-AF ended in 1992, the same year the U.S. sanctioned Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) for missile ties with North Korea. Today, Iran has, according to American intelligence, the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East. One can easily say then, that Dehghan was “present at creation” for both Hezbollah, and Iran’s missile arsenal, two deadly elements of Iran’s long-range strike capabilities and pillars of the regime’s security policy. 

Dehghan’s other post-war positions include Deputy Commander of the IRGC’s Joint Staff and head of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation, both of which predate his service in the cabinet of reformist President Mohammad Khatami. From 1997-2003, Dehghan was Deputy Minister of Defense to Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani in the Khatami administration. Dehghan stayed on for one more year in Khatami’s second term as a special advisor to Shamkhani. He then returned to Iran’s web of parastatal institutions, leading the Martyr’s Foundation for a period of five years, concurrent with most of two terms of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Dehghan’s tenure at the Martyr’s Foundation coincided with Washington’s sanctioning of the entity under counter-terrorism authorities in 2007, wherein a Treasury Department press release confirmed the entity’s support to Lebanese Hezbollah.

Further broadening his network, the last significant entity Dehghan worked for prior to service in Rouhani’s cabinet for one term as defense minister (2013-2017), was as an advisor to the head of a financial holding company tied to Iran’s Supreme Leader. The entity is known by its acronym, EIKO, and is also sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. Despite being passed over for defense minister in Rouhani’s second cabinet, Dehghan was appointed by Khamenei in August 2017 to serve as an advisor for defense industries and armed forces logistics. As a reminder, an appointment by Iran’s Supreme Leader – the actual Commander-in-Chief of Iran’s Armed Forces – is worth much more than an appointment by Iran’s president.

Of note, Dehghan has a PhD in management from Tehran University. He has also reportedly taught at four universities in Iran, one of which – Imam Hussein University – is directly affiliated with the IRGC and is under U.S. sanctions. Ironically, so too is Dehghan, who was designated last November and is subject to secondary sanctions. In fact, Dehghan’s resume contains a veritable “who’s who” of sanctioned entities throughout Iran.

Unpacking Dehghan At The Domestic Level

Ironically, this diverse network, ranging from the defense establishment, to parastatal institutions, and service in various presidential administrations, is what makes Dehghan a potentially attractive candidate to Iran’s most important “voter,” Supreme Leader Khamenei.  Khamenei has called on Iran’s political elite to bring forth a government which is “young” and “Hezbollahi,” or put differently, not octogenarian but ideologically hardline. 

Here, Dehghan’s commentary, particularly in recent years, is instructive. His vitriol against America has been on full display, and he has embraced the bully pulpit at more critical junctures than ever before in his career. For instance, in 2020 alone, Dehghan threatened the U.S. with a kinetic response to the killing of IRGC Quds-Force Commander Qassem Soleimani earlier this January during an exclusive televised interview with CNN. He also called U.S. President Donald Trump a “terrorist,” and alleged that Israel was behind the recent port explosion in Beirut. 

Dehghan’s more belligerent commentary, like that of select other Iranian military officials, is being used by the regime to both emphasize deterrence by punishment for enemies abroad, as well as to signal resolve and calm to audiences at home which may be skeptical of Iran’s ability to withstand sustained foreign pressure. For instance, Dehghan has said, “Any action by them [U.S.] will be met with a decisive and sorrow [-inducing] response from the nation of Iran.”

Increasingly, Khamenei has felt comfortable promoting this sort of belligerency as a stand in for deterrence. One prominent example is the musical chairs Khamenei played in April 2019 when then-Brigadier General, now Major-General, Hossein Salami, was made to replace Major General Mohammad-Ali Aziz-Jafari as Commander of the entire Guard Corps. Years of Salami’s commentary, rather than his qualifications, likely increased his attractiveness for the promotion. Lest we forget the highly public nature of the Iranian presidency, Khamenei may be looking for a counterpuncher president that can echo the hardliners already at the helm of the parliament, judiciary, defense establishment, and of course, the Guard Corps.

While Khamenei has enjoyed being Iran’s most powerful person for three decades, he is now in the eighth decade of his life. In an attempt to create a lasting legacy and preserve the Islamic Revolution, Khamenei may deem it necessary to stamp out factional infighting, or at the very least, diminish factionalism’s relevance in Iranian domestic and foreign policy. Should the Supreme Leader die in the next four-to-eight years, a post-factional Iran featuring hardliners and former IRGC veterans in almost all positions of power and/or relevance would be his best bet to ensure revolutionary steadfastness over partisan fracture and disillusion. That’s where Dehghan comes in.

Dehghan’s loyalty to the system is demonstrated by his resume, but also by his safeguarding of both the regime’s interest and the supreme leader’s image during disputes. 

For example, when previously pressed on a television show as to why Rouhani did not pick him to serve as defense minister for a second term, Dehghan refused to share partisan insights and brushed off any insinuation that he had butted heads with or was hurt by Rouhani. “Sulking has no meaning when the aim is service, service to the Revolution, system, and people,” he said. Such comments are not a one off for Dehghan. Perhaps somewhat controversially, Dehghan had also reportedly advised Green Movement Leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the heyday of the fraudulent 2009 presidential contest to put an end to protests through a two-pronged approach that could ensure Mousavi remains on the political “stage.” First, to have Mousavi unify the regime by publicly accepting the electoral results in favor of Ahmadinejad, and then, to pen a letter to Khamenei sharing his concerns. His rationale? Never to publicly undermine the regime or air its dirty laundry and that loyalty to Khamenei should always be priority number one. Even when Dehghan has leveled domestic critiques, he usually circles back to praising Khamenei in the same conversation. “I have worked with the Supreme Leader of the Revolution for several years. It is not possible for you to want to do the right thing and that he [lit. master] will not support you,” said Dehghan in a larger interview commenting on Iran’s foreign policy.

Cognizant of this ability, Dehghan has sought to highlight the post-partisan or non-factional nature of his service to the Islamic Republic. In an interview from two years ago, Dehghan brandished that he had never been a member of any “political group” as a badge of honor. Putting aside for a moment his decades-long affiliation with the IRGC (which should be interpreted as belonging to a most important military, political, and economic group), in that regard, Dehghan is not unique. Lest we forget, when campaigning for president in 2013, then-candidate Hassan Rouhani attempted to do something similar, saying, “I don’t have a good relationship with extremism,” and, “I have never been an extremist, neither to the left nor to the right.”

While Dehghan and Rouhani share further similarity in that they have no “natural constituency” given their years of service to Iran’s unelected security state, Rouhani, a pupil of former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, clearly sought to co-opt the reform movement. Whom Dehghan’s political mentor may be remains unclear, but as a Guardsman and a war veteran, he clearly has a stronger support network. However, the mere existence of this network does automatically translate to a Dehghan victory in 2021. While Iran’s electoral contests are certainly no exercise in representative government, how popular a military-led government would be is at best, highly debatable. Hero-worship may have deep roots (with modern manifestations) in Iranian political culture, but compared to other authoritarian regimes, modern Iranian history is not replete with examples of the successful merging of martial and political traditions (with select exceptions, of course).

Dehghan’s decision to leverage his network and run for president is indicative of more than just of a growing ultra-hardline ascendency in Iranian politics (as in recent parliamentary elections). It could be an attempt by the IRGC to solidify control of Iran’s key political and economic institutions, a move which some scholars claim is in tension with the clerical origins of the regime (note: other scholars see the clerical and military wings as more supportive of one another). To that effect, it is worth recalling that the founding father of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, cautioned military men “to keep away from political games” and from entering into politics. To date, the Islamic Republic has never had a former IRGC general serve as president. In fact, Ahmadinejad is the only president ever to have ties to the IRGC. Of the Islamic Republic’s seven presidents in the past 41 years, four have been clerics and three have been civilians, one of which came from a clerical family. 

Enter Washington?

Should Dehghan be formally approved by the Guardian Council, and later, win the presidency, Washington would be dealing for the first time with a sanctioned Iranian president, a proposition that stands to make even incremental diplomacy with the Islamic Republic a greater political challenge. Moreover, there is a growing opposition to diplomacy with Washington in Tehran (and in particular to President Trump), something which Supreme Leader Khamenei, Dehghan, and other IRGC veterans in political positions have weighed-in publicly on. Much depends on how Iran weathers the current sanctions storm, something that will be subject to change in Washington if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election this November. 

Some scholars have argued that a Dehghan presidency, which they are correct to note as being a veil or stand-in for an IRGC presidency, necessarily requires a change in policy from Washington to confront. However, this author strongly disagrees. In the past four years, Washington appears to have dispensed with the claim that moderates exist in the Iranian political system and can be bolstered through a program of selective engagement and diplomacy. Hence, the current use of broad based sanctions designed to foster macro-economic contraction concurrent with enhanced oil sanctions designed to drive down earnings as well as sectoral sanctions against key industries has been the default national security tool for the current administration. If an IRGC general wins the Iranian presidency next year, it should remain the way ahead, as it does not discriminate between different arms or entities of the Iranian government. The more important, and albeit, confounding policy debate is, whether a Donald Trump or Joe Biden administration will supplement such economic pressure with other tools, like kinetic ones, as a more risk-tolerant and aggressive IRGC in the region is to be expected under an IRGC presidency.

Expecting the Expected

Time will tell if Dehghan’s presidential bid will end up like that of previous military men, such as former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaie, who partook in several failed presidential quests. Dehghan’s resume however, reads as that of a man who has been in the right place at the time, and as one who has gained the right network of friends along the way. Prudence dictates that Washington would do well to keep its eyes on him, his campaign, as well as that of other military-aligned individuals who may be seeking to become Iran’s next president.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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