ANALYSIS: Iran’s Next President Could Be a Former IRGC Commander

By Roshanak Astaraki


Hossein Dehghan, a special advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the only person so far to have formally announced his candidacy for the Iranian presidential elections, due to be held in June 2021.

In comments reported by the Tehran-based Baharestan Online news agency on Sept. 28, Mr. Dehghan, a former Iranian Defense Minister in President Rouhani’s first cabinet (2013-2017), said: “I will have a strong showing [in the elections]. I believe people should be rescued from the current situation.”

Dehghan was born in Pudeh, a village in the central province of Isfahan, in 1957. He received a Ph.D. in management from the University of Tehran.

He served as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander for Tehran and Isfahan. He also completed several tours of duty in Syria and Lebanon.

Dehghan – along with Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaei, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, and Former IRGC head Rahim Safavi — were among senior military commanders who served in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

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Dehghan also served as deputy defense minister in President Mohammad Khatami’s government from 1997 to 2003. He later served as First Vice President and director of the Martyrs Foundation in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government between 2005 and 2009.

While Dehghan is the first IRGC commander to have announced his candidacy for the 2021 Iranian presidential election, others may follow soon. Also, he is not the first military officer to have run in the presidential election.

Commodore Seyyed Ahmad Madani (1929-2006), a navy commander, was a candidate in the first Iranian presidential election following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Others included Admiral Ali Shamkhani (who ran in the 2001 election), Mohsen Rezaei (who ran in the 2009 election), and the Speaker of the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (who ran in the 2013 election).

They all performed poorly and lost to other presidential contenders by wide margins.

Ghalibaf and Rezaei are among several former senior military commanders whose names have been mentioned as potential candidates in the 2021 presidential race. Others include Saeed Mohammad, the commander of the Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, the engineering wing of the IRGC; Parviz Fattah, head of the Mostazafan Foundation (the foundation of the oppressed and disabled, MFJ); Ezatollah Zarghami, former director of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB); and Ali Larijani, former Majlis Speaker.

All of these potential candidates with a military background either belong to the reformist or the conservative faction.

Meanwhile, reformists and conservatives have yet to nominate their presidential candidates.

Reformists have already launched a campaign against Mr. Dehghan’s candidacy. They have been using slogans such as “A Military Government in the Making,” “A Government with Guns,” and “Consolidating Power” as a scare tactic to warn the public against electing a president with a military background whose cabinet, they argue, would comprise former IRGC officers.

By distancing themselves from the IRGC, reformists are trying to convince voters that they are the last line of defense against the extremists whose “aim is to control the Majlis and the government.”

Despite the best efforts of reformists to distance themselves from conservatives, most Iranians believe that the two factions are two sides of the same coin. Both hardliners and moderates are part of the Islamic Republic establishment, whose interest and survival are inextricably linked to the regime. They are all in the same boat.

Akbar Ganji, a prominent Iranian journalist, writer, and political dissident, and a supporter of the reformist faction, is alarmed by Dehghan’s candidacy. Mr. Ganji, who has been living outside Iran since 2006, has urged the Iranian public to reject the nomination of a former military officer in the forthcoming presidential election.

“It is okay if you reject the Islamic Republic. It is also okay if you do not want to take part in the election, but should you remain silent and allow an IRGC commander to become a president and create a homogenous ruling system?” Ganji tweeted on Nov. 23. “Which system is more suitable for bringing about democracy; a homogenous right-wing extremist rule, or a heterogeneous state where two sides continually are at war with each other?”

While some believe that the entire reform movement is the offspring of the Islamic Revolution, many prominent reformists with a distinguished military background are promoting a reformist agenda. They include Alireza Alavitabar, a member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front; Elias Hazrati, a former Majlis deputy representing Tehran Rey, Shemiranat and Eslamshahr; and Mohsen Sazegara, a candidate in the 2001 presidential election.

Despite the best efforts of reformists to distance themselves from the IRGC, many of them have close links to senior former and current military commanders, including the late Lieutenant General Ghasem Soleimani, the former commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force (IRGC-QF).

General Soleimani had a cordial relationship with reformists through his association with the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Soleimani was assassinated in a U.S. drone attack on Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3. Although reformists opposed Soleimani’s mission to export the Islamic Revolution, they joined the hardliners to mourn his death and praise his military achievements and regional activities.

The IRGC and reformist politicians clash whenever the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization investigates incidents of financial corruption allegedly committed by influential reformist officials and their families, friends, and associates.

The Islamic Republic faces three significant challenges these days. Public confidence in the regime has decreased significantly inside Iran. The Islamic Republic’s relationships with its neighbors and the West have deteriorated through the years. The state is plagued with infighting among its various factions and economic mafias.

Many of the regime’s long-time insiders, such as Faezeh Rafsanjani, the late Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s daughter, are hard pressed to define the Islamic Republic.

“We are neither a revolutionary nor a religious state,” Ms. Rafsanjani said during a video talk on June 23, sponsored by the Stanford University Program on Iranian Studies.

Nationwide protests in the past two years have shown that the Iranian public makes no distinction between reformists and conservatives — a point that is not lost on the leaders of the regime.

The current conditions and public mood in Iran differ significantly from the social and political climate in the summer of 2009, which gave birth to the Green Movement and sparked massive protests against the presidential election results, which ultimately handed a second term to the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Reformists cannot separate themselves from hardliners any longer. As a result, their election campaign consists solely of warning people that lower voter turnout would hand the presidency to an ex-IRGC officer.

The IRGC has been a major political, economic, and military force in Iran. The organization exerts a massive influence on the country’s domestic and foreign affairs. Reformists and conservatives all have close links to the IRGC. Ultimately, the 2021 presidential election winner is likely to be someone who will not hesitate to crush protests by those calling for regime change.

This article was translated and adapted from Persian by Fardine Hamidi.