Geopolitics Made Super

Reformers vs. Revolutionaries: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Gird Themselves for Change

On May 19, Iranian will have an election – as elections go in Iran, that is.  The candidates have been vetted and no one is about to murmur a word against the current Islamic Republic; speech and politics in Iran must fit into neat little boxes approved by the Supreme Leader.  Yet that is not to say there is no choice in Iran.  Need proof?  The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the soldiers-cum-businessmen, are stirring the pot in favor of their chosen one.  As reported by Reuters:

Determined to protect a dominant security role and vast economic interests, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards military force is quietly backing a hardliner in May 19 presidential polls, with an eye toward a bigger prize: the succession of the supreme leader.

President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected in 2013 in a landslide on promises to open up Iranian society and reduce its international isolation, is widely seen as the favorite to win a second term next week.

But the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the Basij, a volunteer militia under the Guards’ command, are taking steps to promote the candidacy of his main rival, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi.

The contest is thus between those who support sitting President Hassan Rouhani and those who might back Ibrahim Raisi.  They reflect the contest between the (officially sanctioned) views on Iran’s future.

Iran is a Middle Eastern powerhouse; it may well dominate much of the region as the United States loses interest and leaves a power vacuum behind.  Wich such opportunity, elites and citizens squabble over just how they should approach the rest of the century.  Should Iran barrel into the future, guns blazing, cutting a swath through adversaries?  Or should it hope to negotiate its place in the world?

On the one hand are the traditional revolutionaries, led by the Revolutionary Guards, who see a dangerous, sinful world.  They see Shi’a as under threat by Sunnis, the regime under threat by Western-influenced fifth columnists, and Iran’s very existence threatened by the United States.  To confront these threats, they see military force, subversion, and ruthless internal policing as the only ways to secure Iran.

It helps that, along the way, they can plunder the economy at will.

This faction spurs engagement with the West, believing it will only lead to betrayal.  It propels the war in Syria to save a fellow Shi’a, though Assad’s Shi’a credentials are rather doubtful.  It meddles in Bahrain and Iraq, where it tries to stem Saudi and American influence.  Most recently, it has been drawn into supporting Yemen’s rebel Houthis, whose Shi’a connection is tenuous at best.  Yet the Houthis fight the implacably anti-Iranian Emiratis and their Saudi allies, and so they are useful to a faction that believes the world is out to get Iran.  They’d like to leverage the Russian-U.S. rivarly to push American power further back.

This faction draws a great deal of legitimacy from its anti-Israel creed; it uses Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, as a propaganda tool to prove to the world that Tehran is serious about confronting Zionism militarily.

Then there are the relative reformers of Rouhani, who still see a dangerous world, but don’t believe Iran has the power to bludgeon its way through security threats. For Rouhani, the Iranian nuclear deal is proof that the threat from the West can be ended through diplomacy.  Squabbling with the Saudis in Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen are unnecessary risks; instead, Iran ought to seek engagement and trade with the world.  For Rouhani, Iran can be stabilized not through ruthless policing of moral values but by democratic legitimacy and economic progress.

It goes to show how much Iran has changed that former president Mahmoud Ahmendinijad, a hardliner who alienated not only the reformers but also the Revolutionary Guards in his tumultuous term, was barred from running in this election.  Iran’s Supreme Leader clearly favors a more measured response to Iran’s security challenges, regardless of whether reformer or conservatives hold the presidency.

The results of the presidential election will go a long way towards defining Iran’s near-future.  Rouhani’s nuclear deal has also coincided with body bags from Syria, where Iran has lost up to 1,000 men since joining the civil war on Assad’s side.  Iran’s economic recovery, dependent on oil prices, has been tepid, and President Trump has threatened to upend the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions.  Yet whether or not Iranians agree that the Revolutionary Guard’s hardline approach will be revealed by the election itself.

On a long enough timeline, the Guards’ many business interests and domination of the economy will engender corruption so severe it will provoke a rising against them.  They can stave that off by stoking fear, and surely they will seek conflict to raise tension and divert from their own business empire.  Even if they lose the presidential election again, they will retain the power to stir up trouble across the region.