Iran Election Watch 2013: Saeedi reveals the IRGC’s political preferences, role in upcoming election?

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei had in recent months called on Iranian officials as well as the media not to discuss the upcoming 2013 Iranian presidential election too early. Now with the supreme leader’s speech on 08 January 2013, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) political chief Yadollah Javani’s editorial in the organization’s flagship weekly newspaper Sobh-e Sadegh on 07 January, and the supreme leader’s representative to the IRGC Ali Saeedi’s interview with ISNA on 08 January, it appears that the election campaign has finally begun. While Khamenei, Javani, and Saeedi have all made remarks worthy of analysis, Saeedi’s recent comments have raised the most interest both inside and outside of Iran.

It is well known that the IRGC played a key role in president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s electoral victories in both 2005 and 2009, albeit in different ways. It is believed that in 2005 the Guard closed ranks behind Ahmadinejad and provided him with a wide variety of support, from mobilizing its members and their families to vote for Ahmadinejad to providing logistical aid. In 2009, the IRGC took a more active role, playing a key part in suppressing Green Movement demonstrators. This partisan political role, alongside its increased participation in the economy and enhanced national security profile in recent years, has created a sense among many social, political, and economic actors in Iran that the IRGC is taking over the state. The Guard calls this “Sepah-harassi” or IRGC-phobia, although this term is usually reserved for Western discourses on the organization rather than domestic ones. This is problematic for it, especially since the Guard is prohibited by the Constitution from participating in politics. While attempting to address the problem of IRGC-phobia and allay fears about the involvement of the Guard in politics, Saeedi on 08 January set off a maelstrom of criticism and created even greater suspicion toward the organization.

In his speech Saeedi said that despite slanderous claims against the IRGC, it had never openly participated in an election, by for example backing an individual candidate. He asserted that the Guard stood above politics, and that while it supported Principalism (the dominant political ideology in the Islamic Republic’s politics today), this stopped short of supporting a specific political current. The comments that came next have raised a great deal of controversy:

“The IRGC only sets the framework and standards and this does not mean interference in the elections; rather our essential duty is the logical and rational engineering of the election.”

While it appears that Saeedi hoped to dispel fears about the Guard, his comments did just the opposite. In fact both in Farsi and English the remarks give the clear impression that the IRGC sees itself as duty-bound to manage the election campaign and results. The statement raised such a firestorm that IRGC public relations chief Ramazan Sharif felt compelled to clarify.

Saeedi’s words speak for themselves. Yet the segments of his speech dealing with domestic politics give the clear impression that at least some of the Guard’s senior leaders believe that IRGC-phobia has become rooted in Iranian society and that they need to dispel this impression. The IRGC political experiment with Ahmadinejad, while benefiting them in many ways, has also carried with it a heavy cost in terms of public perception, with the IRGC having lost much of its prestige in part because of its association with the president. Will this mean that the IRGC will take a lighter touch toward the upcoming election? It remains to be seen.

However Saeedi’s other comments on domestic politics drew a clear line in the sand with three of Iran’s main political currents, seemingly contradicting his statements regarding the IRGC’s non-intervention in politics. For example, Saeedi attacked those calling for “national unity”, a clear reference to ex-president Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and his supporters, the Centrists. Hashemi-Rafsanjani recently called on the regime to create a national unity government that would be able to pull the country together and address many of its social, political, and economic problems. Saeedi claimed that those who called for national unity were only seeking to place themselves in the center of national affairs. He asked rhetorically whether Hashemi-Rafsanjani still held on to his old beliefs (referring to his support for the Green Movement in 2009-2010), and said that the ex-president should have declared his absolute loyalty to the Islamic Republic, but that by not doing so had decided to exit the regime.

Saeedi also implicitly attacked the Reformist current, saying this group held fundamentally different beliefs from the rest of the regime’s political currents by taking a “minimalist” approach to Shi’a Islam. According to Saeedi this meant that Reformists would turn the supreme leader into a ceremonial institution, whereas Principalists view the supreme leader in the same light as the Prophet Mohammad and the Twelve Imams of Shiism. In this sense, Saeedi said that Centrists and Reformists were the same in their ideology, goals, and methods, perhaps giving us insight into the way in which the Guard sees its political rivals.

Finally, Saeedi attacked Habibollah Asghar-Owladi for the latter’s comments saying that the Reformists were not seditionists, a term used by regime hardliners to denote persona non grata associated with the Green Movement. Saeedi’s  remarks on Asghar-Owladi are important because the latter is a senior Traditional Principalist figure leading the Line of the Imam and Leadership, an important Principalist group. By attacking him, Saeedi (and thus perhaps the Guards leadership) is expressing the view that Traditional Principalists like Asghar-Owladi are no longer within the mainstream of Principalism. Hinting at where the Guard’s political preferences may lie, Saeedi said that while there were many currents within Principalism, the Combatant Clergy Association and the Qom Seminary Teachers Society, two political parties composed of conservative clergymen, were integral to shaping and leading Principalism.

While it may be too early to say for certain what candidate the IRGC will for the election, Saeedi’s speech potentially gives us important clues in understanding what beliefs and motivations could shape the organization’s actions in the months ahead. Is Saeedi, and by extension the supreme leader and Guard, drawing battle-lines with Reformists, Centrists, and Traditional Principalists? Does this preclude the possibility that candidates from these political currents can actually win the upcoming election? For the time being, it certainly appears so. But given this, how will the IRGC make certain that its candidate becomes president while creating the impression that it is neutral in the election? Much remains to be seen. Stay tuned to our Iran Election Watch 2013 series for updates!