Iran’s Revolutionary Guard finds more influence and power

Majid Rafizadeh explains how the military is gaining ground in Iran, at the expense of the moderate political faction

Iran’s 1979 revolution gave birth to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, a decade later, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave considerable power to the IRGC after becoming the country’s second supreme leader in 1989, while sidelining other powerful clerics.

The IRGC still had obstacles preventing it from expanding its influence, but recent developments suggest that the barriers confronting the IRGC are being lifted. This will allow Iran’s military to be the key decision-maker in Iran’s policy-making.

First of all, many influential people, who once had considerable amount of political weight and counterbalanced the IRGC’s increasing power, do not play a crucial role any more. One good example of this is the late Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic republic. Although he was sidelined by Mr Khamenei towards the end of his life – he died this month – he still enjoyed a considerable amount of political legitimacy in creating challenges for the IRGC and others.

As a member of the Assembly of Experts, which is given the power to supervise, elect or remove the supreme leader, Rafsanjani had significant power. After his death, the IRGC is now much stronger.

This suggests the next supreme leader will more probably be the IRGC’s pawn. And, if the IRGC controls the next supreme leader, it rules Iran’s political establishment unequivocally.

As the nuclear agreement continues to be in place, the Iranian government’s global legitimacy expands as well. More global legitimacy means less scrutiny from the international community on how the IRGC treats domestic opposition.

The IRGC has more successfully and forcefully suppressed domestic opposition – including supporters and leaders of the Green Movement, or religious and ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Sunnis and Arabs.

Furthermore, these developments have led other political factions, such as the moderates, to come to the conclusion that they need the blessing of the IRGC in order to survive politically.

Secondly, as the reintegration of Tehran into the global financial system continues to deepen, more countries are committing themselves to trade with Iran and to invest in its markets.

The main beneficiaries of the increased revenues are the IRGC and the office of the supreme leader. The additional revenues have been mainly diverted into upgrading the IRGC’s military capabilities.

Most recently, Iran’s lawmakers voted to increase the military budget despite the high unemployment rate.

According to Reuters: “Iranian lawmakers approved plans to expand military spending to 5 per cent of the budget, including developing the country’s long-range missile programme which US president-elect Donald Trump has pledged to halt. The vote is a boost to Iran’s military establishment – the regular army, the elite IRGC and the defence ministry.”

The parliament’s vote indicates that Iran’s political factions across the political spectrum are finding it more difficult to challenge the IRGC’s influence.

Third, any form of regional stability was an obstacle for the IRGC’s objective of expanding its influence beyond Iran’s borders. In fact, it was through domestic conflicts that the IRGC expanded its stranglehold by penetrating other countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, and gave birth to several critical Shia proxies. In the long term, these proxies increase Iran’s political and ideological influence.

The more tensions and conflicts there are, the more the militaristic role of the IRGC increases in the region in order to achieve its regional ambitions. This has led to a vicious series of heightened conflicts.

More than ever before, the IRGC has been capable of exploiting the rise of Sunni extremist groups such as the ISIL not only to justify its military adventurism in the region, but also to increase its global legitimacy by arguing that it is fighting extremism by putting boots on the ground. The western powers, which do not have any particular agenda towards fighting ISIL, have allowed a certain amount of leeway to the IRGC.

Finally, there has been a reluctance from global or regional powers to adequately address the increasing role of Iran’s military across the region. Some global and regional powers have decided to turn a blind eye towards counterbalancing the IRGC for economic or geopolitical reasons. The IRGC has also successfully played hardball tactics in threatening some countries from taking action.

Iran was founded as a theocracy but it is becoming more of a military state as the IRGC pursues its regional ambitions by exploiting the revolutionary principles that are the core of the Islamic republic’s legitimacy.

We are more likely to witness the increasing influence and domination of the IRGC domestically and regionally as several major obstacles against Iran’s military have been lifted.

The child that Iran’s Islamic revolution gave birth to (the IRGC) is now becoming the father of the Islamic republic. This trend can be reversed if and only if global powers or a coalition of regional nations robustly stand against the IRGC’s increasing influence and military adventurism in the region.

Dr Majid Rafizadeh is an Iran­ian-American political scientist, Harvard University scholar and president of the International American Council