Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential elections in November provided Iran’s moderate reformist camp with an opportunity to reassess their odds of winning next year’s presidential race. This comes amid hopes the incoming Biden administration would return to the nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew the US from in 2018.
Some reformist politicians saw it as a chance to push back against a campaign advocating for a right-wing general from the ranks of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to be elected president and went so far as stating it “was a dream gone with the wind.”
However, the November 27 assassination of a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist blamed on Israel, dented the possibility of a quick US-Iran détente and rearranged domestic equations.
One day after the brazen killing, former Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, a candidate in Iran’s 2021 presidential elections, who had long appeared in public in civilian suits, showed up on state TV in his IRGC army uniform to speak about the implications of the incident.
The concept of a military president was initially developed by a member of Iran’s former parliament about two years ago, but has since been bandied about in the circles of prominent conservative activists and theorists who have been debating the need for “a benevolent dictator” from the ranks of the military. In their view, for ongoing challenges to be dealt with at the root, only a military figure is capable of implementing radical reforms and resolving crises by utilizing their military experience and adopting an authoritarian technocratic governance.
This sentiment has gained greater popularity and urgency in light of the country’s severe economic crisis, runaway unemployment, spiraling inflation — all exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic — and President Trump’s heavy-handed approach towards the Islamic Republic. The debate has intensified after Dehghan declared his presidential bid in late November.
While the moderate camp has so far refrained from naming any candidates for the upcoming elections – mainly due to waning popularity, the conservatives say they have “a bus-load of potential candidates,” including military veterans who are expected to enter the campaign fray in the coming months.
The conservative-majority parliament amended the Election Law authorizing both retired and active commanders of the IRGC to register for the presidential elections.
The conservative-majority parliament even amended the Election Law authorizing both retired and active commanders of the politically and economically powerful IRGC to register for the presidential elections.
The idea of a military president has even gained the backing of some pro-reform elites and experts who believe the status quo is untenable as elected officials, including presidents and lawmakers, tend to make lengthy lists of electoral promises which they ultimately fail to honor due to their limited power.
A case in point is the incumbent Hassan Rouhani, who is known as the “ultimate insider” in the Islamic establishment and became president on the platform of “prudence and hope” with promises of greater civil freedom and economic recovery. But as a lame-duck president, Rouhani has dashed hopes for meaningful changes, and like his predecessors, shifted the blame onto Iran’s deep state and US sanctions.
Rouhani’s conservative critics, however, have described the government’s own weakness and poor management as the cause of the president’s failures.
A Commander as “People’s Savior”
Until a few years ago, the issue of military figures entering into politics was considered taboo because the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had banned armed forces from politics. Today, even IRGC commanders insist the only way to bring about economic prosperity, generate jobs, and alleviate social problems is to designate a military president.
Mohsen Rafighdoost, an IRGC co-founder, concurred in an interview in October that a military officer as president might be able to “save the people.”
Some pro-reform experts have voiced support for the idea of a military head-of-state to allow the opposite camp to prove its mettle, suggesting that under the current antagonistic power structures no president is able to implement any meaningful action.
“As the most powerful political and security organization today … the future of Iran should pass through a period of IRGC rule to see a resolution of ongoing crises and help run the country more efficiently and coherently,” said Saeed Laylaz, a former journalist and prominent economist in an interview earlier this year.
Referring to Reza Shah — the autocratic monarch who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 with a coup and established political order in Iran after decades of turmoil before his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was toppled in the 1979 Islamic Revolution — Laylaz suggested a military president would be akin to “Islamic [Hezbollahi] Reza Shah.”
“A Dangerous Scenario”
The calls for former military leaders to run in the election have also aroused stringent opposition. Opponents argue that such a scenario is “dangerous” and would lead to public anger. They maintain that managing a nation is different from commanding military units and martial capabilities would not guarantee success in the political arena.
They are also concerned that a military president might seek to restrict social and civil liberties and deliver a severe blow to Iran’s already fragile democracy. There is further fear that a military president may want to restore core “revolutionary values” by pursuing radical changes at home and a zealous foreign policy abroad.
There is further fear that a military president may want to restore core “revolutionary values” by pursuing radical changes at home and a zealous foreign policy abroad.
Brigadier-General Esmail Kowsari, a former Iranian lawmaker, described these arguments as “distractive issues” to local media and asserted a military leader could better safeguard the country’s interests.
“They are afraid that a military officer [would] become more popular among the public for their sacrifices. They are concerned that the military takes responsibility, demonstrates perseverance, and stands against the enemy more strongly,” argued Kowsari, who currently advises the chief of the IRGC.
Within the reform camp, some dismiss alarmist views, arguing that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian society has gone through huge transformations. They believe Iran’s public opinion is well-informed, and thanks to the growing role of social media as a force of change, the power of public opinion will hold a military president and his government accountable for their actions. In fact, they contend, a military president will be forced to make adjustments and compromises because he would be in a position of perpetual responsibility to serve the people. Otherwise, public backlash would take him to task.
The legislative and judicial branches of the Iranian government are presently controlled by the conservatives, who are poised to consolidate their power by taking over the executive branch. And believe a president close to their ideology would allow the three governing bodies to run the country more effectively while alleviating economic and social woes.
Whereas the IRGC has extensive resources at its disposal, Iran’s executive branch governs the critical domains of the economy, oil and gas resources, as well as the country’s treasury.
This concentration of power alarms veteran MP Ali Motahari,who was disqualified from running in parliamentary elections in February. “If you delegate military, political, economic, and media powers at the same time to one person, it would lead to tyranny and corruption,” he told local media.
The IRGC has so far sought to protect its reputation by fighting corruption cases within its own ranks. The organization has dealt with some of these cases silently while others were made public. For example, Mohammad Ali Pourmokhtar, a former MP and top IRGC general, who first broached the concept of a military president in an interview with Iranian media, was arrested in October on alleged financial corruption charges.
Future of Iran’s Foreign Policy
As far as foreign policy is concerned, many analysts anticipate that a military president may adopt a defiant and forceful policy towards the West, while seeking to bolster ties with Iran’s regional allies in Iraq and Syria. He may also look to further develop ties with China and Russia, to defuse threats emanating from Washington.
The stand-off between Iran and the US began after Trump unilaterally pulled Washington out of the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran signed with six world powers. Trump then restored crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Despite hardliners anti-West stances and their disapproval of the nuclear deal, they might be better positioned to reengage with the United States.
However, despite hardliners anti-West stances and their disapproval of the nuclear deal, they might be better positioned to reengage with the United States if they secure the support of all layers of powers, particularly the positive view of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the last word on all affairs of state.
In a recent interview with Entekhab news site Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif alleged that hardliners have already made overtures to the US in a bid to convince Washington that working with a right-wing administration in Tehran would be easier than dealing with a lame-duck Rouhani administration.
“Anyone who is familiar with governing already knows that without having reasonable relations with the world it would be impossible to get rid of the [US] sanctions and fix our economy...,” Ahmad Zeidabadi, prominent journalist and political analyst, commented on the matter.
“Only a military man vested with powers can normalize Iran’s relations with the world,” Zeidabadi, who spent six years in jail after the disputed 2009 presidential election, added.
A Period of Bonapartism
The term “Bonapartism” is used to describe the replacement of civilian leadership with military leadership within revolutionary movements or governments. Laylaz believes that in the future, a type of “Bonapartism” would emerge in Iran to “perform social and cultural reforms and unite the country.”
“I believe this Bonapartism would last for a transition period of between five to ten years, and gradually open the Iranian society up,” Laylaz, who was an adviser to former reformist President Mohammad Khatami said in his February interview released in November. “As for foreign policy, I think Iran would change its approach and pursue competition instead of confrontation [with the US] just like what we have witnessed in China, Russia, and Vietnam.”
Previous candidates with military records have tried and failed in their presidential bid in previous elections.
It would be premature to predict how things will unfold in the lead-up to Iran’s presidential elections in June 2021. Previous candidates with military records, such as Ali Shamkhani, Mohsen Rezaee, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf all have tried and failed in their presidential bid in previous elections. These failures have reinforced the view that voters in Iran are concerned about a military man holding the country’s second-highest office.
Still, the record low turnout of 42 percent in February’s parliamentary elections, the lowest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has prompted speculation that in the upcoming election a military candidate might enjoy a better chance of getting elected.
If a military officer is voted into office, it would be a make-or-break opportunity for advocates of this political concept. If they fail to deliver on their promises of a better future for the Iranian people, pressure from the public would force this notion to be reconsidered. Whichever outcome, if it provokes a positive shift in policies, it would be a blessing for the Iranian people.