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Iran’s IRGC Has Long Kept Khamenei in Power

Once he’s gone, it will have to find a new purpose.

By , the director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute.
Missiles are seen in front of a portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at a war exhibition south of Tehran on Sept. 25, 2005.
Missiles are seen in front of a portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at a war exhibition south of Tehran on Sept. 25, 2005. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

In an Oct. 2 speech to the top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, asked them to be ready for “big events.” In characteristically vague language, Khamenei was issuing a warning to his domestic opponents, President Hassan Rouhani, and the country’s foreign foes. His choice of speaking to the IRGC bosses was anything but coincidental.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Khamenei ascending to the top job. His reign began on slippery ground. But he was quick to reach a bargain with the IRGC, which had up to that point looked at him suspiciously. The 80-year-old Khamenei is now looking for the second generation of the IRGC to safeguard the regime after he is gone. But giving a carte blanche to the generals—risk-taking by nature and these days more concerned with proxy wars in the region than the fate of ordinary Iranians—has a big chance of backfiring.

In Iran, there are those who say Khamenei’s picking up the baton from the regime’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989 was heavenly preordained. In reality, the elders of the regime chose to put their collective survival above all else and found in Khamenei, a mid-ranking cleric and former president, a candidate a majority could back as a stopgap transitionary leader.

For their plan to work, the requirement that a supreme leader be a “grand ayatollah” had to be dropped. A constitutional amendment was swiftly arranged, which was adopted following a referendum on July 28, 1989, several weeks after Khomeini’s death. An impossible 97.6 percent of voters backed the initiative. But the real task was to control the streets and to convince the Iranian public that the young new leader was made of durable material. That’s when and why Khamenei turned to the IRGC for help. He offered the guards a pact. They would protect his supreme leadership, and he would give the IRGC political cover to pursue its interests, including priority access to funds from the national budget, a major stake in the Iranian economy, a separate and powerful intelligence branch to rival the Intelligence Ministry, and a veto on key foreign-policy matters.

Their alliance was not particularly natural. Throughout the 1980s, the IRGC had been suspicious of Khamenei, who was serving as president of Iran at the time. The guards regarded him as a free marketeer on matters of the economy and not among the regime’s most trustworthy firebrands on questions pertaining to foreign policy.

At one point during the war with Iraq, the IRGC had even forbidden the president from visiting the front line. In another case, when Mojtaba Khamenei, Khamenei’s second-born and conscripted son, arrived at his IRGC regiment, the amount of abuse he heard about his father left him with no choice but to ask for a transfer.

But the end of the war had also deprived the guards of a purpose in life. They had joined the revolution exactly a decade earlier and in their own minds sacrificed greatly in the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the war and Khomeini’s death, the guards wanted to remain relevant. And Khamenei offered them a leading role: Khamenei would dictate what course the “revolution” would take, and the IRGC would ensure that his ideas were implemented. The offer was seemingly impossible to dismiss out of hand.

Khamenei, meanwhile, wanted the guards help him reinforce the shaky scaffolding of institutions built up around the person of Khomeini. To him, there was no other alternative. And so, he held his first public appearance as supreme leader at a gathering of IRGC officers. Here, in the midst of mostly young men eager to hear what the future would hold, Khamenei did not have the same misgivings as only a few days earlier at the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that appointed him but which had deep doubts about him and viewed him as politically expedient but lacking religious qualifications.

During his speech before the officers back in 1989, he highlighted their importance: “Without the IRGC, the revolution cannot be defended.” And for the next several decades, that was true. During Iran’s two biggest opposition protests—the 1999 student uprising against the regime and in 2009 when the opposition Green Movement mobilized millions of Iranians against Khamenei’s rule—it was the guns and mettle of the IRGC that saved the day for Khamenei.

In his speech to the IRGC generals this year, Khamenei remarked that the corps and its proxy allies, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis in Yemen, should not limit their operations to specific regional boundaries. No doubt there was a warning here aimed at the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Khamenei basically warned that a wave of Iranian-sponsored armed operations in places that might not have previously been impacted might serve Iran’s interests. “Do not build walls around yourself and stay within those walls,” he told the IRGC bosses. Such overt backing for more regional militancy is part of Khamenei’s deterrence strategy. Tehran is looking for new ways to convince the West that reaching a deal with Iran is far better than pushing it into a corner where Tehran has no option but to become a reckless spoiler.

Still, there was also a domestic audience for Khamenei’s remarks, which was arguably the bigger target. Khamenei and his allies are watching as Rouhani and his purported moderate camp sell themselves as the advocates of gradual political change in Iran who are locked in battle against the Khamenei-IRGC alliance.

As one example, in a scathing recent attack on the regime’s practices, Rouhani called the first parliament in the Islamic Republic (1980-1984) the most free and representative of the people’s wishes. In that parliament, even communists and other non-Khomeinists were able to secure seats in the elections. This was a direct attack on the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council that today has the power to approve any candidates who want to run in elections. The response was swift. Rouhani was soon criticized for playing the game of Iran’s so-called enemies by questioning the legitimacy of the regime.

The sin of Rouhani, who is hardly a moderate but likes to masquerade as such, is that he is essentially reminding the Iranian public that Khamenei’s power does not come through the ballot box but through the guns of the IRGC. Khamenei has not directly responded, but Kayhan newspaper, which Khamenei controls, reported that Rouhani is only increasing “radical”—that is, reformist—sentiments in society. This is not the first time that Rouhani has attacked Khamenei’s powers, but he has a habit of becoming concerned about the legitimacy of the regime only at election time, which are highly regulated events in Iran. The country is due to hold parliamentary elections in early 2020, and a boycott by the voters is both a possibility and would be a huge embarrassment to the regime.

In reality, Rouhani cannot make up his mind about whether he wants to be a transformative elected president or merely an underling of the unelected Khamenei. Rouhani made headlines in the first week of September by declaring that people should not have expectations from him since he has “no power.” In reference to his government’s performance, he said in another recent speech: “What do you want from someone that has no power?” Rouhani’s comment that “no change in Iran is possible until distribution of power is changed” is certainly a jab at Khamenei and the IRGC. It also shows that Rouhani is still looking to create some distance from the leader.

There could be two reasons behind his desire for space. First, Rouhani does not want to take all the blame for his country’s political and socioeconomic problems. Second, Rouhani may be attempting to start building his reputation as a “moderate” who would be a different kind of supreme leader should he be able to succeed Khamenei.

Beyond a challenge to the 80-year-old Khamenei, Rouhani’s remarks are a challenge to the guards and the compact that keeps them in power. That is perhaps why Khamenei is asking the IRGC to think out of the box and be ready for “big events.” This no doubt is a general call to be vigilant against those who demand political reform and who might look to the infighting in the regime as an opportune moment to up the ante against the Khamenei-IRGC model of rule. In any case, the interpretation among the Iranian public is that Khamenei is tasking the IRGC generals with being the vanguards of the revolution and to act as they see fit. This means anyone who stands in their way can be labeled a counterrevolutionary.

But giving a carte blanche to the IRGC to confront their common enemies is not without risk. Already, escalated snipping between the Rouhani government and the guards—involving leaks, disinformation, and daily charges at each other for undermining the national interest—suggests that this is a competition that could get out of hand.

Especially nerve-wracking for the IRGC is that, far more than was the case in 1989, it is today seen as the principal agent of repression in Iran. Top members of the organization are embroiled in various political and corruption scandals, further focusing public anger at the predatory nature of the corps and its role as the key obstacle to political reform. Khamenei may be callously asking the IRGC to go on the offensive, at home and abroad. The question for the guards, and their long-term interests, however, is whether they should double down against the Rouhani government and the Iranian public or perhaps start thinking of a new formula to maintain their political and economic interests as the Islamic Republic looks beyond the reign of Khamenei.

Alex Vatanka is the director of the Iran program and a senior fellow at the Frontier Europe Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy and Political Rivalry Since 1979. Twitter: @AlexVatanka

Tag: Iran