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Tensions in Tehran: Iran’s Mullahs vs. the Revolutionary Guards

In its first days under the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran was a competitive authoritarian state that, despite challenges of war, armed opposition, and difficult economic times, enjoyed a significant measure of stability. The Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary Basij force were charged with controlling the disenfranchised masses. But Khomeini understood the importance of allowing at least two factions of the political elite to compete for power and the control of policy. The leftist clergy, organized as the Association of Militant Clerics (Majmae Rohaniyoone Mobarez), and their allies advocated for a state-run economy and trade, while the rightist clergy, organized as the Society of Militant Clerics (Jamae Rohanyete Mobarez), and their financially powerful merchants (Bazaris), campaigned for privatization and free-market economy. Both groups developed extensive, mafia-like networks and both sought to establish a crony-run economy that benefited allies and members of their clan.

As both factions competed for political power by vehemently denouncing each other, Khomeini constantly shifted the weight of his support from one group to the other, making sure that neither gained absolute control. The ayatollah’s charisma, the near universal acceptance of the legitimacy of his 1979 revolution, and patriotism engendered particularly by the ten-year Iran-Iraq war contributed to the regime’s survival, but the most underestimated and overlooked factor was Khomeini’s successful management of competition between the revolution’s elites and his careful distribution of power between the two main factions.

Until Khomeini’s death, both factions coexisted and competed in every election, while opposition—armed or peaceful—was violently suppressed. Khomeini’s widespread popularity allowed him to resist each faction’s attempt at eliminating the other. His death in 1989 changed the domestic balance of power. His passing and a decade of war with Iraq made the regime increasingly reliant upon the Revolutionary Guards and Basij paramilitary force for its survival.

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It was Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the powerful speaker of Parliament who had built himself a successful financial empire during the Iraq war, who took charge of the succession crisis. He used all of his political capital to install Ali Khamenei as the new leader and took over the presidency himself. During the succession period, Rafsanjani recognized the two main threats to his power to be the leftist clergy and the Revolutionary Guards.

The leftist clergy had occupied many of the positions of power during the war and had managed, unsuccessfully, the war economy. Their policy of state intervention in economy had failed to deliver the economic prosperity they promised. As a result, they remained vulnerable and in fact lost the presidential election to Rafsanjani, who later marginalized them and even jailed some of their leading strategists.

The Revolutionary Guards posed a more difficult problem for the new president. These military commanders had made a name during the “great patriotic war” against Iraq. Many medals and other honors had been bestowed upon them by the political leaders, including Khomeini himself. Now that the war had ended, they returned from the front to find “millionaire mullahs” fully in charge of the country.

The new pragmatic president understood that the Revolutionary Guards represented a volatile threat to the stability he envisioned for the regime. He also thought that if this group was “tamed” it might help him overcome the challenge of leftist clergy. So he made a decision that would continue to haunt Iran in the future when he allowed the Guards to enter the economic sphere of the country.

Under Rafsanjani, the Guards developed a wide network of economic strongholds in industries ranging from construction and imports to banking. By the late 1990s, this group had attained a significant degree of control over much of Iran’s domestic economy and trade.

 

By 1997, as a result of the pressures of international isolation—and the economic, social, and political demands of the emerging forces of civil society—the inner circle of power in Tehran morphed. After eight years of marginalization and occasional suppression at the hands of Rafsanjani’s security apparatus, the leftist clergy and their supporters underwent a makeover. The breakdown of totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe made many of them question their statist approach to economy and their hostility toward democratization. In the absence of a charismatic leader of their own and aware of the alarming growth of the Guards’ economic and political influence, this faction, concluding that survival of the regime depended upon liberalization, became openly reformist. A profound gulf opened up between these formerly leftist, now reformist clergy—some of whom supported a limited liberalization, while others argued for full democratization—and the conservative, right-wing clergy, who believed that liberalization was dangerous and that street protests and demands should be dealt with violently.

The victory of Rafsanjani’s former minister of “Islamic culture and guidance” turned reformist politician, Mohammad Khatami, in the 1997 election made the Revolutionary Guards even more uncomfortable than it did the conservative clergy. General Aziz Jafari, the strategist and brain of the Guards’ “office of strategic studies,” had already concluded that militarization of Iran’s politics was the only way to save the regime. A culture war had begun at the highest levels of Iranian politics.

The Islamic Republic elites formed under Khomeini believed that they had come to a fork in the road and, faithful to the advice of Yogi Berra, they just took it. While the reformists used their electoral victory to push the liberalization agenda, the Guards set up a shadow government, widely known as “the parallel security apparatus,” to conduct an extra-governmental campaign of repression.

During the eight years of the Khatami presidency, the Guards also consolidated their hold on the economy and became the most powerful political force in the country. They expanded their business interests and control of the “shadow economy.” From laser eye surgery and construction to automobile manufacturing and real estate, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market. Inevitably they saw Rafsanjani as their main rival and developed elaborate plans to destroy his influence as the power behind the post-Khomeini throne.

During Khatami’s presidency, a small group of reformist intellectuals who were former Guard members began openly implicating Rafsanjani in an array of crimes. His family’s financial rise was openly discussed as a sign of corruption. By 2005, the Guards moved to take over the state apparatus entirely by running their candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the presidential election against Rafsanjani, who was weakened by their attacks. While most foreign observers saw Ahmadinejad’s success as the victory of his populist rhetoric against a corrupt and aristocratic clergy, the real story remained in the shadows. The careful balance between factions that Khomeini had practiced during his years as the indisputable leader of the republic was now being slowly disassembled by the rise of the Guards. Years of reliance on them in war, and Rafsanjani’s decision to buy them off by allowing them to enter and conquer the economic arena, had produced a takeover. But the Guards did not think they could afford Khomeini’s model of managing elite competition, as the election of 2009 showed.

 

Since the 1979 revolution, it had been customary for the losers in elections to abide by the results and step down. The elites saw the people’s vote as the ultimate arbitrator of the ongoing power struggle between them and allowed power between their various factions to shift as a result of elections. Part of this process involved physically protecting the loser as a way of legitimizing the electoral process itself.

But all this changed in 2009, when the Guards refused to accept defeat at the hands of the Greens. Mass repression followed the vote. The reformists were completely removed from the inner circle of power and in the four years that followed, the Guards expanded their economic and political control at the expense of the clergy. This expansion threatened the entire clergy as a class and no longer was limited to its left or right factions.

Many conservative and loyal clergy broke ranks and became critical of the Guards. Their most important ally, Ayatollah Khamenei, reversed his course and became critical of Ahmadinejad. The last two years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency witnessed several confrontations between him and the supreme leader, and on at least two occasions the two men’s supporters violently attacked each other in the streets.

As the 2013 presidential election approached, there were several indications that Khamenei was seriously concerned about the power of the Revolutionary Guards and seeking to counter it. His frequent criticisms of the Ahmadinejad administration, the removal of one of Iran’s major banks from IRGC control, and the openness of some of the conservative clerics in criticizing the “military rule” (hookumate Padegani), a term that found its way into the presidential debates, were telltale signs of the conflict being played out behind the scenes.

In seeking to contain the power struggle, Khamenei used Rafsanjani, the powerful figure the Guards had worked for so many years to defeat, as a sacrificial offering. He would allow the Guards to disqualify Rafsanjani from running, and in return the Guards consented to allowing Hassan Rouhani, a conservative, loyal, and “moderate” cleric, to run instead. The popular vote would once again be allowed to play the role of arbitrator in this competition between factions of the elite, a tradition whose abandonment in 2009 had created one of the largest crises in the history of the Islamic Republic. Knowing that he himself was unpopular as a result of his unqualified support for the Guards in 2009 and viewed by many as the face of the dictatorship, Khamenei took great care not to appear as a supporter of Rouhani.

Rouhani’s victory in the June 2013 presidential election was a rebuke to the Guards. Running against their candidate, he was the only alternative for people who wanted to express their opposition to the military ruling elite. But most importantly, Rouhani represents Khamenei’s desperate attempt to curb the power of the Revolutionary Guards and to bring back some measure of the management of competition between the country’s elites that was practiced under Khomeini. Rouhani represents the clergy’s last and only hope to return to power.

It is difficult to imagine that the Revolutionary Guards will retreat. Their strategy will probably not be to confront Rouhani directly, but to use the power they have accumulated from decades in the shadows to keep their key allies in the government and economy while allowing Rouhani to make some concessions to the West in the hope of seeing sanctions lifted. Once the sanctions are lifted, the Guards can flex their muscles more openly, as they did under President Khatami.

Although Rouhani enjoys the support of Khamenei and part of the intelligence community (due to his longtime membership in the Supreme National Security Council), it is not clear that he will prevail in the coming power struggle. The next few key battles with the Guards over Cabinet selection will be revealing. If Rouhani could take away from the Guards the ministries of justice, intelligence, interior, and economy and appoint people who might actually succeed in cleansing these agencies of the IRGC influence, then he has a realistic chance of success in bringing the clergy back to power. But the history of authoritarian regimes does not offer much cause for optimism. Once they attain power, armed forces usually do not leave their position of power and privilege unless confronted with a sweeping revolution or a humiliating defeat in a war. The armed and dangerous genie, fattened by the power and privilege it has enjoyed in the domestic realm, does not easily return to the bottle.

Ramin Ahmadi is an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and the founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. He has trained Iranians in nonviolence action for two decades and conducted health and human rights projects in East Timor and Chechnya during the war and in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami.

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