Supremely Undemocratic: The Revolutionary Guards Engineer Iran's Elections

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No. 4, June 2009

Iranian officials often point to the Islamic Republic's vigorous election contests both to assert that the regime enjoys popular legitimacy and to lay claim to the mantle of democracy. The holding of elections does not necessarily equate democracy, however, especially in a system in which candidacy is constrained by unelected bodies such as the Guardian Council. Much has been written about the role of these bodies in the Iranian political system, but the 2009 election marks the rise of the IRGC as a key participant in electoral politics, one that necessitates a change in the way analysts approach Iranian politics.

This augmentation of the IRGC's role comes with the blessing of Khamenei, who has never supported a presidential candidate as vigorously as he now supports Ahmadinejad. Not only has Khamenei issued subtle statements of support for the incumbent and criticism of his opponents, but he has also encouraged IRGC intervention to support Ahmadinejad, despite statutory provisions that ostensibly call for IRGC neutrality.

The IRGC versus the Constitution

Iranian law prohibits the IRGC from political activity. The 1982 Statute of the Revolutionary Guards restricts IRGC personnel from "membership of parties, groups, and political organizations" and stipulates that the IRGC should be nonpartisan and play no role in politics by establishing that it "is politically and ideologically subject to the Guardian Jurist and is independent from all political parties and groups, and it must not itself become a party in society and operate as a political party or institution."[1]

Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic, to whose words and deeds all Islamic Republic political factions turn to justify their positions, also emphasized the principle of IRGC political nonintervention, declaring in his "last will and testament":

My empathic counsel to the armed forces is to observe and abide by the military rule of noninvolvement in politics. Do not join any political party, group, or faction. No military man, security policeman, no Revolutionary Guardsman or Basij may enter into politics. Stay away from politics and you'll be able to preserve and maintain your military prowess and be immune to internal division and dispute. Military commanders must forbid political ties by the men under their command.[2]

Proponents of IRGC intervention make two arguments to sidestep the prohibition. First, they cite a portion of Khomeini's will in which he warns against internal enemies who "want to overthrow the Islamic Republic . . . and toss you down into the laps of one of the two world [war] mongering poles" (a reference to the United States and the Soviet Union).[3] Khomeini did use the IRGC to suppress his rivals, although in the vortex of both revolutionary politics and the external threat manifested in the 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran, the fissures among factions were much greater than they are now. By continuing to depict opponents in ordinary political debate about matters as mundane as privatization policy or the role of the police in enforcing hairlines as foreign agents and fifth columnists, the IRGC today justifies any political activity.

Second, those seeking a larger political role for the IRGC argue that, because the Statute of the Guards charges the IRGC with "realization of divine ideals and expansion of the authority of divine law according to the Islamic Republic of Iran's legislation,"[4] they can use their authority to "guard the revolution" in order to carve out a political role.[5] In recent months, the IRGC has also sought to redefine its membership by bifurcating the corps and its intertwined paramilitary Basij into strictly military divisions in which members' political activities would be forbidden and other categories in which officers and commissars would encourage, if not order, their rank and file to become politically active.[6] In effect, this would give the IRGC the ability to determine the acceptability of candidates and to use its cadre not only to get out the vote for its chosen candidates, but also to employ physical force to prevent other candidates from campaigning.

When the Supreme Leader Does It, It's Not Illegal

While many Western diplomats and academics hoped for change after Khomeini's death and foresaw a new age for pragmatism when the Assembly of Experts confirmed Khamenei as his successor, there has been no substantive change in the willingness of the supreme leader to act as an absolute and arbitrary ruler when need be, albeit one much more likely to control by veto and proxy than by fiat. Regardless of how he enforces his will, it is Khamenei's wishes, rather than the law, that count in the Islamic Republic. And it is clear that Khamenei has given the green light to the Guards to intervene in the presidential election.

The 2009 election marks the rise of the IRGC as a key participant in electoral politics, one that necessitates a change in the way analysts approach Iranian politics.

As former president Mohammad Khatami began touring major cities in Iran to mobilize support for his candidacy, Khamenei humiliated him by likening Khatami's 2005 decision to suspend uranium enrichment temporarily[7] with the capitulation of Soltan Hossein, the last shah of the Safavid Dynasty, who, in 1722, capitulated to Afghan tribesmen, ushering in a period of looting and chaos. Warning against submitting to the U.S. govern-ment's call in 2008 for Iran to change its behavior, Khamenei ordered Iranian authorities not to fear the enemy, lest similar "great calamity fall upon the nation."[8] The IRGC's media outlets parroted Khamenei's attacks with an intense campaign against the former president that culminated in Khatami's withdrawal from the 2009 race.

Khamenei then began to signal his support for Ahmadinejad. In a speech in Nowruz on March 21, 2009, for example, Khamenei said that he would intervene "when I see that a government is more attentive to the needy, resists injustice and imperialism, and is also unjustly subjected to attacks,"[9] thereby parroting the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad supporters. While Khamenei was careful to note that his vote would remain secret, IRGC media suggest its rank and file has little doubt not only that Ahmadinejad is the supreme leader's favored candidate, but also that former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, perhaps the leading "reformer" remaining in the race, should be considered suspect, given Khatami's close relationship to him.

Khamenei has since turned his attention to Mehdi Karrubi, another reform candidate in the race, and former president Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key supporter of Mousavi.[10] Both Karrubi and Rafsanjani voiced concern about the fairness of the 2009 election, as they earlier openly accused the IRGC, and even Khamenei's son Mojtaba, of orchestrating fraud during the 2005 elections.[11] Khamenei responded angrily, attacking "those ungrateful friends who unjustly criticize the health of the election."[12] This was enough to silence Karrubi, who has subsequently refused to address the issue.[13] Rafsanjani, however, has a more independent power base and has stood firm, reiterating his concern and leading IRGC media to rail against him.[14]

As the campaign has progressed, Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad has become more direct. In May, Khamenei gave two speeches urging the public to vote for "someone who knows the problems of the country and the sorrows of the people, who feels distress at the sorrows of the people, someone who is a man of the people and sincere, with a simple lifestyle and who himself, his family members, and those close to him are not aristocratic or wasteful since tendency toward aristocratic life and luxury is a great threat."[15] Any Iranian would interpret such statements as endorsement of Ahmadinejad, who has made his ascetic lifestyle central to his image, as well as an attack on Rafsanjani, perhaps the richest man in Iran. Khamenei next championed Ahmadinejad's hard-line foreign policy, encouraging people "not to vote for those who by bowing their heads to foreigners do away with our honor."[16] Khamenei's open criticism of Ahmadinejad's attempt to organizationally subject the Pilgrimage Organization to the Presidency's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization in May 2009 hardly changes the overall picture of Khamenei's preference for a second term for Ahmadinejad.

The IRGC Answers Khamenei's Call

The IRGC responded swiftly to Khamenei's green light to attack Ahmadinejad's opponents (see table 1 below). Not all IRGC commanders' speeches to the men under their command have been published, but it appears that after Khamenei's speech likening Khatami to Shah Soltan Hossein, IRGC chiefs in all thirty-one regional command centers started or strengthened efforts to mobilize support for Ahmadinejad. In the Greater Tehran district, for example, IRGC chief Colonel Abdollah Eraghi's speech beseeched his men to support the incumbent.[17]

The IRGC's blatant mobilization of voters raised a storm of criticism. Unsurprisingly, these protests had absolutely no effect on the Guards.

The second phase of the IRGC's operation against Ahmadinejad's critics began with a speech by Major General Hassan Firouz-Abadi, chief of the Armed Forces Command Council, which not only openly endorsed Ahmadinejad, but also labeled his rivals as "too old and frail" to be president.[18] The attacks against Ahmadinejad's rivals continued as former IRGC chief and current senior security adviser to the supreme leader Yahya Rahim Safavi praised Ahmadinejad as a role model for members of the Basij[19] and attacked "the liberals" who "have dealt the greatest blows to the Islamic Republic."[20] Such an open and direct assault against Ahmadinejad's rivals marks a significant shift from earlier elections in which the IRGC engineered attacks indirectly, using proxies like Ansar-e Hezbollah.

The third phase in the IRGC's operation also signifies a major shift. It began with current IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari's speech to the Basij in which he urged Basij members to intervene in politics in order to defend the Principalist camp, the faction with which Ahmadinejad identifies that seeks to return to the "principles" of the early revolutionary years.[21] The IRGC's subsequent blatant mobilization of voters raised a storm of criticism among Ahmadinejad's critics and opponents of armed forces intervention in politics (see table 2 below). Tabnak News, close to Mohsen Rezai, one of the four candidates in this election, disclosed that the lower ranks of the Basij are deeply engaged in a campaign on behalf of Ahmadinejad,[22] and even parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who is generally in line with the supreme leader, called for the security services to withdraw from politics.[23] Unsurprisingly, these protests had absolutely no effect on the Guards, based on their new doctrine enabling if not encouraging such political activity.


Considering the current trajectory, the IRGC's political activity could very well tip the elections in favor of Ahmadinejad. Iranian voters are notoriously unpredictable, however, and Khamenei's involvement has backfired before. His implicit endorsement of Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri's candidacy in 1997 was counterproductive, paving the way for Khatami's landslide. What we see now, ironically, may be the result of the lesson Khamenei drew from the experience: not leaving anything to chance, both subtly endorsing Ahmadinejad and using the IRGC as a proxy.

This pattern suggests a victory for Khamenei regardless of who prevails. But this may only be in the short term, and the IRGC may be the ultimate victor. Now empowered to interfere in the political process, IRGC commanders will not be willing to relinquish such power. Nor does it appear that any political institution inside the Islamic Republic could force the IRGC to step back, as Khamenei, in order to consolidate his own power, has systematically weakened the civilian institutions that traditionally work to restrain the power of the military. Khamenei will be pleased if Ahmadinejad is president for the next four years, but that happy mood will sour if he becomes hostage to his own Praetorian Guard.

Ali Alfoneh ([email protected]) is a visiting research fellow at AEI.

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1. "Majmoueh-ye Ghavanin-e Majles-e Showra" [Compilation of Consultative Assembly Legislation], Hafezeh Ghavanin [Legislative Memory] (Tehran), available in Persian at lawview.asp?key=5787 (accessed May 21, 2009).
2. "Matn-e Kamel-e Vasiat-Nameh-ye Siasi va Elahi-ye Bonyan-Gozar-e Jomhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran Hazrat-e Ayatollah al-Ozma Emam Khomeini" [The Text of the Political and Divine Testament of the Founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran His Holiness Grand Ayatollah Imam Khomeini], Touba Islamic Research Institute (Qom), available in Persian at imam/index.htm (accessed May 21, 2009).
3. Ibid.
4. "Asasnameh-ye Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami" [Statute of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps], Touba Islamic Research Institute, available in Persian at BookFehrest. asp?BookID=225&ParentID=61149 (accessed May 21, 2009).
5. "Matn-e Kamel-e Ghanoun-e Asasi-ye Nezam-e Jomhouri-ye Eslami-ye Iran Asl-e 114 Ta 177" [Complete Text of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran Regime], Tebyan (Hamedan), available in Persian at 177.php (accessed May 21, 2009).
6. "Aghayan-e Montaghed Be Basijian Pasokh Dahand" [The Gentlemen Critical of the Basij Do Answer], Sobh-e Sadegh (Tehran), May 18, 2009, available in Persian at 0399/p01.pdf and (accessed May 18, 2009).
7. "Khatami: Iran-EU Agreement on Nuclear Cooperation a Big Victory," Islamic Republic News Agency (Tehran), November 7, 2004, available at (accessed June 3, 2009).
8. "Shah-Soltan-Hossein-ha-ye Zaman Ra Bayad Shenakht" [One Must Identify the Shah Soltan Hosseins of the Era], Sobh-e Sadegh, December 29, 2008, available in Persian at (accessed May 25, 2009).
9. "Mellat-e Iran Ra Na Mishavad Farib Dad va va Na Mishavad Tarsand" [The Iranian Can Neither Be Fooled nor Intimidated], Alef News Agency (Tehran), March 21, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 25, 2009).
10. "Nameh-ye Mehdi Karrubi Be Ayatollah Jannati" [Mehdi Karrubi's Letter to Ayatollah Jannati], Noandish (Tehran), April 6, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 25, 2009); and "Sokhanan-e Rafsanjani Darbareh-ye Salamat-e Entekhabat" [Rafsanjani's Statements on Health of the Election], Asr-e Iran (Tehran), April 24, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 25, 2009).
11. "Karrubi: In Entekhabat Yeki As Tarik-Tarin Parvandeh-ha-yi Ast Ke Bara-ye Khatami Mimanad" [Karrubi: This Election Is One of the Darkest Issues That Will Remain for Khatami], Fars News Agency (Tehran), June 22, 2005, available in Persian at (accessed May 13, 2009); and "Darkhast-e Hashemi Baraye Ta'ghib-e Farmandehan-e Nezami" [Hashemi Demands Persecution of Military Commanders], Aftab News Agency (Tehran), June 13, 2005, available in Persian at (accessed May 13, 2009).
12. "Rahbar-e Enghelab: Gheimat-e Haghighi-ye Estefadeh As Towlidat-e Khareji Bikar-Shodan-e Karegaran-e Irani Ast" [Leader of the Revolution: The True Price of Using Imported Goods Is Unemployment of Iranian Workers], Abrar (Tehran), April 30, 2009, available in Persian at html/rooydad.htm#s355587 (accessed May 25, 2009).
13. "Pas Az Gelayeh-ye Rahbar-e Enghelab Az Barkhi Doustan-e Bi-Ensaf--Karrubi: Digar Darbareh-ye Salamat-e Entekhabat Sohbat Nemikonam" [After the Leader of the Revolution's Complaint against Unjust Friends--Karrubi: I'll No Longer Speak about Health of the Election], Ghatreh News (Tehran), May 9, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 25, 2009).
14. "Ellat-e Negarani-ye Hashemi Az Salamat-e Entekhabat Chist?" [Why Is Hashemi Concerned about Health of the Election?], Raja News Agency (Tehran), December 4, 2008.
15. "Rahbar-e Enghelab Dar Jam'-e Por-Shour-e Mardom-e Kordestan: Khadsheh Be Vahdat-e Melli Be Bahaneh-ye Shi'-e va va Sunni Mozdouri-ye Doshman Ast" [Supreme Leader among the Enthusiastic People of Kordestan: Harming National Unity with Shia and Sunni Sectarian Differences as Excuse Amounts to Be Mercenary of the Enemy], Tabnak News (Tehran), May 12, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 25, 2009).
16. "Magham-e Moazzam-e Rahbari Dar Jam'e Por-Shour-e Mardom-e Bijar: Mardom Man'-e Sar-e Kar-Amadan-e Kasani Shavand Ke Ba Taslim Moghabel-e Doshman Aberou-ye Mellat Ra Mibarand" [The Supreme Leader among the Enthusiastic People of Bijar: The People Should Oppose Coming to Power of Those Who by Capitulating to the Enemy Do Away with Honor of the Nation], Fars News Agency, May 18, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 25, 2009).
17. "Farmandeh-ye Sepah-e Tehran-e Bozorg: Bayad Az Dowlat-e Ahmadineajd Hemayat Konim" [Greater Tehran IRGC Chief: We Must Support the Ahmadinejad Government], Aftab-e Yazd (Tehran), January 20, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 18, 2009).
18. "Dar Mored-e Ahmadinejad Baz-ham Mortakeb-e Eshtebah-e Entekhabat-e Nohom Shodand" [With Regard to Ahmadinejad They Have Again Committed the Same Mistake as the Ninth Election], Raja News Agency, January 27, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 18, 2009).
19. "E'teghad Be Basij Ra Dar Modiriat-ha Ba Barnameh-Rizi-ha Piadeh Konim" [We Should Realize Our Belief in Basij by Engaging It in Executive and Planning Affairs], Agah-Sazi, February 1, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 18, 2009).
20. "Sardar Safavi: Liberal-ha Bozorgtarin Zarbe Ra Be Keshvar Zadand" [Commander Safavi: The Liberals Dealt the Greatest Blows to the Country], Alef News Agency, February 4, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 18, 2009).
21. "Farmandeh-ye Sepah: Basij Bayad Az Osoul-garayan Moraghebat Konad" [The Guard's Commander: Basij Must Protect the Principalists], Shahab News (Tehran), February 7, 2008, available in Persian at (accessed May 10, 2009).
22. "Estafadeh-ye Entekhabati Az Basij Bar Khalaf-e Nazar-e Sarih-e Rahbar-e Enghelab" [Election Utilization of the Basij in Opposition to the Frank Statement of the Leader of the Revolution], Tabnak News, May 7, 2009, available in Persian at fa/pages/?cid=46762 (accessed May 17, 2009).
23. "Ba Tavvahom Nabayad Harf Zad" [One Must Not Speak with Delusional Fear], Abrar, May 5, 2009, available in Persian at (accessed May 17, 2009).

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About the Author


  • Ali Alfoneh's research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

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