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The Militarisation of Iran’s Presidency: The IRGC and the 2021 Elections

Kasra Aarabi
Commentary, 1 October 2020
Iran
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have always been influential. They are about to get even more so.

For decades, the Iranian regime’s ideological army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has formed part of Iran’s ‘deep state’. Today, it is on the verge of taking over the state in its entirety and in doing so has set its eyes on Iran’s presidency.

The IRGC has several strong presidential candidates, including IRGC member Parviz Fattah, head of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s ideological charity, the Mostazafan Foundation, and Saeed Mohammad, who leads Khatam Al-Anbia, the IRGC’s construction conglomerate. Yet they are becoming increasingly overshadowed by an IRGC heavyweight, Hossein Dehghan, a Guards commander who served as Iran’s incumbent president Hassan Rouhani’s defence minister and is currently Khamenei’s military advisor.

In recent months, Dehghan has met key regime figures, including the IRGC’s elite and the Supreme Leader’s clerical representatives, in what looks like an attempt to gain their endorsement for 2021. On paper, Dehghan is not only the IRGC’s perfect candidate, but is everything the 81-year old Khamenei could ask for in terms of securing his legacy.

Khamenei’s Unity Candidate

Hossein Dehghan is one of the IRGC’s most experienced members. Having played an active role in securing the clergy’s takeover of post-revolutionary Iran in 1979, he joined the Guards in 1980, a member of their founding cohort. As well as holding senior positions in the IRGC – including commander of the IRGC’s air force between 1990–92 – Dehghan has held key positions in the past three presidential administrations.

As his experience underlines, Dehghan is not a partisan figure and has maintained amicable relations with both hardline and so-called ‘reformist’ circles, declaring ‘I have never been, am not, and will never be a member of any of the political groups’. True to his word, Dehghan’s only loyalty is to Khamenei and his indifference to working with hardliners and ‘reformists’ testifies to the fact that both factions function to preserve Khamenei and his system.

His unbridled commitment to the Supreme Leader is rooted in his IRGC worldview, which regards Khamenei as the infallible leader of not just Iran, but the entire Shia community. Dehghan best demonstrated this when he told Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist presidential candidate, to accept the outcome of the 2009 presidential elections ‘even if [he was] absolutely right’ about the fraudulent results as it was the supreme leader’s will. While all of Iran’s elite display rhetorical loyalty to Khamenei, it is Dehghan’s practical devotion to ‘velayat-e faqih(clerical guardianship) that makes him such an attractive choice for a supreme leader eager to secure his legacy.

Crucially for Khamenei, Dehghan also has the potential to gain cross-factional support and present himself as the clerical regime’s ‘unity candidate’, binding the divisions which could appear in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Leader’s death. Aware of this potential, Dehghan reportedly had a secret meeting with Ghalibaaf and Mohsen Rezaie, influential figures within the IRGC and the hardline camp, and Ali Shamkani, aligned with so-called ‘reformists’, to secure their backing and leverage their support base as the unity candidate. But what would the Islamic Republic look like under a Dehghan presidency?

An IRGC Economy

Giving the IRGC greater power in Iran’s streets would almost certainly be coupled with increasing its control over the economy. This would be familiar territory for Dehghan. As general manager of the IRGC’s investment arm, Bonyad-e Taavon-e Sepah, during the post-war reconstruction efforts, he played an important role in driving the early economic activities of the Guards.

The expansion of the IRGC’s economic activities would be framed under the banner of Khamenei’s ‘resistance economy’, an agenda that seeks to circumvent international sanctions through domestic production as well as smuggling and illicit trade, which Dehghan supports, referring to increasing homegrown capabilities as ‘solving the people’s major problems’. In practice, this means expanding the activities of Khatam Al-Anbia, the IRGC’s construction conglomerate and Iran’s largest contractor, which has flexed its muscles in the absence of foreign investment. During his time as Rouhani’s defence minister, Dehghan pushed for government contracts to be awarded to Khatam Al-Anbia, in spite of the signing of the nuclear agreement which opened the door to foreign investment. He has openly condemned trade-oriented members of Iran’s elite who, he says, think ‘foreigners do it better than us’. Such discourse mimics Khamenei’s, who recently took a swipe at officials who regard talks with the US as the solution to Tehran’s economic problems, asserting that the ‘definitive cure for [US] sanctions [which have damaged the Iranian economy] is to rely on domestic power, not retreating in the face of the US’.

Foreign Policy under a Dehghan Presidency

Yet the most significant consequence of an IRGC presidency would be the further militarisation of Iran’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

The IRGC, in particular its extraterritorial branch, the Quds Force, has long been the de facto driver of the Iranian regime’s foreign policy in the region, executing Khamenei’s ideologically driven objective of a pan-Shia state centred on his leadership. A Dehghan presidency would not only further militarise Iran’s foreign policymaking organs, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but would bolster Tehran’s ambition to strengthen the so-called ‘axis of resistance’ in the post-Soleimani era – the supreme leader’s declared ambition. As a first-generation Guardsman, who served as the IRGC’s commander in Syria and Lebanon in the 1980s, the core principal of ‘exporting the Islamic Revolution’ will have been ingrained into Dehghan’s psyche. This will almost certainly shape his approach to the region, which would be based on greater state support for regional militancy and increased hostility to Israel – what Dehghan has referred to as a ‘cancerous tumour’.

Dehghan played a personal role in both bearing arms against Israel and aiming to laying the foundations for , in his own words, the ‘destruction of the Zionist regime’. He was among the first contingent of Guardsman deployed to Lebanon to fight Israel following its 1982 invasion. He also played an instrumental role in establishing a permanent Iranian presence in Lebanon through the IRGC’s creation of the Shia Islamist militia Hizbullah, co-writing and editing its 1985 charter, as well as being directly responsible for the career rise of its incumbent head, Hassan Nasrallah. It is also worth keeping in mind that Dehghan was IRGC commander in Lebanon and Syria during the 1983 Iranian-linked Hizbullah bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut – the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans before 9/11.

The absence of Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force commander killed by the US in January, make Dehghan’s links with Hizbullah invaluable to Khamenei. The August Beirut blast has increased international and domestic pressure to oust the Iranian-backed group from Lebanon’s politics, where it operates as a ‘state within a state’. Hizbullah is a critically important asset to the Islamic Republic, which will do whatever it takes to protect it. As pressure on Hizbullah builds, Iran’s leaders may take the decision to pivot their focus and resources to strengthen Hizbullah – an IRGC presidency could help accelerate this process. Dehghan, who has already blamed the Beirut explosion on Israel, is well placed to facilitate such an initiative.

Conclusion

In Iran’s authoritarian theocracy, elections are little more than a rubber-stamp, yet the outcome of next year’s presidential race could have a significant impact on Iran in the post-Khamenei era.

The 81-year old supreme leader has already made it clear that he will do everything in his power to ensure the continuation of his hardline Islamist vision and has called for a ‘young and Hizbullahi (ideologically hardline)’ president to ‘cure [Iran’s] problems’. This should be seen through the lens of succession and internal politics, rather than a consequence of Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy against Tehran – an argument often made in Western analysis of Iran.

Khamenei’s words suggest that the IRGC is in pole position to take Iran’s presidency just as it has taken its parliament. Dehghan fits the supreme leader’s specification and would be a safe pair of hands to secure his legacy on every level: from regional militancy to domestic securitisation.

Beyond Khamenei, the concept of a militarised presidency is gaining momentum in both hardline and reformist circles among the Islamic Republic’s elite. While it is too early to predict how things will unfold, it seems certain that the changing domestic landscape in Iran will be dominated by anti-regime unrest and the militarisation of the clerical regime.

This will require a complete re-think of Western policy towards Iran. For decades, the West has sought to deal with the rising threat of the IRGC indirectly, by treating it as part of the ‘deep state’ that could be weakened by bolstering the Iranian state – a policy that has been tried for over 20 years, with no tangible results. Should the IRGC, in the person of Dehghan, take the presidency, seeking to countering it through indirect means will be impossible. Western policy will need to face the ensuing militarisation of Iran’s presidency, with the potential that entails of reviving the most militant aspects of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rising tensions with the Islamic Republic represent one of the most significant foreign policy challenges for the next US president and both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have already declared their aim of reaching an agreement with Tehran. But it is without question that a Dehghan presidency in 2021 would significantly reduce the chances of any serious, durable peace between the US and Iran.

Kasra Aarabi is an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute in London and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Safwat Sayed

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