Khamenei Tries To Force Generals Back Into Line
14 July 2015
By Amir Taheri
Is Iran's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei worried that the forthcoming elections
for Majlis (Parliament) and the Assembly of Experts might cause a split
within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)?
The question is not academic.
Over the past year, various IRGC active or retired commanders have been
making almost daily media appearances to promote diverse positions on a range
of political issues, notably President Hassan Rouhani's efforts for
rapprochement with the United States. Theoretically, the IRGC should not
intervene in politics, a position stressed by the late Ayatollah Khomeini,
the founder of the Islamic Republic.
However, the IRGC has always been a political rather than military arm of the
regime. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic defines the IRGC's role in
defending the political system while "exporting" the Khomeinist revolution
whenever possible. The regime has always used the IRGC to crush dissent,
recruit terrorists abroad, and, when needed, "arrange" elections to produce
results desired by the "Supreme Guide".
For the first time, the IRGC is speaking in different and, at times,
discordant voices. One reason may be Khamenei's ambiguous position on some
key issues. On the nuclear talks, for example, Khamenei has been clearly
hedging his bets. He has set pale "red-lines" but refused to pull the rug
from under Rouhani's feet when those are crossed.
In the Khomeinist system, politics has never proceeded in the chiaroscuro of
nuances. This is an "either/or" system, a win-or-lose game, with a
black-and-white vision of existence. For Khomeinist rulers nurtured on a sick
ideology, the so-called "win-win" game marketed by Rouhani and his "New York
Group" is hard to understand let alone adopt. Thus the IRGC commanders are
Some hope that Iran will close the chapter of revolution and become a normal
state in which the military could focus on their essential role as guardians
of the nation's safety and security while gaining access to the latest
Others fear that normalization might lead to demands for the abolition of the
IRGC or, at least, its merger with the regular armed forces. After all, if
the revolution is absorbed into the machinery of state, there would be no
need for a separate force to guard it. (Plans to merge the IRGC into the
regular armed forces have been on and off the table since the 1980s.)
The IRGC has a vested interest in Iran remaining in a state of revolutionary
hysteria. In such a state, the IRGC is able to claim special treatment, for
example in the form of the recent 30 per cent increase in its budget. It is
also allowed to dabble in all sorts of businesses through over 400 companies
with a combined turnover estimated at 10 per cent of the gross domestic
Membership of the IRGC provides a fast-track to upward mobility. Once an IRGC
officer has retired, he could claim plum jobs in the civil and diplomatic
service, become member of the ersatz parliament or a Cabinet minister, or
secure positions as provincial governors and major city mayors, or seats on
the board of directors of public corporations. IRGC commanders also have
their eyes on one day capturing the presidency. (So far eight have been
candidates without success.)
Another reason for the current cacophony is linked to persistent but often
inexact reports regarding Khamenei's declining health. If Khamenei lives as
long as Khomeini, he would have another 14 years to go. Right now, there is
no prospect of him being removed with a vote from the Assembly of Experts.
Nevertheless, the rival factions are already looking for successors. The IRGC
hopes to have a big say in choosing a successor or a collective leadership
formula as some suggest.
The faction led by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and including Rouhani and his
"New York Group," is anxious to script the IRGC out of the equation before
the next elections in March 2016.
"Intervention by government, the IRGC, the state-owned radio and television
network, or the governor in favor of this or that candidate is poison for
elections," Rouhani said in a recent speech.
His critics, however, claim Rouhani himself was an IRGC member of long
standing, and director of its principal business empire, and that his
election was engineered by the force on Khamenei's orders.
Clearly, Khamenei regards the IRGC as his chief instrument of power, and is
determined to reaffirm his control over it. Last week, Ayatollah Ali Saeedi,
Khamenei's Special Representative in the IRGC, a kind of religious-political
commissar, warned the generals not to "speak out of turn."
"In the IRGC everyone must act within the framework fixed by the high
command," he said. "If they don't, they would lack legitimacy as members of
The threat of cashiering disobedient officers or forcing them into early
retirement is timely because it comes just months before annual promotions in
October. To hammer in the point, Saeedi declared that from now on promotion
from full colonel to the rank of general would need the approval of the
"Supreme Guide". Hitherto, the "Supreme Guide" has intervened in promotions
above the rank of brigadier-general (one star).
According to Saeedi, the religious commissars of the IRGC will now act like
the Guardian Council that decides who could stand for election and whose
election victory is accepted. In other words, it is not up to the military
alone to decide promotions. Through his Special Representative, the "Supreme
Guide" could promote anybody to any rank within the IRGC.
The ayatollah also announced an expansion of the role of religious commissars
within the IRGC, including "supervision of security and para-security
Khamenei's move to re-impose discipline on the IRGC has a political
dimension. In an oblique warning against backing "questionable candidates" in
next March elections, Saeedi called for "supporting genuine believers."
"We do not want to intervene in elections," he said. "All we say is: vote for
genuine believers. This does not mean intervening in elections. The others
[factions] have a secret agenda to vote for those who are as far from the
system as possible."
The ayatollah went to accuse rival factions of seeking to undermine
Khamenei's position. "There are numerous efforts to transform our
fundamentalist Majlis into something else," he said. "And that would be a
threat to the Imam's ideals, to the Supreme Leader and the [vital] interests
of the regime."
Khamenei is worried. He has reason to be. Islamic history is full of
instances of guardians of the caliph ending up seizing power for themselves.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.