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Revolutionary Guards Soar in Parliament

by MEHRZAD BOROUJERDI and KOUROSH RAHIMKHANI

19 Sep 2011 19:14Comments
77949_177.jpg This is the sixth in a series on the parliamentary elections due in March 2012.

[ feature ] The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was established to protect domestic security, but the elite military wing has always had an implicit political role in protecting the revolutionary ideology. Its veterans have been represented in all eight parliaments, although in relatively small numbers -- in single digits -- between 1980 and 2004. The Revolutionary Guards' involvement in politics has grown to unprecedented levels since 2004, when IRGC veterans won at least 16 percent of the 290 seats. (Reliable data for the political affiliation of about 7 percent of MPs is not currently available.)

Overall, the numbers of parliamentarians with IRGC pedigrees at least doubled between the elections in 2000 and 2008. The elected IRGC veterans tend to pursue a hardline foreign policy agenda, although there are significant differences among them especially on domestic issues.

One factor behind the increase in 2004 was the Guardian Council's massive disqualification of other candidates. But the broader factor was the shift in the political winds. By 2003, Iranians had grown increasingly disillusioned with the reform movement under President Mohammad Khatami, as a new hardline faction made steady gains. A group of lesser-known political figures formed the Coalition of the Developers of Islamic Iran (Etelaf-e Abadgaran-e Iran-e Islami), which managed to win the absolute majority of seats in Tehran's municipal elections in 2003. The council subsequently appointed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as mayor of Tehran. A year later, the Abadgaran coalition, made up of mainly former Revolutionary Guards and war veterans, performed well in the 2004 parliamentary elections.

The seventh parliament (2004-8) included many former members of the Revolutionary Guards. The number of incumbents reelected in 2004 was, in turn, the second lowest since the 1979 Revolution. The rise of the hardline faction was followed by Ahmadinejad's election as president a year later. Ahmadinejad, a former Revolutionary Guard, is allied with many of the veterans now in parliament.

Most of the former Guards were reelected in the 2008 elections. Besides former IRGC members, the seventh parliament (2004-8) and the eighth parliament (2008-12) have also included many veterans who fought in the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

The Revolutionary Guards in parliament cannot be classified in a single category because of deep cleavages that reflect Iran's evolving political spectrum. Interaction between different factions of former Guards can be quite acrimonious. The largest group is loyal to the Supreme Leader. But many in the Majles identify with the faction known as Osulgarayan, the main bloc of conservatives often referred to as "principlists," which encompasses the supporters of Ahmadinejad as well as unaffiliated conservatives. And some former Guards have joined the ranks of the reformist movement.

In one striking shift, the latest generation of Revolutionary Guards in parliament is neither close nor beholden to linchpins of the early conservative political establishment -- such as the Hezb-e Motalefeh-ye Islami (Party of Confederated Islamic Formations) or Jame'eh-ye Eslami-ye Mohandesin (Society of Islamic Engineers).

The divisions have been reflected in parliament's actions. Since 2004, the seventh and the eighth parliaments have boldly rejected nine ministers proposed by Ahmadinejad. They also have not shied away from launching impeachment procedures against sitting ministers or criticizing legislation initiated by the presidency.

The former Guards now in parliament differ on domestic policy and economic interests; they also have different constituency pressures. On policy, the veterans tend to be hardline on foreign policy, including the nuclear issue and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. They also usually advocate projects to help veterans and families of martyrs killed in the Iran-Iraq War.

The former Revolutionary Guard MPs managed to deter the seventh and eighth parliaments from meddling in controversial issues related to the Guards and the Supreme Leader -- in contrast to the sixth parliament (2000-4), which tried to investigate the Revolutionary Guards' finances and institutions operating under the supervision of the Supreme Leader.

In other words, the Revolutionary Guard bloc is often more sympathetic to fellow Guards on government benefits but does not necessarily protect former Guards now in other government branches. For example, Ahmadinejad's first and second cabinets -- which were roughly one-third former guardsmen -- torpedoed initiatives by Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guards. Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, another veteran Guard commander, has not hesitated to challenge the president and his ministers, particularly over their often dismissive attitude toward the parliament.

Amid deepening discord between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, the IRGC has also begun to target some of the president's allies. In a recent interview with the semi-official Mehr News Agency, Revolutionary Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari claimed that the IRGC serves as an enforcement arm for the judiciary and was within its rights in arresting some of Ahmadinejad's lieutenants. In another radical departure from past practice, Jafari also outlined conditions for what reformists would be allowed to take part in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Current political tensions between Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad could lead the Guardian Council to disqualify some Revolutionary Guard candidates for the next elections, particularly politicians identified with Ahmadinejad's controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Despite factionalization, however, the IRGC bloc is widely expected to expand its parliamentary representation in the 2012 poll.

Chart: Iran's Power Structure.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi is an associate professor of political science and director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Syracuse University. As a USIP grantee, he is engaged in a study of political elite in post-revolutionary Iran and co-manages the Iran Data Portal. Kourosh Rahimkhani is an independent scholar specializing in Iranian affairs. He worked as a journalist for a number of reformist newspapers in Iran before moving to the United States. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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