Mr. Hourcade is a senior research fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. This updated essay originally appeared in French: “ La ‘prise du pouvoir’ par les Gardiens de la révolution: retour au passé ou perspective d’ouverture?” in La Revue Internationale et Stratégique (IRIS), Vol. 70, 2008.
In the misty landscape of internal Iranian politics, simplistic ideas are often a substitute for analysis. Many analysts consider that power is entirely in the hands of the Shia mullahs, that the supreme leader decides everything and that the “Guardians of the Revolution” — the Pasdaran — are in the process of occupying all key positions in business, public and private institutions, and now in the government. The Iranian opposition abroad generally characterizes the Iranian system as totalitarian and thus, by nature, incapable of change or internal evolution. According to this view, the only possible way for positive change to occur in Iran is through a complete change of regime brought about most likely with assistance from abroad. For more than three decades, not one year has gone by without some prediction of the imminent fall of the Islamic Republic due to pressure from civil society. In fact, there is consensus among analysts that the majority of Iranians would like political change, but that does not mean that they have the means to provoke a new revolution. After the dashed hopes of reform under President Mohammad Khatami, the middle class is still discouraged.
After three decades of political stability under the control of the clergy, there is the possibility of profound political change in Iran now that the generation that was in their twenties at the time of the Islamic revolution has reached the top ranks of the power structure. This demographic fact merits attention because it could offer a new opening for maneuver, not to change the Iranian regime but to change the regime’s politics.
These veterans of the “Guardians of the Revolution” and of a number of revolutionary organizations (Basijis, the Devoted Volunteers; Jahad-e sazandegi, the Reconstruction Jahad) number several million. They are today in their fifties and are moving into positions of deciding policy, not merely executing it. This new generation, which is likely to occupy the center stage of Iranian politics, is not well known in the West. Hundreds of articles and books have been published about the Shia clergy analyzing the admittedly significant influence of this ayatollah from Qom or that ayatollah from Tehran, but what do we know about these “soldiers of Year Two” [the soldiers of the second year of the French revolution, united and victorious at Valmy against Austrian and Prussian invaders of France, made famous by Victor Hugo] who recently have begun to appear in the first ranks of Iranian politics?
The election of one of them, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidency of the republic in 2005 surprised people but seemed to confirm that Iranian politics continued to be directed in an effective and totalitarian manner by the leader, Ali Khamenei, and the clergy. The situation is in fact more complex. We too quickly forgot that three other veterans were also candidates for the presidency, and that for a long time the favorite was Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran. Two candidates in the elections of June 2009, Mir-Hosseyn Mussavi and Mohsen Rezai, also belonged to this new generation of the “sons of the Islamic revolution,” who are opposed to the clerical managers of the Islamic regime. The change of political personnel cannot be characterized as a slow military coup d’état or a simple front for the Iran of the mullahs. In a paradoxical fashion, the assumption of power by these Islamist veterans could represent an opportunity to move beyond the current impasse. It is at least a hypothesis that should be examined. In the context of international sanctions, the nuclear crisis, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 30-year stalemate between Iran and the United States, it is probably useful to seek to understand those who will govern Iran during the next decade.
THE PASDARAN AND VETERANS
Most of the young Iranians who fought in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) did so in the context of performing two years of military service in the regular army (Artesh), but the young Islamists and militants joined one of the many branches of the Basij, in part to contribute to the victory of the Islamic revolution but also out of simple nationalism — to protect the fatherland in danger. A limited number of volunteers were accepted into the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC Sepah-e Pasdaran, now part of the Iranian Ministry of Defense), or Pasdaran. Elite in terms of both military prowess and ideological conviction, this corps numbered about 300,000 by the end of the war. Most saw combat on the front against Iraq, but others were active against the Kurds in Iran and Iraq, in military operations abroad, particularly in Lebanon, where they supported Hezbollah, and above all against political opponents within Iran. Most of the Pasdaran were demobilized at the end of their military service. It is estimated that about two million veterans served in this corps during the Iran-Iraq War. As to young people who supported the Basij, they could number as many as 10 million.
At the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the young revolutionaries were exhausted. Two-thirds of the Revolutionary Guards were demobilized. At that time, they had neither the means nor the ambition to attempt to assume power. Control of Iranian political, economic and social life remained firmly in the hands of the clergy. So the Pasdaran veterans got married and had children, they re-enrolled in school or took the positions, generally low-level, reserved for them within the government administration. In recognition of their service in the war, thousands of young Basijis were able to enroll in universities without passing any sort of entrance exam. The majority acquired a reasonably modest education, but some obtained engineering degrees or doctorates. This new home-grown elite lacked any international exposure and was thus very different from the elite under the shah, almost all of whom had been educated abroad. However, certain Pasdaran veterans were sent abroad, especially to Australia or Canada to perfect their English and gain exposure to a foreign culture.
Other veterans received financial aid to allow them to start businesses. An entire economic and political network was created by means of companies that are owned directly by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Khatam al-Ambiya, for example, is government-funded but administered as a private company, thus putting the Pasdaran in charge of an international-level business conglomerate equal to enterprises such as the Foundation for the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Moztazafan), which are controlled by the clergy.
Thus a new Islamist mid-level bourgeoisie was created out of men who were mostly of modest backgrounds and from the provinces — managers and functionaries who staffed all sectors of the Iranian workforce. Originally hired for lower-level or technical positions, the veterans of the Pasdaran and Basijis gained experience and gradually assumed a place in society alongside their civilian counterparts. The process was sometimes difficult, but each group made an effort toward accommodating the other. The former revolutionaries and combat veterans became more bourgeois and for many years remained discretely on the sidelines. A few of them did seek political careers via municipal or parliamentary elections, but there was no “Islamic Green” parliament like the “Sky Blue” senate in France that was filled with military veterans after World War I.
Some of the Pasdaran remained in the IRGC (Sepah in Persian) and occupied some of the highest positions in the Ministry of Defense. Since the end of the war, the Sepah is a military force integrated into the Ministry of Defense, an elite corps of 120,000 professional soldiers and conscripts (land, air, marine) under the orders of the government and the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. It is both a classic military corps and a force charged with carrying out political actions inside the country and beyond its borders to support the Islamic revolution. It also acts as a check on the influence of the regular army (Artesh) in charge of national security. The IRGC is particularly active in programs relating to ballistic missiles, operations in Iraq and Lebanon (the Qods Force), anti-drug-trafficking efforts, border control in sensitive areas such as the frontier with Kurdistan, and maintenance of political order with the support of the militias of the Basijis. The Sepah remains an institutional “home” for those Pasdaran veterans who wish to remain linked with it, but typically they insist that, during the Iran-Iraq War, they were deeply committed volunteers and not soldiers like the current professional IRGC.
The Pasdaran veterans of the 1980s have generally been faithful supporters of the regime while waiting to eventually assume greater political power. In the presidential election of 1997, they supported Mohammad Khatami, who represented a return to revolutionary ideals; they feared, however, that he was not capable of resisting U.S. influence. They have remained faithful to the supreme leader for religious reasons, but remain hostile towards the clerics who grabbed power while they were mobilized to protect the fatherland. This rivalry explains why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an unknown without a turban, could in the elections of 2005 crush A. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the most powerful cleric in Iran. This election marked the veterans’ arrival on the national political scene. They had acquired the age, the experience and the financial means to take power.
In approving the presidential candidacies of four veterans — Moshen Rezai, Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, Ali Larijani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2005 clearly supported the rise to political power of the generation that fought in the Iran-Iraq War. The change is not just a matter of demographics. These new leaders are not simply mullahs without turbans, although Ahmadinejad is perhaps an example to the contrary. The Islamic Republic may be entering a new phase of its history, one which will result, not in regime change, but in political change.
GENERATIONAL INTERESTS, 1980-88
While an evident fraternity of former fighters and revolutionary militants unites the millions of former Basijis and Pasdaran who brought about the Islamic Revolution, differences between them have become clearer now that this generation is on the verge of assuming power. One should not confuse the mass of Basijis with the Pasdaran elite. In addition, one also has to distinguish between those Pasdaran who fought for years at the Iraqi front and those who helped the clergy take control of the country by eliminating their opponents. Those who fought at the front believe that theirs was the most radical and urgent form of combat, defending both the national territory and the Islamic Republic. One could say that one group gave greater priority to the preservation of the nation and the other to the triumph of ideology. As to the many former Basijis, this group includes both Islamist militants who were devoted revolutionaries and others who saw in these groups the means to secure jobs and other material advantages.
These war veterans, who are often erroneously referred to as members of the “Guardians of the Revolution,” are described as a compact mass, a strong and unified group determined to make use of the most radical means to achieve its goals, while still remaining faithful to the slogans of the 1979 revolution, untainted by the tradition of negotiation and compromise characteristic of the Shia clergy. Too quickly one associates this group with the IRGC, which is directly implicated in actions in Lebanon, in the production of missiles, in Iraq and in the nuclear effort. This would make one fear for the worst in the event this group takes power, and the populist and ideological politics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has confirmed these fears. But the internal opposition aroused by Ahmadinejad’s policies allows us to discern that these veterans have very different ideas, support different tactics, and even have opposing strategies. In fact, they constitute a mirror image of the heterogeneous coalition of Iranian groups that briefly united to overthrow the shah’s regime in 1979. These groups included, in varying proportions, nationalists, Islamists and those with an international perspective.
Like most of the people devoted to the ideals of the 1979 revolution against the shah and to the motto of the Islamic Republic (independence, liberty, Islamic Republic), many of the war veterans, convinced that their ideals have been betrayed, are among the political militants who are the most active and critical of the current regime. They are among those who are the most repressed by the regime because they are simultaneously good Muslims and good nationalists, but also pragmatic and open to the world. Among those whose situation has been reported on in the media are Said Aghajari, a history professor wounded in combat who was accused and then acquitted of blasphemy, and Akbar Ganji, a journalist who spent several years in prison. However, most of the war veterans want either to profit from their positions within the elite or to try to find a way for an Islamic Iran to participate in globalization without having to go through another revolution.
In Iran, as elsewhere, one often hears regret expressed that the officials named by President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad are often more radical than they are competent. But these new politicians are not truly representative of the larger group of war veterans and former revolutionaries. To say that Iran is falling into the hands of the Pasdaran is to confuse all the war veterans and militants now in their fifties with the current Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The essential point is to discover who the new leaders are, what their politics consist of, and which groups they belong in. They are as broadly diverse as Iranian society, ranging from pro-Western liberals to Islamic radicals.
In the current political life of Iran, the principal distinction is between those who, from the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, chose to go to the front and those who after several months of combat at the front quickly rejoined other groups of revolutionaries back home, such as the various Basiji organizations, intelligence and, above all, the struggle against political opposition within the country (Kurds, liberals, leftists). This division is at the heart of the contest between President Ahmadinejad, a former Basiji who had a career within the Ministry of Interior, and Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf, a former Pasdaran general and hero of the battle of Khorramshahr, who finished his military career as chief of police in Tehran before becoming Tehran’s mayor.
Those who fought at the front against Iraq are asserting their ability to define a strategy for Iran that takes into account the reality of the balance of power. They reproach the radicals who have been at the highest levels of government since 2005 for failing to take into account changes in Iranian society and in the world at large and, thus, putting at risk the national economy and ultimately the Islamic Republic itself. Despite their differences, there is considerable overlap between the views of Mohsen Rezai, the commander-in-chief of the Pasdaran during the war and current secretary-general of the Expediency Council headed by A.-A. Rafsanjani; Ali Larijani, who had a long political career before becoming secretary-general of the National Security Council; and Mohammad-Bagher Qalibaf.
After Qalibaf’s failure to win the presidential election in 2005, his pragmatism led him to make concessions to the reformers and to Rafsanjani’s network in order to be elected mayor of Tehran. This local responsibility has become a base from which to acquire more power, demonstrating that combat veterans are also capable of being good managers who take into account contemporary reality. In favor of large-scale privatization of a statist economy they judge to be ungovernable, Rezai, Larijani and Qalibaf also know that there is no durable future for the Islamic Republic without normalization of relations with the United States, a prospect that they do not fear.
In the current political context, this group of high-level former Pasdaran, supported by numerous former Basijis, seems to be the only possible opposition to the supporters of President Ahmadinejad. This group could certainly take power in the event of a major crisis. If there is no other alternative, they could receive the support of the supreme leader and the clergy, who want to preserve regime continuity. Thanks to their military backgrounds, they are the only ones capable of negotiating a normalization of Iran’s relations with the world, particularly with the United States, ensuring that in the process the country’s independence is not put at risk. They are very concerned about economic and social development and thus open to the scientific and industrial community and to contemporary culture as a means of making Islamic Iran a modern country capable of achieving its full potential. Their intransigence is evident. They make no mystery of their military and ideological past, but this gives them the ideological, political and technical capability to make difficult decisions and to impose their will, if necessary.
The purpose of sanctions is to oblige Iran to bend to the demands of the international community on nuclear issues, but in fact the entire disagreement between Iran and the rest of the world is in play. By weakening Iran’s modern economy and reducing the role of international corporations in Iran, the sanctions reinforce the informal economy and the political base of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This perspective explains the determination of the rising group of veterans, who know that Iran cannot afford the luxury of wasting its oil and that it is urgent to invest. Thus, it is urgent to remove from power the populist group that supports President Ahmadinejad.
This new political group would not bring about a change of regime, but it could perhaps effect an immediate change of politics and of tone at a time when it is urgent to address the nuclear issue. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami proposed reforms without having the means to bring them about. The veterans of the Iran-Iraq War are pragmatic and without doubt have the means to impose their views. The question is whether they can win the votes of the lower class, which forms the strong base of Ahmadinejad’s popular legitimacy, and convince the middle classes, opponents of the Islamic regime, that they offer an acceptable way out of the current impasse and a means to avoid new upheavals.
During the presidential elections of June 2009, Qalibaf was not a candidate. The supreme leader and the radicals supported Ahmadinejad, while the “Reformists” were united behind Mir-Hosseyn Mussavi, leaving no room for the former general of the Pasdaran. Mohsen Rezai ran for election to send a message to both the people and the policy makers: The veterans of the war and other true supporters of independence, liberty and social justice — the foundation of the Islamic revolution of 1979 — are ready to do their duty if the Islamic Republic, unable to give a proper response to current national and international challenges, faces a major danger.