How Deep Is Iran’s State?

The Battle Over Khamenei’s Successor

Rouhani during a news conference in Tehran, Iran, May 2017. REUTERS


In “Iran’s Next Supreme Leader” (May/June 2017), Sanam Vakil and Hossein Rassam convincingly argue that the death of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will mark a turning point in the Islamic Republic. They are right that Khamenei desperately wants a smooth transition and is insisting that someone personally and ideologically close to him take over the helm once he dies. 

But Vakil and Rassam err when they contend that “the deep state”—defined as “an intricate security, intelligence, and economic superstructure composed of underlings who are fiercely loyal to him”—will “safeguard the Islamic Republic long after he is gone.” The problem with this argument is that the deep state is hardly invincible, and those in the regime who are aching for reform, including President Hassan Rouhani and his circle, are hardly impotent. In fact, the reformists consider Khamenei’s departure a golden opportunity to steer the regime in a new direction, and they appear ready for battle. 


Even though Vakil and Rassam are at times equivocal about it, Iran’s deep state can be summed up in one name: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As strong and sprawling as the IRGC is—consisting of not just a military-industrial complex but also media outlets and three separate intelligence agencies—it is innately aware of the limits to its power. 

That’s because the IRGC is but one of three legs of the Islamic Republic, after the office of the supreme leader and the presidency. Although the supreme leader and the IRGC do control much of the country’s domestic and foreign policy, of the three institutions, the IRGC has the least claim to a political function. In his will, Khamenei’s predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, explicitly asked the military to stay out of factional politics, warning, “The revolution belongs to all the nation.” Even Khamenei, who has embraced the IRGC much more closely, has stressed the same message. In an October 2016

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