Speaking before the 20th General Assembly of Commanders and Officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on 16 September 2013, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned the IRGC in veiled terms about its involvement in elite politics and economic corruption but, in step with his reputation for pragmatism, acknowledged that the organization also had an important role to play in national security as well as the economy.
In his speech Rouhani heaped praises on the IRGC, saying: “That force which today, on the front and first line, stands and must stand against all conspiracies, is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” He took pains to highlight the positive past role of the IRGC in defending the revolution and Islamic Republic, saying:
“In all of those early days when it was necessary, Islam’s Guardians [the IRGC] put their lives on the line to establish this revolution and the Islamic regime. Everywhere they took a stand and sacrificed, and whenever there was a sense of danger the IRGC was on the first line of defense of the revolution.”
Praise of its past however was combined with a sense of trepidation about the IRGC’s present and future, amounting to a veiled criticism of the organization. Rouhani asserted that the IRGC, from its inception, had possessed both “spiritual and social” capital as well as a number of characteristics during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), namely “spirituality, honesty, purity, and authority”, which had helped it in guarding the revolution and in the war effort. He subtly gave a sense to listeners, however, that the IRGC’s capital and characteristics could decline. For example, he highlighted the IRGC’s social capital and closeness with the people, saying: “The IRGC’s social capital is that you are beside and in the heart of the people…The IRGC must be the firm fortress and the refuge of all the people.” He insisted, however, that “If this capital erodes, God forbid the day come, and if the judgement of the people ever casts doubt on the best most loyal forces of the revolution, the IRGC shall no longer be the same IRGC which made the Imam [Ruhollah Khomeini] say “would that I were an IRGC member”.” At this point, Rouhani drove home his criticism of the IRGC’s role in elite politics:
“The Imam from the first day and the time that you fought in the trenches, emphasized that the IRGC should understand politics well but not to enter it because the IRGC belongs to all of the people of Iran, and if there is one day a need for all of the people of the nation to be present, that which must absorb the people under the name of the Basij and bring them under the flag of Islam is the IRGC.”
Rouhani also potentially made a veiled criticism of the IRGC’s involvement in economic corruption when he called on it to combat the problem of corruption, specifically the smuggling of commodities: “the IRGC must help and prevent the smuggling of commodities.” Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s had in the past alleged that the IRGC was involved in smuggling, and in this context Rouhani’s invitation to the IRGC to fight smuggling is not only interesting, but perhaps also an entreaty by Rouhani for the IRGC to refrain from involvement in such activities.
What is, however, more surprising than Rouhani’s faint criticism of the IRGC is his praise of its economic prowess and insistence that it play a vital role in Iran’s economic affairs. He maintained that:
“The IRGC must reach the conclusion that the livelihood of the people is under attack because of sanctions and that it must do something about this to decrease the effects on the people…the IRGC is not the rival of the people or the employer and rival of the private sector. It must shoulder the weight of the big projects which the private sector is not capable of doing.”
At first glance, Rouhani’s speech appears to only slightly criticize the IRGC while heaping praise on its national security and economic roles. This may come as a disappointment to those who had hoped for more radical changes from the Rouhani administration, especially in relation to the IRGC’s role in politics and the economy. More realistically however, Rouhani’s conciliatory and even seemingly favourable approach to the IRGC is likely a reflection of the balance of power in the Islamic Republic. The political currents supporting Rouhani, namely the Centrists and Reformists, until recently had largely been marginalized. Rouhani’s rise to the presidency was highly contingent and by no means inevitable or even the most probable outcome of the 2013 election. Under these circumstances, Rouhani is in no position to take the IRGC on every front but rather must choose his battles wisely. Pushing back against the IRGC’s seemingly increasing encroachment in elite politics may be one battle which the new president believes he can actually win, but not without conceding to the IRGC a continuing prominent role in both national security and the economy.