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The election of Hassan Rouhani as president has reignited intense debate both inside and outside of Iran about the future of the Islamic Republic. Most in the West expected a hardline candidate favored by the Supreme Leader or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to win and the status quo to remain unchallenged. The unexpected turn of events suggests that there are still forces in Iran that wish to make meaningful reforms within the context of the current system. But even if Rouhani indeed desires to make reforms, can his government make substantive changes on issues that most concern the U.S., such as Iran’s nuclear program and support for Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria?
Answering this question depends largely on how the regime’s other powerful stakeholders react to the new government, especially the IRGC – the single-most powerful organization in Iran whose leaders are positioned to directly influence regime decision-making. Fully understanding the dynamics between the IRGC and other regime forces, however, requires a deeper familiarity with the human networks that make up the IRGC’s senior leadership.
This report examines the formal structures that comprise the IRGC’s senior leadership and the informal influence networks that dominate it. The central focus is a faction within the IRGC referred to here as the “Command Network” (IRGC-CN), and its extended branches.
The IRGC-CN is a group of ten commanders with deep ties dating back to the Iran-Iraq War. Its members include the IRGC and Quds Force commanders, as well as key operations and intelligence officials in the Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS), the body charged with overseeing the military affairs of both the IRGC and Iran’s conventional force (Artesh).
Members of the IRGC-CN’s extended networks also occupy influential positions in the IRGC and AFGS, such as commander of the IRGC’s Greater Tehran unit and head of the AFGS Operations Directorate. Members also extend into the political realm, and include the mayor of Tehran, a deputy of Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, and the governor of Zanjan province.
The IRGC-CN has endured through conflicts and crises since the end of the Iran-Iraq War, including the 1999 Tehran University clashes, 2009 post-election protest movement, and changes in organizational command in 1997 and 2007. Where one would expect significant purging of or divisions in the IRGC’s leadership following these events, we saw the opposite: IRGC-CN members retained and expanded their control over the IRGC’s key command and staff positions.
The IRGC-CN will be a dominant voice in the regime for the foreseeable future. Based on its demonstrated ability to remain cohesive through periods of instability, the Command Network will likely continue to retain formal control of the Guards in the face of internal and external pressures. The IRGC-CN has also begun to selectively recruit the next generation of commanders to fill key positions as senior leaders slowly retire or transition into politics, ensuring that this network’s interests are safeguarded.
If President-elect Rouhani desires to make fundamental changes to the Islamic Republic’s core national security policies, he will need to win the support of the IRGC-CN or subvert it. Either scenario presents Rouhani with considerable challenges, as this network has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and has previously shown a willingness to act aggressively to protect its interests.
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