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Revolutionary Guards’ Influence Grows in Iran as Opposition Falters

Filed under: Jerusalem

By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall

On March 8, 2011, Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, 80, was elected Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body that will elect the next Supreme Leader of Iran.  The election was called after the incumbent, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, fearing defeat, withdrew his candidacy, stating that he did not want to hurt the standing of the assembly. 

Rafsanjani served as President of Iran from 1989 to 1997. In 2005 he ran for a third term in office but lost to rival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Relations between Rafsanjani and members of the assembly who support Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his regime sharply deteriorated over the last year. The Assembly of Experts, which consist of 86 senior Islamic scholars, represents one of the most powerful and important center’s of Iran’s religious and Islamic establishment.

Failure to Stop Ahmadinejad

During the September 2007 elections for chairmanship of the assembly, Rafsanjani, nicknamed “the shark,” beat Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a hardliner even by Iranian standards.  The defeat of Jannati, a member of the Assembly of Experts who is very close to Ahmadinejad’s mentor, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, was perceived as a blow that could weaken Ahmadinejad. Yet today the star of Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards continues to rise, and the power base and influence of Rafsanjani, who could (still) constitute a challenge to the current regime, is fading.

In the June 2009 elections, Rafsanjani hesitantly supported the reform camp and even called for the release of the demonstrators in a Friday sermon (July 17, 2009). But by refraining from giving sermons in Tehran since then, his influence has shrunk greatly, even while he continues to publish occasional statements on his website. 

A former president of the Expediency Discernment Council (1989-1997), Rafsanjani still holds on to power as chairman of the council, and in the West he is often regarded as the “good conservative” – someone who can initiate changes. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, he has been trying to contain the growing influence of the Revolutionary Guards.

The division between him and the elite under the leadership of Ahmadinejad continues to deepen. Rafsanjani’s family members are under government surveillance, particularly his daughter, Faezeh, and her son. Faezeh, a member of the Green Movement, was arrested on multiple occasions. Revolutionary Guards spokesmen and other senior Iranians claim that they incited against the regime before, during, and after the June 2009 elections.

The perception that Rafsanjani advised Khomeini to stop the war against Iraq also plays into the rivalry with the Guards. Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution establishes that “The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, organized in the early days of the triumph of the Revolution, is to be maintained so that it may continue in its role of guarding the Revolution and its achievements.” The Guards are interpreting this article very broadly.

Today, the Revolutionary Guards are gradually completing their takeover of Iran, as Rafsanjani and other senior figures of the first generation of the revolution are being pushed out of positions of power and are being replaced by the Guards and their allies in positions of religious leadership. Despite international sanctions and growing international attention to the political developments in the Middle East, the Iranian regime is still confident enough to act against those, among them Rafsanjani, who played a central role in the history of revolutionary Iran.

Additionally, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, and other leaders of the reform movement have felt the regime’s noose tightening around them in the past few weeks.  While in the past the Iranian regime avoided cracking down on them harshly, it seems that today they are showing less restraint.

The Constraints on the Revolutionary Guards Are Eroding

Since its establishment, the Revolutionary Guards have built up their role to “guard the Revolution and its achievements.” Ahmadinejad’s presidency represents a golden opportunity for the organization, which is attempting, now more than ever, to recreate in practice the first days of the revolution – expressing revolutionary passion through the support of terrorist groups and “liberation movements” in the Middle East and beyond.

The Revolutionary Guards see in the current developments in the Middle East fertile ground to expand its activities in order to gain influence among Islamist elements in Arab countries that are experiencing great historic changes. Currently, the Guards can easily activate sleeper cells in the Arab countries and increase assistance to the rising Islamist elements (especially to Shiites). This happens at a time when the opponents of such an adventurous policy, like Rafsanjani, are getting weaker. In this context, the changes within the Revolutionary Guards and the appointment of Ali Akbar Salehi as Minister of Foreign Affairs indicate the eroding constraints facing the policy of exporting the revolution.

The growing self-confidence of the Revolutionary Guards is displayed decisively in its continuous weapons shipments to terror groups in Africa and the Middle East. For example, most recently, the ship Victoria carried advanced weaponry including C-704 anti-ship missiles and mortars (like those that are fired at Israeli towns) to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. This also testifies to the strengthening of Iran’s strategic cooperation with Syria.

Taking Revenge

Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards are taking revenge on the old guard of the revolution and are turning towards the outside world – the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. They aim to turn Iran into a world player that can influence global events. Weapons smuggling to the Middle East and Africa, and drug trafficking in Latin America present opportunities for changing the playing field.

In the shadow of the changes in Middle East and the catastrophe in Japan, Iran continues to pursue its nuclear program.  The missions undertaken by the Revolutionary Guards since its establishment, and even more so since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, have changed the organization and its role in Iranian society. Since its foundation at the time of the revolution as scattered groups in various Iranian cities with loose ties, the Revolutionary Guards have developed into an economic-military-political powerhouse, in practice, the central power and influence in Iran. All those who were able to oppose this process – Rafsanjani and others – have been pushed aside in order for the Revolutionary Guards to slowly complete their takeover of Iran.

IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall is an expert on strategic issues, with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East.