Mohsen Sazegara is one of the original members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He held a number of senior posts in the government of Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 1980s. Sazegara registered to run in the 2001 presidential election, but was disqualified by the vetting body, the Guardian Council. He is a journalist and a pro-democracy political activist. Sazegara currently resides outside of Iran.
In an interview with Nazenin Ansari, the managing editor of Kayhan London, Sazegara discusses the recent Iranian election and President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda for the next four years. He offers insights into the alleged infighting between the IRGC and the establishment over Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is the custodian of the Astan Qods Razavi, an autonomous foundation managing the Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad. Raisi was the main challenger to Rouhani in the May presidential election.
Sazegara also describes the behind-the-scenes efforts by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to manage the election and its outcome. The interview covers other issues including but not limited to the critical role of the army in the elections.
Q: Did you vote, Mr Sazegara?
A: No. But if I had, it would have naturally been for Mr. Rouhani and definitely not Mr. Raisi. I didn’t vote for personal and ethical reasons. I discuss the concept of voting in a video I made for the “boycott campaign.”
An election is fundamentally a democratic tool.Civil activists use it effectively. I live outside Iran and, therefore, am not in a position to urge or discourage people who live inside Iran to vote. Those who live in that environment make their own decisions. For me it’s a question of ethics.
I refuse to vote as long as there are corrupt individuals in Rouhani’s cabinet such as Mr. Mostafa Pourmohammadi (the Justice Minister) and others like him.
Q: Some data coming out of Iran suggests that more Iranians took part in the Iranian election than Europeans and Americans did in theirs. Do you think you made the right decision not to vote?
A: The last election divided Iranian society into three segments. Of the 56 million eligible voters, 15 million voted for Mr. Raisi.
There are some questions about what actually took place at the polling stations where votes were being counted. Also, no one knows what happened in the “tunnel of horror” from Friday night until the following morning.
Mr Vahid Haqani, a member of Leader’s inner circle, was apparently at a polling station where the votes were being counted. There were claims of vote tampering, namely that Rouhani had received 62 percent of the vote, but the number had been reduced to 57, and the balance had been transferred to Raisi. A look at the vote tally among the provinces confirms this claim.
Let’s assume that the official data is correct: then 15 million voted for Mr Raisi and 23 million for Rouhani. The remaining 17 million didn’t vote. Therefore, our society is divided into three segments.
Q: Many people did vote for Mr Raisi. Even if vote rigging claims were true, Mr Raisi still managed to claim over 10 million votes.
A: Let’s assume he claimed 15 million.
Q: What does this mean?
A: He was clearly trying to appeal to the disadvantaged groups. I mean the lower-income traders, unemployed workers and those living on the urban rural fringes. Raisi promised to raise their cash subsidy payments to around $46 a month. Raisi was targeting them. He also went after voters in small towns. This is an example of back-ally politics in Iran.
Q: You’ve spoken about coup plotters and discord within the IRGC. Could you shed more light on these issues?
A: Based on the information I’ve received and people I’ve spoken to, Raisi’s nomination was engineered by a faction within the Intelligence Organization of IRGC and allies of the Leader. They are at odds with the Ministry of Intelligence. There is some infighting with the ministry as well, but the dominant faction supports Rouhani.
My sources tell me that Raisi supporters were in a hurry to guarantee him the presidency. They manipulated the votes and the numbers to increase Raisi’s chances of winning the election. Their ultimate goal was to position Mr. Raisi as the most logical successor to the leader. The consensus is that we’ll know who will replace the Leader during President Rouhani’s second term in office. Mr Khamenei has alluded to this issue himself. He recently said that the current Assembly of Experts were to decide who would be the next Leader.
The supporters of Raisi wanted to persuade the poor and the working class to either vote for Raisi or remain neutral altogether. They wanted to discourage the working class from joining the middle class in protesting the election results, if the latter were to question the legitimacy of the votes.
The authorities would have cracked down on protesters as they did with the Green Movement in 2009. It was clear that the middle class was going to vote for Rouhani. The middle class has never been able to stand up to the establishment by itself. It would have had to join forces with the workers, the farmers and the jobless. We have 7.2 million industrial workers in Iran.
Q: So, are you saying that the coup plotters were among the IRGC ranks and allies of the leader, and that they ultimately lost?
A: It’s that tunnel of horror I mentioned earlier which ran all the way through the election night until the following morning. I was told that IRGC vehicles were positioned along the Karaj highway all the way to the Afsariyeh interchange, and also along Azadegan Freeway in south of Tehran. They were positioned in ten areas, meaning they were ready to act quickly.
Q: Why didn’t they do anything then?
A: Apparently two events occurred, although we don’t know for certain. I haven’t spoken to anyone who was actually in the tunnel of horror. Others have passed on the information to me.
Vahid Haqani, who to all intent and purposes represents Khamenei, had visited the polling station where votes were being counted. The high turnout at the ballot boxes had reportedly persuaded Khamenei to weigh in on the situation and prevent any further action.
People came out in record numbers. There is nothing more frightening to would-be coup plotters than a popular movement. It wasn’t just the middle class, but people from all walks of life who participated in the elections. People showed up, waited in long queues and voted.
Also, there is reportedly a rift within the IRGC ranks and files. The commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani is both a military man and a politician. He understands political games. Raisi’s supporters were capitalizing on Soleimani’s close association with him. Soleimani, however, said he wasn’t supporting any of the candidates, and that his vote was a private matter. In effect he withdrew from the political arena as soon as he understood the prevailing atmosphere in the country.
Subsequently, the spokesman for the IRGC’s Public Relations Office, Ramezan Sharif, gave an interview during which he said that commanders of the force could not comment an any issue without first consulting his office.
I’ve also heard that a number of provincial IRGC commanders were concerned about a possible coup in Tehran similar to the events of 2009 when elements of the force confronted people with guns.
There are also some rumors regarding possible discord within the ruling elite. Mr. Khamenei might have asked the IRGC to back down because he feared the prospect of angry protesters chanting “death to the dictator,” as they did in 2009. The Green Movement is Mr. Khamenei’s worst nightmare. There is apparently some infighting within the IRGC.
It would appear that a coalition of technocrats and non-military and security officials were trying to prevent Raisi from wining the elections. Raisi has worked in the Judiciary for many years. He has no executive experience. His only experience is executing people. He is neither a distinguished cleric nor a competent orator like Mr. Khamenei or the former Speaker of the Majlis [Iranian Parliament], Mr. Nateq Nouri. He has been in the Judiciary for 38 years and spent another 15 years as a deputy with the security forces. He wouldn’t hesitate to sign an order that would call for killing 5,000 people in streets.
Q: Despite all the recent developments, the reformists still operate outside the main power center. What are the policies that Mr Rouhani’s government should adopt in order to achieve positive results?
A: He has popular support. That is his biggest asset, and he must use that.
Q: Did we witness that in the elections?
A: Yes. He must know that by now, even if he had any doubts before. Rouhani threw caution to the wind in the last two weeks of the elections and forged ahead full speed.
Q: Do you think Rouhani meant what he said? Or was he forced to echo the concerns of the boycott campaign in order to get more votes?
A: Perhaps. Rouhani needed the votes of those who planned to boycott the elections. He was able to persuade some of them to come out and vote. In all likelihood, Rouhani is better informed than us about all the news that has been circulating. He must have entertained the possibility that the opposition might engineer a coup if people weren’t to show up in great numbers.
To solve Iran’s economic problems, they must first tackle rampant corruption. The ruling elite [supporters of the Leader] and the IRGC are the source of all corruption.
Q: Is Rouhani capable of eradicating corruption?
A: He can with the public’s help. I give you an example. He can draft a bill, promote and publicize it on TV before introducing it to the Majlis with great fanfare. He can argue that the situation would not improve until the articles of the bill are fully implemented. The implication would be that the law will gradually be applied to key organizations under the control of the leader and The Executive Headquarters of Imam Khomeini’s Directive.
These institutions include the Foundation of the Oppressed and Disabled (MFJ), the IRGC and IRGC’s engineering wing Khatim al-Anbiya…in other words, entities which in one way or another benefit from public funds and government revenue. Instead, they should be managed by the government and used as collateral to create jobs and help the poor and the disadvantaged.
Rouhani can appoint a vice president in charge of distributing the wealth to people in two years. Just imagine if Rouhani were to receive massive media coverage before announcing his intention to introduce the bill to the Majlis. He can ask the nation to stand by him through it all. That’s what former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq (1951-53) did before going to Marmar [Marble] Palace.
I’m sure two to three million people will show up at the Majlis. People will definitely travel from provinces to Tehran in a show of support for him. Rouhani will be able to flex his muscle. You can be certain that the Majlis will ratify the bill. The Guardian Council will not dare to reject it. Khamenei’s supporters will be forced to back down.
All the banks in Iran are bankrupt. Rouhani must implement measures similar to those taken after the 2008 U.S. banking crisis. He must immediately identify the corrupt banks and place them under the control of a few principal banks, thereby putting a stop to their crooked practices. He must reform the banking system, so it can function properly. If banks fail, then the whole country fails.
Another battle is fought in the foreign policy arena. Rouhani would like to open up the country and reach out to Europe and even the U.S. He may use the Chinese model by safeguarding the established political system while opening the door to foreign investments.Unfortunately, the IRGC and the Leader’s allies have aligned themselves with Russia. They spend seven to eight billion dollars a year in Syria. They need to resolve this issue.
We can’t expect the government to open up the country and attract foreign investments, especially in view of the regional turmoil and the terror threat. Rouhani’s strength is his popularity. Iranian foreign policy revolves around its adversarial relationship with Israel and the U.S. Neither President Rouhani nor Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has signaled any changes to this core policy.
Q: Mr. Rouhani has promised to lift the house arrests on Mehdi Karubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard [leaders of the Green Movement]. Do you think he’ll be able to deliver on his promise?
A: The Green Movement gained momentum in the wake of Arab Spring and developments in Egypt. The leaders of the Green Movement were placed under house arrest on February 14, 2011. Mr. Karubi and Mr. Mousavi urged people to hold peaceful marches. The IRGC stood firm against the demonstrators. It warned that it would arrest, try and execute Karubi and Mousavi within 24 hours. The Ministry of Intelligence opposed the move, arguing that the country would fall into turmoil.
Mr. Khamenei intervened. Instead of arresting, trying and executing Mousavi and Karubi, he ordered that they should be placed under house arrest, thereby preempting potential unrest in the country. Therefore, Mr. Rouhani has to confront Mr. Khamenei in this regard.
During the presidential campaign in Kermanshah Province, Rouhani said that 51 percent of the votes was not enough. He urged people to vote and give him a mandate to achieve his objectives. Official results gave him 57 percent of the vote. He can, therefore, lift the house arrest and free all political prisoners. Mr Rouhani’s true strength lies with people. He has no other weapon.
Government is very limited in what it can achieve. The Iranian president has only executive power. People help during the elections, but once elected, the government moves on regardless. The public would naturally make certain demands if it is called to lend greater support to a cause or a politician. People would even challenge the Islamic Republic itself. Officials and politicians pause when they arrive at this crucial juncture. During the Green Movement, Mr. Karubi and Mr. Mousavi feared that at a certain point people may surpass them in challenging the establishment.
Q- What about the claim that Iran would be partitioned without the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist)? We know that people from Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Baluchestan, Khuzestan and all the border provinces voted in the May elections. Is Iran, in your opinion, facing the threat of being partitioned?
A: I discussed this with the late Mr. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who told me that the clerical rule had kept the country together. I told him that he was wrong. I said that clerical rule had proven to be ineffective and had failed the test.
The country will collapse if the system persists. A young unemployed man in Tehran may express his frustration differently from a Baluchi or a Kurdish youth or someone from a religious minority group. The opposite is true. An incompetent establishment which is incapable of meeting people’s basic needs would create division and discord and would plunge the country into chaos.
The recent election has shown that Iran is one of only few countries in the region where power can change hands at the ballot boxes and through peaceful means. Therefore, there is no danger, and there is no need for Velayat-e Faqih. Do the rest of the world have Velayat-e Faqih? If free and fair elections were to be held in Iran, those advocating religious rule and Sharia law would not be elected. Power can change hand in Iran through peaceful and democratic means.
Q: Mr Sazegara, you claim to be in contact with groups inside Iran and people within the establishment. This means that the Ministry of Intelligence and security forces must know about these sources.
A: Most of them are very discreet when passing on information. Funnily enough, there are many staunch critics of the establishment among Mr. Khamenei’s inner circle, inside the IRGC, the Ministry of information, the Foreign Ministry and the government . They are even more critical of the establishment than me. This is a sign that system is collapsing.
Q: Are the army and the IRGC at odds with each other? We’ve received some reports to that effect. We’ve also heard about infighting among army ranks.
A: Yes. Definitely. The army is a relatively new entity created by Reza Shah (founder of Pahlavi dynasty 1925-79). It has evolved from its provincial roots through constitutional revolution and nationalist movements. It is known as the National Army. Its main responsibility has always been to protect the country, its territorial integrity and the nation. In contrast, the IRGC was founded on Islamic ideology. Its main duty is to protect Islamic revolution ideology. The IRGC and the Army are completely different bodies.
Q: Even after nearly forty years?
A: It is still the National Army. It’s stronger and three times bigger than the IRGC. It is also better equipped. However, it lacks IRGC’s ubiquitous political, social and economic presence . The IRGC’s tentacles reach into mosques, businesses, intelligence services and financial institutions. The establishment is more committed to the IRGC than the army.
The establishment has always favored the IRGC, and kept the army at arm’s length. IRGC members enjoy greater perks than army personnel including higher salaries and better housing. As a matter of fact, members of the regular army are among the lowest paid government employees.
The dispute between these two forces has never been resolved. I remember how the IRGC and army soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Both forces suffered heavy casualties. But the army’s significant contribution to the war or its role in liberating Khorramshahr (24 May 1982) is hardly ever mentioned. Without the army’s help the Iranian military would not have been able to defeat the Iraqi forces.
At the time, the bulk of the IRGC forces consisted of volunteers, whereas the army soldiers were well trained. That holds true to this day. But any attempt by Mr Khamenei, Mr. [Reza] Pahlavi, opposition groups and liberals to drag the army into the political arena would be futile. In my opinion, anyone who claims that the army can be used to engineer a coup d’etat is talking nonsense. The army doesn’t have that capability.
The army would have never interfered in the May 2017 elections by coming into the street and brutalizing the public as the IRGC did back in 2009. That’s just inconceivable. The army never opposes the people. It didn’t confront the crowd during the 1979 Islamic revolution either. It remained neutral. It suffered many casualties in the war. The army has stayed away from politics and financial entanglement and has never acted against the people. The army is more popular than the IRGC among the nation for all those reasons.
I don’t believe anyone would be able to use the army for political gain in Iran. But if the IRGC were to brutalize and kill Iranians for any reason, for instance for calling a referendum to change the constitution, then the army will defend the public.
I know this for certain. My sources tell me that career army officers and personnel will stand with the people. I’m not talking about senior commanders who are mostly from the IRGC ranks, but graduates from the military academy who are the backbone of the army. They will defend the people against the onslaught of the IRGC. I hope it never comes to that, but if it does, the army will defend the people.