Iran Election Watch 2013: The IRGC and the case for a “semi-competitive” election in Iran

Are Iranian elections competitive?

One of the essential questions about the 2013 Iranian presidential election for Iranians and outside observers is whether these elections are competitive. We all know that there is substantial pre-selection in Iranian national elections, whether for the presidency, parliament, or Assembly of Experts. The Council of Guardians, based on criteria set out in the Constitution and elsewhere but also its own internal criteria which are completely not transparent, chooses who can and cannot participate in the election. Therefore this year only eight candidates were qualified to participate from a larger pool of 686 applicants. While this is an extreme form of pre-selection, most democratic systems formally or informally have some kind of pre-selection or conditions for attaining elected national office. Iran’s extreme form of formal pre-selection limits candidates competing in national elections to those within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment, severely limiting political diversity. This does not necessarily mean that Iranian voters have no say in elections’ outcome.

One of the difficulties of specifically understanding Iranian presidential elections is the impact of voters versus unelected centers of power such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on who becomes president. If elections were absolutely competitive, then we could determine outcomes by gauging voter opinion. If they were absolutely uncompetitive we could guess the winner by trying to find the candidate closest to the unelected centers of power. We argue each election is a unique event which must be analyzed in its own right to determine whether it is competitive or uncompetitive. For example, the conventional interpretation of the 1997 election in which Mohammad Khatami was elected president is that it was competitive. In contrast the 2009 election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected is commonly viewed as having been uncompetitive. One of the real difficulties of analyzing Iranian presidential elections is discerning which side of the spectrum they will lean. Looking at the 2013 election, the truth may lie somewhere between these extremes. Powerful unelected centers of power, especially the IRGC, are likely to significantly shape who can and cannot win. Still, there may be room in this year’s election for Iranian voters to make their will known, potentially making the 2013 election a semi-competitive one.

Semi-competitive election: The IRGC will show an iron fist to opponents but count votes for friends

As we argued in our previous article we see the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as being the most powerful political actor in the Islamic Republic. As such, the IRGC has a profound ability to influence politics in general and presidential elections in particular. In 2009 the IRGC mobilized its resources behind its chosen candidate, Ahmadinejad, and took decisive steps to make sure he re-assumed the presidency despite the Green Movement’s allegations of fraud. Furthermore, it took active steps to marginalize the Green Movement, playing a leading role in effectively eliminating those at the heart of it from Iran’s political spectrum. It has also gone on the offensive against Reformists and Centrists, who supported the Green Movement, and even Traditional Principalists who have been less critical of the movement. We believe that in 2013 the IRGC is more important as a political actor than ever before, having further consolidated its power. This means that it will help determine the overall direction of the election, including the kind of candidate who can win. We contend that this means that candidates not politically aligned with the IRGC have little to no chance of winning even if they receive the most votes. We argued in our previous article that the IRGC has set criteria regarding its ideal candidate which strongly favor Saeed Jalili. However, there are circumstances under it could pay heed to Iranian voters and shift its support behind another candidate.

The IRGC is keenly aware of IRGC-phobia (Sepah-harassi) and the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy issues since 2009 and is thus not averse to letting voters have their say when it does not directly contradict its interests. Therefore, if a candidate politically aligned with the IRGC can actually generate enough voter enthusiasm to win the election, the IRGC will likely let them assume the presidency. We believe that the strongest candidate for such a scenario is Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf. As we argued in our previous article Ghalibaf is not the IRGC’s ideal candidate. However, this does not automatically mean that Ghalibaf cannot win. Ghalibaf has served in many senior positions in the IRGC, including as a field commander during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), as commander of it’s main economic arm the Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters (KACH), and as commander of the IRGC Air Force. Furthermore, he was associated with the group of 24 hard-line IRGC commanders who wrote a letter of warning to Khatami during the 1999 18 Tir demonstrations. In the 2005 Iranian presidential it is said that the IRGC initially favoured Ghalibaf but shifted its support behind Ahmadinejad at the eleventh hour. Since becoming mayor of Tehran in 2005 however Ghalibaf has gradually shifted toward the center, running on platform of pragmatic and efficient governance. Still he has, with questionable success, tried to appeal to both the IRGC’s hard-line social base as well as more moderate voters. In the recent Iranian presidential debate (2:09:00), he implicitly defended the IRGC as an economic actor when another candidate criticized it, and has in fact fed a steady pipeline of large contracts to the IRGC as mayor of Tehran. Thus while the IRGC dislikes the emphasis Ghalibaf is placing on the economy and his relative moderation on foreign policy, he appears not completely disagreeable to them.

Jalili, despite his limited political stature, has become the presumed front runner and has thus come under great scrutiny. He has at best been a lackluster candidate and his campaign has been somewhat disorganized, failing to generate excitement among the population at large and perhaps even falling short among the hard-liners’ social base. If this trend continues and he emerges as the victor then the election could be viewed with suspicion, further increasing IRGC-phobia and damaging the regime’s legitimacy. In this context if a candidate like Ghalibaf can generate enough voter enthusiasm to actually win the election, the IRGC may let him assume the presidency. Several things would likely need to happen for such enthusiasm to emerge. He would need to strengthen his current emphasis on economic issues, which while disagreeable to the IRGC, could be attractive to many Iranians particularly in light of his strong management track-record as Tehran’s mayor. Iranians could also vote strategically: If moderate candidates like Reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref or Centrist Hassan Rowhani fail to sufficiently mobilize their middle-class base and become viewed as politically impotent, then many Iranians, could vote for Ghalibaf in the hopes of preventing a more hard-line candidate such as Jalili from coming to power. While Ghalibaf has performed well by Iranian standards and appears to have a strong campaign machinery throughout the country, given the sheer number of candidates and short campaign season in Iran it is unclear if he will have the time to create such momentum in the first round of voting. However, if there is a second round and Ghalibaf makes his way into it, his chances of winning could be higher.

Having said all of this, at this time such a scenario does not appear to be unfolding in the election. Many of those writing on Iran have talked of these elections as being unpredictable and have expressed “surprise” at certain turn of events. This may be an exaggeration given the increasing importance of unelected centers of power such as the IRGC in the Islamic Republic and the extent to which the Centrist and Reformist political currents have become marginalized and impotent over the last decade. At the same time, it would be wrong to assume that the election’s outcome is a foregone conclusion. There may still be some genuine competition among the candidates of the Principalist political current, and voters may be able to influence the outcome of the election by mobilizing behind one of these candidates.