Iran Election Watch 2013: What are the characteristics of the IRGC’s ideal presidential candidate?

We here at IranPolitik place special significance on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a political actor in the Islamic Republic of Iran. We have argued on our website before that the IRGC is represented by proxy politicians who we have called the Neo-Principalist political current. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first administration (2005-2009) was Neo-Principalist until the 2009 presidential election crisis, after which he became increasingly independent. His second administration (2009-2013) has been dominated by what we have called the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei Current. In the ninth session of parliament (2012-2016) one of the largest and most influential factions, the Persevering Front of the Islamic Revolution (PFIR), is Neo-Principalist. The IRGC has used its political influence over the presidency and parliament as well as the patronage of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls key centers of power, to pursue its interests as a security and economic actor while also marginalizing its political opponents. As Ahmadinejad exits the stage, the IRGC will be looking to this year’s crop of  candidates for someone new and perhaps more loyal to represent its interests in the presidency. The IRGC has said that it will never support one candidate over the others. However, it often has subtle and not-so-subtle ways of highlighting who its preferred candidate is. In the May-June 2013 issue of the IRGC’s official monthly newsletter “Message of the Revolution” (Payam-e Enghelab) it outlines a number of characteristics which its ideal candidate should have in an article entitled “Do not forget the big codes and secrets: Rereading important principles and bases in evaluating presidential candidates”.

The article states that while economic issues are important for candidates to address, there are more important issues that they should emphasize because economic pressure on Iran will not stop any time soon. According to the article: “It would be a mistake if this type of thinking become dominant in peoples’ mind that the best president is someone who comes and only addresses the country’s economic situation. Unfortunately this thinking has becoming dominant.” Translation: The IRGC takes a dim view of candidates who have completely organized their campaigns around economic issues. While the article acknowledges that economic issues are important, it asserts that a candidate should not sacrifice the main goal of Islamic ideals and values for the smaller goal of the economy. Quoting the Islamic Republic’s founder Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the article says that enduring and suffering, including economic suffering, in the path of Islam is important for progress to take place.

The article also argues that Iran should not seek to become like other countries such as Japan, economically or otherwise: “There is no attraction [for us] to want to be a, administration, regime, and country like, for instance, Japan…It means that when there is not spirituality, when it is not for God, and when it is not the creation of an ideal human society, there is no justification for attempting and working hard. So, we must move for God; we must work within the framework of God. The biggest responsibility of the Islamic Republic is to actualize Islam in people’s life and transform society into an ideal Islamic society.” This may seem somewhat abstract, but the point of the argument seems to be to downplay the importance of economic issues and to pointedly criticize candidates who look to other countries for their development model. It may be specifically targeting former speaker of the parliament Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel, who is alleged to have called for Iran to become an “Islamic Japan”, and current Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf whose development model is said to be influenced by the East Asian model.

The article also place great importance on foreign policy and the views of presidential candidates in this regards, making subtle jabs at disqualified presidential candidates Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani who have downplayed the importance of Iran’s “resistance” to the United States and Israel: “Another vital element that must be considered in evaluating thoughts and plans of the president is preserving the principles of the revolution and the ideals of the Imam [Khomeini] and Leadership [of Khamenei], specifically in the dimension of foreign policy. Among these principles there is the essential conflict between the Islamic Revolution and Global Arrogance and especially the existence of the fake, imposed, and occupying Zionist regime. The Imam said that this regime must be wiped from the pages of history and the Supreme Leader of the Revolution in his Nowruz speech in holy Mashad recently  said that: ‘If they do a damned thing [and militarily attack Iran] the Islamic Republic will make the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa one with the earth.’”

The article states that the United States’ relationship with Iran in negotiations is like that between a wolf and a sheep, underlining another quote from Khomeini on the circumstances under which the U.S. and Iran could re-establish formal ties: “Whenever America becomes decent and stops its arrogance a relationship can be established with it.” The article also cites Khamenei in saying that relations with the United States at this point would not be in the interest of the people or revolution. Without calling out Mashaei and Hashemi-Rafsanjani by name, the article attacks those who it says are giving society the impression that if elected they would move toward closer relations with the United States. The article proclaims that such people are not qualified to hold any positions in the Islamic Republic, let alone the presidency.

Finally, the article places emphasis on “a spirit of surrender and obedience” to the supreme leader, or velayat madari. The consequence of this may be that the IRGC believes a presidential candidate, once elected, should not seek to exceed their constitutional mandate and encroach on the authority of the supreme leader, as former President Mohammad Khatami did and current President Ahmadinejad is doing.

Who best fits the IRGC’s conception of the ideal presidential candidate? Saeed Jalili seems like the most obvious choice. While he has addressed pressing economic issues, he also emphasizes the need to create a “resistance economy” and has said that only through resistance can the economic pressure from Iran’s foreign foes be lessened. He has said that Iran should not look to other countries for its development model and has called for the creation of an indigenous development model in the fourth decade of the revolution which he calls the “civilizations building paradigm of the Islamic Revolution.” Jalili has said little on negotiations with the U.S. during his campaign thus far, but it can be surmised from his hard-line stance as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council during nuclear negotiations that he is probably not the biggest proponent of closer relations with the United States. Finally, as a former senior manager in the Office of the Supreme Leader, we can that Jalili is considered to be very close and obedient to the supreme leader. There are also other signs of Jalili’s proximity to the IRGC. For example, the name of his main website, “Immaculate Life” (Hayat-e Tayebeh), echoes a key slogan used by the IRGC in Message of the Revolution and its other publications.

Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel and Ali-Akbar Velayati seem to somewhat fit the IRGC’s criteria, albeit less intensely than Jalili. Ghalibaf however comes up short in some areas. He has placed great emphasis on economic issues, has drawn inspiration from the East Asian model, is considered more moderate on foreign policy, and is not as close to the supreme leader as the above candidates. Rather, Ghalibaf has tried to make peoples’ day-to-day economic issues central to his campaign and this is precisely what the IRGC seems to want to move away from. We can thus surmise that Ghalibaf is not the IRGC’s ideal candidate. However, this does not necessarily mean that he will not win. He is a former senior IRGC commander, may have some broad popular social appeal, particularly among the urban middle-class in Tehran, and is a member of the Two Plus One Coalition with Hadad-Adel and Velayati. According to the guidelines of this coalition, only the most popular candidate among the three will move ahead to the 14 June election while the other two will resign and throw their support behind him.

We can safely say that both Reformist candidate Mohammad-Reza Aref and Centrist candidate Hassan Rowhani stray very far from the IRGC’s ideal. Given how much distance there is between them and the IRGC this will create difficulties for them in terms of winning the presidency, assuming the presidency if they win, or carrying out their duties if they assume the presidency.

While Jalili appears to have all of the characteristics of the IRGC’s ideal presidential candidate, this by no means guarantees his victory. We believe that the IRGC is the single most important political actor in Iran. However, its power is not absolute. In our next articles, we will explore the dynamics of the 2013 Iranian presidential election in greater depth and look at under what circumstances the IRGC may allow a candidate who only possesses some of its ideal characteristics to become president.