Revolutionary Guard Meddling in Iranian Politics Began Decades Ago

By Patrick Goodenough | February 19, 2010 | 1:14 AM EST

Mostafa Mohammed Najjar is one of several former senior IRGC figures currently in the Iranian government. He was defense minister in Ahmadinejad’s first cabinet and is now interior minister. He is seen here at an exhibition marking the anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – The Obama administration is painting Tehran’s failure to respond to its overtures as the result of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) having “supplanted” political and clerical leaders who would otherwise likely have been more open to engaging the U.S.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week repeatedly put forward this narrative in explaining Iran’s rejection of President Obama’s outreach – a rejection she said was contrary to the expectations of “many experts.”

In a series of interviews and remarks while visiting Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Clinton returned again and again to the argument. She also asserted that past Iranian governments, even though at times problematic, had been democratically elected.

If it had not been for a resurgent IRGC, she suggested, Tehran would have responded positively to Obama.

Although her remark in Qatar that “Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship” was widely reported, the fact that she said Iran’s supreme leader and president were among those being “supplanted” by the IRGC drew rather less attention.

That reading of the situation suggests that supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are casualties of the IRGC’s expanding influence, rather than key collaborators in a process that began long before the disputed 2009 election – and long before Obama offered his hand.

“When President Obama came into office, many experts believed that his offer of engagement would be reciprocated, that there would be a view on the part of the Iranian leadership that this was in their interest,” Clinton told the BBC on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to pass. And then the election which occurred has created turmoil inside Iran, and we believe has perhaps shifted the balance of power.”

“From our perspective and talking to many experts on Iran … the general conclusion is that there is something happening so that the political and the clerical leadership don’t seem to be able to make the decisions,” she told Bloomberg the same day.

“You have to ask yourself, why, when so many experts thought that there would be a positive response to President Obama’s outreach, has there not?” Clinton said in an interview with Al Arabiya television. “The growing body of opinion is that something has changed within Iran, that the Revolutionary Guard is assuming more and more control over the security apparatus, the nuclear program, as well as commercial enterprises.”

And Clinton told Al Hurra television it was “troubling” that the IRGC seemed to be getting more powerful while “the clerical and the political leadership gets less so.”

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is effectively not answerable to anyone. (AP Photo)

Supreme leader has promoted IRGC in politics for 20 years

The shift of focus is clearly designed to win support for tightening sanctions on the IRGC – rather than the more radical step of targeting gasoline imports, as called for by U.S. lawmakers and others – but it also serves the purpose of explaining the failure of Obama’s outreach effort.

Whether the interpretation of events is correct is open to dispute.

Experts say that Khamenei has been nurturing and strengthening the IRGC since he took up his unelected position 20 years ago, and that the Guard was largely responsible for Ahmadinejad’s rise to the presidency in 2005.  (Ahmadinejad was himself reportedly in the IRGC during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and he ushered in fellow former members of the Guard and its Quds Force into key cabinet posts in 2005 and again in 2009.)
According to Mohsen Sazegara, a co-founder of the IRGC in 1979 who later fell foul of the regime and now lives in exile in the U.S., the Guards’ deviation into politics began with Khamenei’s rise to the top post in 1989.

“Before Khamenei assumed the mantle of leadership, ambitious Revolutionary Guard commanders who displayed an interest in entering into politics were severely reprimanded,” Sazegara wrote in a 2007 article published by The Forward and posted on his Web site.

“[Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini firmly believed that no military establishment should be allowed to involve itself in the political life of the nation,” he wrote. “Once Khamenei came into power, however, Khomeini’s restrictions were no longer adhered to, and political appointments of Revolutionary Guard members became quite regular.”

Sazegara said that during the presidency of reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Khamenei has allowed key IRGC members to enter politics as “part of a strategy aimed at safeguarding Khamenei’s own position of power, which was threatened by a clear absence of popular support.”

“With the backing of Khamenei, Revolutionary Guard commanders have done their very best to expand their influence over the legislative and judicial branches of government,” he added.
Iran specialist Ali Alfoneh, a visiting research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed Thursday that the IRGC’s infiltration of Iran’s power centers began many years ago.

He said it accelerated during the Khatami era, as “Ayatollah Khamenei feared Khatami could be the Gorbachev of Iran – someone who believes in the system, but whose reform efforts could come out of control and atomize the Islamic Republic.”

Alfoneh, whose doctoral research includes a special focus on the IRGC, said Khamenei had therefore urged former IRGC officers to counterbalance the reform movement associated with Khatami.

He had done the same thing again during the current crisis, targeting the “green movement” that emerged out of the election dispute last June.

Alfoneh allowed that the relationship between the supreme ruler and IRGC was now such that Khamenei could not continue to rule without its support, and that if Ahmadinejad turned out to be a liability rather than an asset, the IRGC could throw its support behind someone else.

In this file photo taken in Nov. 2003, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leads top clerics in prayer. (AP Photo)

Democracy, Iran-style

Another element of Clinton’s account  of recent developments in Iran is the claim that previous governments were “democratically elected.”

“I think that the change in Iran from democratically elected governments – whether one agreed with them or not – which had the support of the Iranian people, to what we see today is very dramatic and troubling,” she said in Riyadh on Monday.

Tehran frequently draws attention to the fact it holds regular elections – as it did again this week at the U.N. Human Rights Council – but critics say it hardly qualifies as a free electoral democracy.

Although elected by a body called the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei is effectively not answerable to anyone.  The Assembly of Experts is theoretically able to dismiss him, but doing so would be practically impossible because the Assembly members are vetted by another body, the legal-religious Council of Guardians, which in turn is appointed by Khamenei.

The Council of Guardians’ role includes approving presidential candidates, and it has disqualified the vast majority of would-be contenders in every presidential election since the first in 1980.

Provincial governors in Iran are appointed by the central government. This has given the regime further opportunity to install IRGC figures in key posts; Ahmadinejad in 2005 appointed a former Guard officer as governor of Khuzestan, a restive province with an Arab majority.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has never had democratic elections,” Alfoneh said Thursday.

“Elections in Iran since 1979 have at best been ‘guided elections’ at which the Iranian public was asked to renew its allegiance to [the supreme leader],” he said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow