A new saying is making the rounds in Iran: power is being sucked away from heads to toes, which is to say, from men who wear turbans to men who wear boots. Iran’s new parliament furnishes the most recent evidence. Its speaker, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, is a former brigadier general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Two-thirds of the parliament’s presiding board are either former members or still affiliated with the IRGC and its auxiliary organizations. Many in Iran and in the United States have long foreseen an IRGC takeover of the Iranian government; the next step toward that outcome would be for a candidate affiliated with the IRGC to be elected president in 2021.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a bifurcated state, with elected institutions running the daily affairs of state in the shadow of the more powerful office of the supreme leader, to which security organizations, including the IRGC, ultimately answer. For more than two decades, reformists inside the Iranian political establishment struggled to consolidate the power of elected institutions against that of the parallel state. Now, they are coming to terms with the failure of that project—and preparing for leaders of the parallel state to conquer the elective bodies and consolidate power for themselves.

That Iran will soon have a military-run government is not a foregone conclusion, but it seems increasingly to be the most likely. Iranians are frustrated with partisan tensions and compounding crises. U.S. sanctions have drained the country’s economic lifeblood: purchasing power parity has decreased to two-thirds of what it was a decade ago, even as the public’s obsession with wealth has grown exponentially. Wounded pride and resentment that Iranians cannot enjoy the international prestige they deserve is giving rise to a novel form of nationalism.

President Hassan Rouhani, unable to deliver on either his domestic or foreign policy promises, has apparently thrown in the towel, as his recent management of the pandemic indicates. He was reluctant to recognize the novel coronavirus as a national threat until it was too late, and his contradictory messages on the subject confused the public and even garnered criticism from the supreme leader. By comparison, the IRGC holds a strong hand that is growing only stronger. But the very nature of its advantages may militate against its becoming the custodian of the state.

FEAR AND LOVE

The IRGC became a focus of national and international attention starting in the late 1990s, when political reformists took the reins of Iran’s elected government. A highly circulated reformist news media began zealously monitoring and criticizing the IRGC. In response, the corps began to build a media holding of its own that sought to control the narrative and project a largely exaggerated image of itself.

The IRGC presents itself as the cure for Iran’s national malaise, but it is in fact a big contributor to the problem. Its regional exploits dim the country’s prospects for sustained and steady development. Under U.S. sanctions, the IRGC expanded an underground economy, complete with a new corrupt elite of “smuggling entrepreneurs.” The IRGC prevents the government from recruiting experts whom it deems politically unfit, and it derails government policies and projects at will. All the while, it issues propaganda insisting that politicians and bureaucrats are to blame.

The IRGC used to seek to discredit only its rivals, such as members of Rouhani’s administration, whom it has regularly labeled as “compromisers,” “inept,” and “pro-West.” Now, its propaganda blames all political factions for the country’s straits. Over the past decade, the IRGC has invested in producing a revisionist history through documentaries, feature films, and TV series made to appeal to young audiences without firsthand memories of the 1979 revolution and its aftermath. This media present a narrative in which the IRGC cared for the people and fought for the homeland while political elites fought among themselves and often acted against the nation’s interests for personal or partisan gain.

The IRGC may crave control, but it may not be pleased with the result.

In present-day affairs, too, the IRGC presents itself as Iran’s only reliable protector—the force that defeated the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and prevented foreigners and their “subversive agents” from penetrating and sabotaging the country. It boasts of its technological expertise: Rouhani’s government tried and failed four times to launch a small earth-imaging satellite, while the IRGC sent a military satellite into orbit on its first attempt. Even in philanthropy, the IRGC touts its role as the country’s savior. During the pandemic, it claimed to have distributed aid and food packages to 3.5 million underserved Iranian families. Its “jihadi camps” engage in community-building activities to help the underprivileged. Independent civil society organizations question the depth and impact of these interventions—but none has as effective a media operation as the IRGC.

Such humanitarian rebranding does not blot out the IRGC’s reputation as the agent of violent repression. Liberal-minded, middle-class citizens in Tehran still remember its show of force during the 2009 Green Movement protests, and the IRGC’s crackdown on last year’s demonstrations had fatal consequences for poor and lower-class Iranians elsewhere. Pace Machiavelli, the IRGC seems to wish to inspire fear and win love at the same time.

Barring either, it will settle for habituating economic and cultural elites to its presence and getting them comfortable with being co-opted. The IRGC’s economic role can be overstated, but the opacity of the country’s business sector makes the facts difficult to ascertain. A recent study has documented that up until 2014, the IRGC and other parastate organizations had no single majority ownership in any of the top 22 economic sectors of Iran. But there is no straight relationship between ownership and control in Iran’s economic system. Companies owned by Iran’s secular bourgeoisie sometimes recruit board members and directors affiliated with the IRGC in order to facilitate business maneuvers. The IRGC also sometimes establishes comprador companies in order to operate under a private-sector disguise. By these and other means, the IRGC has become an indispensable employer and one of the country’s biggest general contractors in construction projects. But it lacks the human resources and expertise to run multimillion-dollar businesses in the communications, banking, shipbuilding, and petrochemical industries. Thus, a significant portion of Iran’s secular bourgeoisie works either directly or as subcontractors for the military organization.

Only a decade ago, cultural elites considered working on projects that the IRGC commissioned or funded to be taboo. Now, that is no longer the case. For instance, Masoud Kimiai, a renowned filmmaker whose movies from before the revolution have maintained cult status, recently worked with a producer affiliated with the IRGC. The director Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian— a staunch supporter of Rouhani—has made award-winning documentaries and blockbuster feature films backed by the IRGC.

ELUSIVE RESPECT

The IRGC has many advantages in the contest for power in the Islamic Republic, but it is hardly an unstoppable monolith. Despite the large economic stake that the IRGC now holds, Iran’s executive branch still governs the economy in all critical domains. The government makes fiscal and monetary policy, controls oil and gas resources, and runs the country’s treasury. The government also dominates social welfare and humanitarian aid, on which the IRGC increasingly relies to build its own networks of patronage.

Moreover, the IRGC is internally far more fragmented and less disciplined than is commonly presumed. Tensions have been present from the beginning, when conflicts arose between high-ranking commanders during the Iran-Iraq War. Disenchanted officers who left the IRGC during the 1980s became prominent advocates for political reform. Some left the corps during one rift in the early 1990s; others left in the early 2000s.

An Iranian soldier in Tehran, February 2016
An Iranian soldier in Tehran, February 2016
Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Today, scholars have documented generation gaps within the IRGC, and the young generation is even divided within itself. The IRGC’s prolific media reflect these differences. Its Owj Arts and Media Organization, for example, has recently stopped casting the antagonists in its films as ugly, caricatured enemies of the regime. The characters are instead complex—even relatable. At the same time, another IRGC media branch produced a television show called Gando, which justified the arrest of the Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and told the story in typically black-and-white terms. The tensions between these two young IRGC media groups sometimes reach the public. In February, the second group harshly criticized the way Owj makes movies, accusing it of “wasting the regime's own money and resources to hurt the regime.

When it comes to persuading the public, neither the helping hand nor the brutal fist has fully brought the IRGC the respect it desires. The U.S. assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani in January produced a brief moment of solidarity as outraged Iranians blacked out their profile pictures on social media in protest and mourning. Days later, however, the IRGC struck down a Ukrainian passenger plane, and the same people kept their profile pictures black to express a different outrage. Kimiai threatened to withdraw his film from the country’s premier festival, and national television censored Mahdavian’s speech at the festival’s closing ceremony because he publicly sympathized with the fathers of protesters killed during the 2019 unrest.

The IRGC continues to threaten opponents and quash dissent, but fear does not always carry the day. In April, amid pomp and circumstance, the commander in chief of the IRGC claimed that the group had invented a device that could detect the novel coronavirus from 328 feet away. A spontaneous wave of ridicule washed across media platforms. The Physics Society of Iran, a strictly scientific and highly conservative association that has never before made any political statement, called the claim “a science fiction story.”

IDEOLOGY ISN'T GOVERNANCE

At the moment, the IRGC’s greatest political strength may be the weakness of its opponents. Rouhani won elections in 2013 and 2017 on the promise of restoring hope to the Iranian people. He now finishes his term amid widespread, paralytic despair. Nationwide protests erupted in 2018 and 2019, and the IRGC crushed them. Rouhani’s government—a coalition of moderate conservatives, mediocre reformist bureaucrats, and laissez-faire technocrats with wavering political allegiances—either actively helped the security forces or passively looked on. The administration now lacks the credibility to mobilize its social base against the IRGC at the ballot box or in the streets.

Whether the IRGC really wishes to run the government, however, is a more complicated question. The political and economic resources the government holds are surely tempting. But experience has shown that whoever takes over the executive branch, regardless of political affiliation, is likely to become a thorn in the IRGC’s side—even former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who came in with the organization’s full backing, soon enough went rogue. The history of the Islamic Republic has repeatedly demonstrated that those who assume executive and administrative roles become invested in promoting normalization, even at the expense of revolutionary enthusiasm. The latter, however, is the IRGC’s stock in trade.

At the moment, the IRGC’s greatest political strength may be the weakness of its opponents.

As a parastatal organization, the IRGC can enjoy the best of both worlds, keeping its distance from the quotidian business of governance and interfering only when it so desires. If the organization instead ran the daily affairs of the country, it would be forced to make constant adjustments and compromises that could damage its revolutionary reputation. For example, after Soleimani was killed, some IRGC fighters called for “harsh revenge”—but the promised catharsis never came. IRGC commanders have not borne the brunt of the fighters’ anger because they could instead redirect it toward “coward politicians.”

Standing outside of government, IRGC commanders have found many occasions for photo ops: they empathize with workers striking for unpaid wages, participate in rescue and relief efforts after floods and earthquakes, and console retirees who blame the government for losing their savings (although in fact it was the financial institutions linked to the IRGC that stole their money). The government has a duty to serve, but the IRGC can present its service as a favor. To take over the executive branch would be to trade occasional courtesy for perpetual responsibility.

Iran’s upcoming presidential election is widely expected to herald the return of hard-liners to power. The reformists have lost most of their social capital and their standing. But 2021 will not mark the end of politics in Iran. On the contrary, it will only add a new chapter to an open-ended book. The conflict among Iran’s political elites has existed since the founding of the Islamic Republic and will continue to produce opportunities for change—change even of a kind and in a manner that may appeal to neither the opposition nor the ruling elites. The IRGC may crave control, but it may not be pleased with the result.

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  • ALI REZA ESHRAGHI is Project Director for the Middle East/North Africa division of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting and a Visiting Scholar at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies.
  • AMIR HOSSEIN MAHDAVI is a PhD student in political science at the University of Connecticut and formerly an editor at Iranian news outlets including Hamshahri and Shargh.
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