Iran’s hard-liners are on a relentless path to gain unrivaled political control. Their victory during the February 2020 parliamentary elections was a crucial step along this road. If, as is widely expected, they win the presidency in May 2021, their already strong partnership with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will put them in a good position to influence the crucial struggle to choose his successor. In short, it might be said that the hard-liners are currently enjoying a most advantageous position.
Yet their escalating power grab is also fraught with dire risks. Their efforts could, in fact, enfeeble the very institutional mechanisms that the regime needs to gain—or regain—support in key constituencies. On the regional front, Iran may have thus far avoided getting dragged into a regional war with the United States and/or Israel. But their policy of “controlled escalation” has not immunized Tehran from suffering retaliation from its enemies. Indeed, the July 2nd fire in the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant illuminates these perils after Iranian leaders admitted that the incident was not an accident. If it gives them pause, the Natanz affair will probably steel their resolve not only to consolidate their power but to transform the very nature of Iran’s political system. Their challenge is to ensure that the costs will not exceed the benefits the hard-liners hope to reap as they advance this ambitious project to reconfigure Iranian politics.
The Trap of Securitization
In many respects, this power grab goes against the grain of the multidimensional control system that Iran’s leaders have astutely used to prevent any opposition from posing a major threat to the regime. That system was buttressed by a massive security apparatus headed up by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its offshoots. Iran’s rulers preferred to rely on myriad institutions including the parliament, president, and Office of the Supreme Leader in order to channel and arbitrate political and social conflicts. Recourse to massive repression was usually a last resort, one that was deployed when these institutions proved incapable of containing or deflecting dissent. Brute force like that used against demonstrators last year was not a sign of the regime’s success but rather of its weakness.
A transition to a “securitized” regime would deprive the IRGC (and the supreme leader) of the political shield it gains from a system that has allowed some measure of real debate and controlled competition.
It was for this very reason that every bout of opposition at home—or security challenge abroad—has been followed by an expansion of the powers and clout of the IRGC. If the latter has exploited crises to its benefit, however, Iran never made the transition from an Islamic republic to a military-led regime similar to that ruling in Egypt, or the military-managed regimes that dominated Turkey and Pakistan for decades. A transition to a “securitized” regime would deprive the IRGC (and the supreme leader) of the political shield it gains from a system that has allowed some measure of real debate and controlled competition but has given the state-controlled parliament or press the means to undermine the regime itself.
The trap of securitization was amply illustrated in the lead-up to the 2009 Green Movement and in the ensuing expansion of the IRGC’s powers. President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 seemed to herald a return to a more balanced—if unfair—system that included a parliament in which reformists sought to push for economic and social reforms. But Rouhani’s authority was undermined by the Trump Administration’s repudiation of the 2015 nuclear accord, growing economic woes partly spurred by the re-imposition of sanctions, a series of popular protests (the last of which the regime brutally repressed in December 2019), and the rapid spread of the coronavirus in spring 2020. This perfect storm of events provided a stage for re-expanding the IRGC’s reach into key political institutions, including parliament. The danger extends far beyond that body because the IRGC has been enlarging various other institutions in ways that could be pushing Iran closer to full-fledged securitization.
Mohammad Javad Zarif and Hassan Rouhani Face Isolation
The election of a new parliament in February 2020 gave the hard-liners a huge boost. Their control over the assembly was confirmed by the election of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf as speaker. The former mayor of Tehran—as well as IRGC brigadier general who also served as chief of police from 1999 to 2005—secured 230 votes for his bid to become speaker, thus confirming that the new 290-member parliament was not only dominated by IRGC officials but also led by a stalwart of the security apparatus.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s unhappy July 5th visit to the parliament underscored the new realities facing him, President Rouhani, and all the reformists who had once looked to the president and his allies as a beacon of change and reform. Heckled by hard-liners who chanted “death to a liar,” Zarif insisted that his foreign policies—not least of which was the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—always had the abiding support of the supreme leader. Although this claim is surely debatable, it is worth emphasizing that the grilling that Zarif endured was less about his failing efforts to rescue the JCPOA and much more about the government’s unfolding efforts to advance a strategic partnership with China. Ordered by Rouhani, that partnership is based on a 25-year contract that was negotiated in secret. Although the democratic credentials of the IRGC members who assailed Zarif are surely questionable, this did not prevent them from accusing the foreign minister of going “behind the nation’s back.” Smelling an opportunity, some 200 MPs tabled a motion to impeach Rouhani.
It is very unlikely that Khamanei will allow this process to move forward; it is one thing to give his hard-line allies room to embarrass Rouhani, but quite another to weather the draconian step of removing an elected president. Such a move might boomerang by rallying popular and elite support for Rouhani and his various reformist allies, thus dramatically altering the political field in ways that might undermine the hard-liners’ drive to win the presidency in May 2021. Their very ascendancy requires that they not overplay their hand.
The IRGC’s Dual Strategy: Benefits and Risks
The above episode also underscores the hard-liners’ two-pronged strategy. The first involves an extraordinary expansion of the IRGC’s institutional and ideological reach into some of the very social sectors on which the regime has long depended for its popular legitimacy. Iran’s growing economic crisis—underscored by the seemingly unstoppable fall in the value of its currency, the rial—has made it hard for the regime to use a long-standing strategy through which it has tried to contain the growing political weight of the urban middle class by channeling economic support to farmers, government officials, and industrial workers in Iran’s rural towns and villages. But to its clear chagrin, despite (or because of) its December 2019 crackdown, the regime still faces strikes and protests that, however sporadic, reinforce the prospects for a new bout of wider resistance.
In a bid to deter or contain further protests, the regime has vastly expanded the role of the IRGC’s Provincial Guard. This campaign extends beyond its vast effort to grow the grassroots support networks in the rural provinces.
In a bid to deter or contain further protests, the regime has vastly expanded the role of the IRGC’s Provincial Guard. This campaign extends beyond its vast effort to grow the grassroots support networks in the rural provinces. To stem what hard-liners fear—with ample reason—is a decline of popular support in all sectors for the basic theological foundations of the Islamic Republic, the IRGC has expanded its reach into the educational system starting from kindergarten all the way up to the universities. These efforts include the creation of higher education institutions that students can enter without sitting for the competitive entrance exams other Iranian youth must take to enter state universities. Thus, the IRGC has created a tantalizing alternative: a parallel education system, one that is designed to enhance ideological commitment along with the possibility for career advancement in economic sectors controlled by or linked to the IRGC itself.
To buttress such measures, the IRGC has struggled to extend its control over cyberspace. These efforts include not only the repression of online dissent but the use of cyberspace to recruit online supporters. Thus securitization carries with it the potential for greater control over one of the very arenas that have been crucial to sustaining independent thought and criticism.
The second prong of the hard-liners’ dual strategy is to enhance and expand their ability to exercise power and influence in the system’s formal political institutions. This presents a seeming paradox because the hard-liners’ efforts to exclude alternative political forces might very well end up denuding institutions, such as the parliament, of any real or popular authority. Therefore, they face the tricky task of trying to use political institutions without hollowing them out to the point of practical irrelevance.
Trying to strike this balance, hard-liners have sought to mobilize around issues that cut across many of the usual ideological and social divides that define Iran’s political arena. Here, the issue of corruption has proven especially useful. Corruption has been a widespread phenomenon for decades. But tolerance for its costs has rapidly declined with the precipitous fall of oil revenues and the ensuing hardships that Iranians have suffered. Seizing on this opportunity, hard-liners have accused their rivals of financial malfeasance. Zarif’s recent grilling before the parliament was one such occasion. Beyond implying that the foreign minister had been implicated in the signing of dubious contracts with the Chinese, hard-liners accused cabinet officials, such as Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, of corruption. Having already survived a previous threat of impeachment in November 2019, Zanganeh was an easy target in a wider campaign spearheaded by Judiciary Head Ebrahim Raisi. A close ally of Khamenei who will probably be a serious contender for the position of supreme leader, Raisi pushed efforts that have resulted in the firing of some 60 judges and the imposition of 44 long-term prison sentences and nine death sentences.
The anti-corruption campaign has also facilitated the efforts of various hard-line leaders to position themselves for the May 2021 presidential elections. Many are in their forties and thus represent a relatively young cadre of rising political activists.
This anti-corruption campaign has also facilitated the efforts of various hard-line leaders to position themselves for the May 2021 presidential elections. Many are in their forties and thus represent a relatively young cadre of rising political activists. Their timing could not be better: with growing dissatisfaction with the political status quo—and against the backdrop of Khamenei’s call for “a young and religiously committed administration”—these activists have an opportunity to play the political game and many have close ties to the security apparatus. While it is still early to predict the identity of the contenders for the presidency, those with links to the hard-liners could have an additional edge, especially if they stick to themes—such as corruption—that have appeal to young Iranians from diverse sectors of society.
Beyond positioning themselves for the presidential race, hard-liners in the security apparatus appear to be making moves to influence the eventual struggle to determine Khamenei’s successor. Thus, for example, Mohammad Baqeri, chairman of the Joint Staff of the Iranian armed forces, and IRGC Commander-in-Chief Hossein Salami have both issued letters of support backing Raisi. If the judiciary head makes a bid for the position of supreme leader, Raisi’s efforts to brandish his populist credentials by leading the anti-corruption campaign will have the additional benefit of getting a not-so-subtle endorsement from powerful players in the security apparatus.
While this dual strategy has advanced the hard-liners’ cause, it has real risks. Their bid to exploit the parliament without undermining themselves may not pan out. If (as is very possible) turnout in the upcoming presidential election reaches an all-time low, they would have achieved a pyrrhic victory. Moreover, their plan to exploit popular rage by bringing up charges of corruption could backfire by being turned against the hard-liners. Ghalibaf was implicated along with his family in corruption schemes when he was the mayor of Tehran. To be sure, with many skeletons in the closet, hard-liners cannot just don the cloak of populism and expect that this maneuver will succeed. On the contrary, it could divide their ranks. The ongoing effort by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to reposition himself in the political system is a case in point. Although as president he had aligned himself with the IRGC, he has tried to strike a more independent line by becoming a leading voice in the anti-corruption campaign. He was not allowed to run in the 2017 election; nevertheless, he might make another attempt at the presidency by positioning himself as the people’s candidate. The odds may be long, but recent history suggests that the aspirations of an ambitious “anti-system” candidate who wants to be part of the political system he has maligned should not be underestimated.
With many skeletons in the closet, hard-liners cannot just don the cloak of populism and expect that this maneuver will succeed. On the contrary, it could divide their ranks.
Finally, it is worth noting that the effort to control the internet also carries a cost. If, for example, the hard-liners succeed in closing down Instagram, as they are threatening, their own leaders will be deprived of a key arena for communicating their project to their followers. Indeed, what goes around comes around.
Playing It (Relatively) Safe?
Given the risks that could ensue from the hard-liners’ efforts to extend their power, they might very well avoid making moves that could draw them into costly confrontations. Their response to the January 2, 2020 American assassination of Qassem Soleimani shows how tricky it will be for the IRGC to maintain its credentials as Iran’s ultimate protector and not get drawn into a prolonged battle with the United States. After all, had it not been for US President Donald Trump’s decision to downplay the significant physical injury inflicted on US servicemen by Iran’s retaliatory attack on a US base in Iraq, a far wider conflict might have occurred. Whether Iran’s hard-liners will repay the favor by showing similar restraint following the Natanz fire remains to be seen. The fact that no country or party has thus far claimed credit for the blaze will help both the United States and Iran to retain the fragile benefits of controlled escalation. Having received a major boost from a US administration that seems unwilling to wage war but has no idea how to wage peace, the hard-liners will continue to play the long game.