May 20, 2017
Article 40 of the Penal Code of the Islamic Republic Armed Forces prohibits army personnel from joining political parties or participating in election campaigns. Violators could be jailed anywhere from six months to three years. Article 49 of the rules and regulations of the Armed Forces also disallows personnel from taking part in political activities.
Despite these laws and regulations, some elements of the Iranian military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are frequently involved in the political process, and at times even support a particular candidate.
According to its charter, the IRGC is responsible for “battling forces that aim to undermine the Islamic Republic and the revolution.” The IRGC maintains that politics is part of its core duty to “safeguard the Islamic revolution of Iran and its achievements.” The charter enables the IRGC to actively participate in the political process.
The modern Iranian army has maintained its neutral stance since its formation in early twentieth century. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the regular army has, for the most part, remained a non-partisan entity.
Despite efforts by supervisory bodies such as the Intelligence Protection Organization of Islamic Republic of Iran Army (SAHEFAJA) and Ideological-Political Organization, some army personnel became active in the 2009 elections. Abdollah Salehi, commander-in-chief of the Army, said at the time, “Some soldiers have put up pictures of Mehdi Karoubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi (both currently under house arrest) in their barracks.
“We didn’t force them to take down these posters, but asked members of the Ideological-Political Organization to persuade the soldiers to do so.”
Things have changed somewhat in the past eight years. The commander’s daughter, Fatemeh Salehi, is running in the fifth city council elections this year.
For all intents and purposes, the military plays an active role in elections. It must ensure that officers and personnel are able to vote on election day, particularly those who are serving in remote regions and border areas. Also, security forces are put on high alert during the election to foil any possible terrorist plot.
The commander of Iran Airborne Forces has said that 21 helicopters were despatched to remote regions to set up polling stations. During the previous presidential elections in 2013, deputy commander-in-chief of the army, Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, said that the army would fully participate in elections while remaining completely neutral.
Some senior commanders have commented on the army’s participation in the twelfth presidential elections. Speaking prior to Friday prayers in Mashhad, Brigadier-General Amir Reza Azarian, said,“ With the help of the Ideological-Political Organization, army personnel will partake in the elections.”
However, a large segment of the army has been demoralised in recent years due to the discrepancy in salary and benefits in comparison to the IRGC pay scale. It has been rumoured that boycotting the elections is being contemplated.
In February 2016, an army officer in financial distress put one of his kidneys for sale. Members of the Army’s Air Force held a peaceful protest against financial corruption in the co-op housing sector in Dezful, Khuzestan province.
The apathy amongst the army personnel has concerned many senior officers including Abbas Mohammad Hassani, deputy commander of the Ideological-Political unit, who warned that boycotting the elections would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the regime itself. In a veiled support for Ebrahim Raisi, the ultra-conservative presidential candidate, Hassani said: “We must elect a president who wouldn’t contradict the Leader.”
Mohammad Hossein Jalali, an air commander, was the last regular army officer who was appointed as Defence Minister in 1983. Every defence minister has been a senior IRGC commander since the end of Iran-Iraq War in 1988.
In a number of interviews with state-run TV (IRIB), a number of retired army officers have spoken about the wide and deep rift along ideological fault lines between the Iranian Army and the IRGC.
It is difficult to predict if and how army personnel would vote in the elections. Recent opinion polls indicate that most of army rank and file will either boycott the elections or vote for Rouhani, as there has been a slight increase in salaries in the past four years. Army personnel have been very critical of both Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf because of their support for the IRGC.
Low salaries and shortage of housing are the main concerns among army personnel. In April 2017, commander Pourdastan said that he may ask the IRGC’s engineering wing, Khatam-al Anbiya, to allocate some contracts to the army.
Senior officers of the army have tried various remedies to improve conditions for army personnel. By deploying troops to Syria and joining the IRGC high command in condemning the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the army hopes to receive greater recognition and a larger share of IRI’s military expenditure.