Iran’s next president can become a military man

(Bloomberg Opinion) – Who will guard the guards? At the beginning of the campaign for next summer’s presidential election, Iran faces militarization of its political institutions. The strongest candidate to replace President Hassan Rouhani in June comes from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s largest military wing.

Early indications suggest Brigadier General Hossein Dehgan as a major contender. His potential rivals are Parviz Fatta and Saeed Mohammed. All three people are from the IRGC: Dagan, former defense minister, is an advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; Fatah ran the Mohtazfan Foundation, a Khamenei-controlled business and financial conglomerate; Mohammed, Khatam al-Anbiya, heads the construction and engineering wing of the IRGC.

Even longtime shot contender, former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, is an ex-IRGC man – but, unlike the other three, he is not considered particularly close to the current brass.

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The elevation of a military man to the presidency would remove some remaining checks at the IRGC. It will also deepen the Islamic republic’s hostility to the US, which has designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. Many of its top commanders are subject to US sanctions.

In common parlance as soldiers or guards, the IRGC already lays its hands on most of the levers of the Iranian state. It controls the swath of the economy, including illegal commercial activities such as the smuggling of oil and drugs. The Speaker of Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalib, is a former IRGC Air Force Commander. Presiding boards of Parliament also dominate the guards. Nor is his power limited to domestic affairs: Kasam Soleimani, who commanded the elite Quds Force of the Guards, shot shots at foreign policy before he was killed in a US drone strike earlier this year.

But so far, no military man has ascended to the presidency. Mahmud Ahmadinejad may have experienced some war in the war with Iraq in 1980–88, but he was a member of the militia, not a uniformed guard. Former IRGC chief Mohsin Rezai was a three-time candidate, but he never gained much traction with voters. The closest guards came to being one of his own as presidents in 2013, when Ghalibuff made the run-off, only to be routed by Rouhani.

Khamenei has used guards to suppress disagreements at home and to threaten enemies abroad. But the supreme leader, himself a former two-term president, favored fellow priests for the presidency. (Ahmadinejad’s only break from the tradition going back to 1981.)

Despite the increasing dominance of the IRGC, Khamenei retained the power to ensure that the Presidency goes to a black person, not to a bag – in theory, anyway. The supreme leader controls the parent council, which sends candidates for elections, and uses this to ensure that the voter can only choose from the candidates he deems fit. Khamenei’s finger on the scales ensured that fundamentalists, many with strong IRGC credentials, drifted to parliamentary elections earlier this year.

But using the council as a lease on the guard’s bid for the presidency would be difficult. For one thing, there is no clear contender from the clergy. The likely candidate would have been Abraham Raisi, who lost to Rouhani in 2017. He now heads the judiciary, where Khamenei is apparently being groomed to succeed.

His look at the high talk, Reyce is unlikely to proceed with a rough and tumble relationship to retail politics, especially if there is a chance for another outrageous rejection by voters. (The supreme leader is elected by a gathering of experts, who are paired with Khamenei loyalists.)

There is no clear challenge from the so-called reformist faction of the Islamic Republic, in the last two elections – with Rouhani as a member of the clerical establishment. Their failure to deliver on reform has hurt the faction’s credibility with ordinary Iranians. Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif was once a pro-reformist standard-bearer, but the 2015 nuclear deal collapse broke his record.

There is always the possibility of an outsider, as Ahmadinejad showed in 2005. In fact, he is eager to run again. But more than likely he will be disqualified, as he did in 2017 by the Parent Council.

Khamenei, for whom Iran’s confrontation with the US is a war in all but name, wants a warrior as president. The supreme leader has tried to show a citizen (Ahmadinejad) and two cleric-politicians (Mohammad Khatami and Rouhani) for this. Iran remains an international pariah, and Iranians have long since lost faith in the Islamic Revolution. From his point of view, giving guards a shot to protect his legacy may just be the most logical thing to do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs with a particular focus on the Middle East and Africa.

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