An article by Babak Dehghanpisheh at Reuters makes the case that former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani’s recent death was a watershed event that could mark the beginning of a disturbing ascendancy for the hardline Revolutionary Guard Corps, which already has far too much power.
Dehghanpisheh writes that Rafsanjani, who still wielded significant influence in the Rouhani administration, “long had a contentious relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” The Corps will be looking to establish itself in light of upcoming presidential elections:
With a presidential election in May and a question mark over the health of Iran’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, analysts say the Guards will soon have opportunities to tighten their grip on the levers of power.
Rafsanjani, who died on Sunday aged 82, had criticized the Guards’ expanding economic interests, which range from oil and gas to telecommunications and construction, their role in the crackdown on protests after disputed 2009 presidential elections and the country’s missile program which the Guards oversee.
The RGC operates almost like a separate government, with its own extensive financial resources, which they began developing during the Iran-Iraq war in the Eighties. Distressing incidents attributed to the Iranian military, such as unprofessional intercepts of ships passing through international waters, are often the work of the IRGC and its separate Navy. Of course, there are often suspicions the Guards are portrayed as a rogue force behind various dastardly deeds to give the rest of the Iranian government plausible deniability.
As Dehghanpisheh describes him, Rafsanjani was both a check on the IRGC’s ambitions and a go-between who moderated their political influence. Revolutionary Guard commanders offered copious public praise after his death, but were privately delighted he was out of the way.
Analysts say the IRGC is already flexing its post-Rafsanjani political muscles by influencing the choice of the next Supreme Leader, who is likely to be more rigidly doctrinaire at home, radical on foreign affairs, and friendly to the Revolutionary Guards’ interests than current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In fact, if the next Supreme Leader is not friendly enough, the IRGC might reduce the power of his office, while seizing more influence over government agencies and intelligence services for themselves. The Reuters piece quotes former Iranian seminarian Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy saying, “When I get asked who’s going to replace Khamenei, I say it’s the Revolutionary Guards.”
The departed Rafsanjani is also said to have been a major influence behind the relatively “moderate” administration of current President Hassan Rouhani. The leading candidate to replace Rafsanjani on Iran’s Expediency Council, which handles disputes between the secular and religious wings of the theocracy, is Ebrahim Raisi, who spent the Eighties overseeing the murder of thousands of political prisoners, along with numerous assassinations outside Iran’s borders. Raisi is seen as a strong candidate for Supreme Leader as well.
Last week, a Washington Post op-ed suggested that the crucial political struggle in recent Iranian history has been over the IRGC’s vast financial empire, and the Revolutionary Guards seem to have pretty much won that battle. If the Iranian economy flourishes in a post-sanctions world, it is hoped the relatively moderate secular government will gain enough leverage to reduce the IRGC’s political influence.