Could economic turmoil lead to a new protest movement in Iran? General Nasser Sha’bani certainly thinks so.

A recent interview by the website Ghanoon with General Nasser Sha’bani, professor and deputy chief of Imam Hossein University which trains Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, on 14 January may have revealed much about the Islamic Republic’s senior hardline military and political leadership’s thinking. Sha’bani touched on both domestic and foreign policy issues, outlined below.

Domestic politics

General Sha’bani, who is a senior IRGC commander, began the interview by discussing the deviant current, the regime’s terminology for the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei current. Shabani expressed the IRGC’s disappointment about president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom the Guard had backed fully during his first term (2005-2009) in office but began to doubt during his second term (2009-2013). According to Sha’bani:

“Unfortunately Ahmadinejad, with all the positive aspects he could have had, today is turning from an opportunity to a threat for the regime.”

The IRGC commander criticized many of Ahmadinejad’s actions to date, including a speech last year in New York declaring Iran’s readiness to negotiate, his dismissal of the health minister, and especially his association with the deviant current and his chief-of-staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Sha’bani said that there were “covert and overt layers” to the deviant current, and while Mashaei was one of its known quantities, there were other more complex figures behind the scenes. Shabani asserted that before the IRGC could move against these figures however, it had to await the command of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

General Sha’bani concluded this topic by expressing doubt about the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei current’s chances in the upcoming June 2013 presidential election. Earlier, president Ahmadinejad had declared that his political current had not worked for eight years to suddenly disappear from the political stage. Sha’bani dismissed this and Ahmadinejad’s possible successor Mashaei, who the general described as not being a “political man”. This Iranian constitutional term refers to  male-only regime figures considered to have the appropriate religious and political credentials to compete in presidential elections. Sha’bani’s statement gave the impression that Mashaei would not be approved by the Guardian Council, which has responsibility for vetting presidential candidates.

Perhaps Sha’bani’s most interesting comments were about the possible rise of a new movement around election time. Shabani said that the IRGC’s current analysis was that the economic situation, including the president’s mismanagement and international sanctions, had “furnished the ground for” enemies to take advantage of during the electoral campaign and voting. He maintained that unlike the Green Movement, which originated in Tehran and largely took place in large urban areas, this movement would grow out of provincial cities and towns. This new movement would be influenced by daily economic problems, according to Sha’bani, and would include the participation of  “hard working and vulnerable” people. He said that “the IRGC has the experience to confront it, however”.

Foreign policy

Sha’bani made at least two interesting comments regarding foreign policy issues. First, he expressed confidence that “If in two months the situation in Iran, Syria, and Iraq are as they are now, the West will invite us as partners” to help resolve issues between them.

Second, he said that Iran’s support for Syria was a  matter of the Islamic Republic’s pragmatic interests. According to him, during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Syria had been a reliable ally against their common foe Iraq  and did not allow itself to fall into the Arab vs Iranian narrative of the conflict. Likewise, today both sides are drawn together not by love, but by mutual interests including enmity toward the state of Israel.