Changing of the Guard: The Rise of Radicalism in Iran

By Moarefy, Sahand | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Changing of the Guard: The Rise of Radicalism in Iran


Moarefy, Sahand, Harvard International Review


Iran's June 2009 presidential election gave the world a rare glimpse into the domestic influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the most powerful branch of the Islamic Republic's military. The election revealed the growing prominence of the "radical" wing of the IRGC, which has steadily amassed political power through the past 10 years and is believed by many to have orchestrated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory. Mostly veterans of the Iran-Iraq war and supporters of Ahmadinejad, these radicals are committed to establishing a dictatorial Islamic government and keeping" Iran in a continuous revolutionary state, in contrast to the more pragmatic conservatives and reformists, who generally wish to move the country into a post-revolutionary phase. The postelection political drama has shown an unprecedented willingness on the part of the radicals to challenge traditionally ardent IRGC supporters, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and has provided ample evidence that this radical faction will only assert itself more boldly as the dominant power within the Islamic Republic. This trend could beget an Iran that is more intransigent in foreign affairs and more repressive in its domestic policy.

Since its formation in 1979, the year of Iran's Revolution, the IRGC has been a major political, social, and economic force within the Islamic Republic. During the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, it gradually transformed itself from an ideologically motivated army into a full-fledged fighting force and began to directly influence Iranian foreign policy. Although its political power waned during the early 1990s, the Revolutionary Guard reemerged as a significant political and internal security presence following the 1997 election of reformist Mohammad Khatami to the presidency. The same period witnessed an unprecedented number of IRGC appointments by the Supreme Leader as well as greater IRGC involvement in electoral politics, especially the 2004 parliamentary elections.

The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of the IRGC, in the 2005 presidential election signified the IRGC's most important political victory and revealed many of the tensions within the Islamic Republic's ruling elite. The election pitted Ahmadinejad's radical wing of the IRGC against more moderate IRGC officials, as well as the reformists and pragmatic conservatives. Following Ahmadinejad's victory, reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who has since become a leading voice of the opposition, accused the IRGC and its volunteer militia, the Basij, of illegally mobilizing support for Ahmadinejad, and claimed that the Supreme Leader's radical son played a leading role in facilitating their involvement. The aftermath of the election also exposed growing differences between Ahmadinejad and two of his more progressive IRGC rivals, Ali Larijani and Mohsen Rezaii. Larijani, who was appointed to the Supreme National Security Council in 2005, resigned his post in 2007, most likely because he disagreed with Ahmadinejad about nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, Mohsen Rezaii became an increasingly vocal critic of Ahmadinejad--so much so that the government closed down his website in 2007. …

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