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Iran's (Next) President—but the IRGC's First?

Iran's (Next) President—but the IRGC's First?

As with Ebrahim Raisi, Ayatollah Khamenei will make sure that Iran's next president is an obedient ideological loyalist, whose power is dependent upon Khamenei’s own office and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Kasra Aarabi, Jack Roush

The unexpected death of President Ebrahim Raisi on May 19th has opened many questions for the political future of the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly regarding succession to key offices. Now, the regime’s “election circus” is underway, and the Guardian Council has approved six candidates for president. Given that Raisi’s political career was based on an unquestioning obedience to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his connections with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime will almost certainly elevate a candidate who will maintain this patron-client relationship, such as Saeed Jalili or Mohammad Ghalibaf. 

Raisi’s rise within the regime was not enabled by professional qualifications, administrative skill, or through nurturing a base of support. Rather, Khamenei hand-picked Raisi for advancement at every stage, rewarding the latter’s ideological loyalty and record as a brutal regime enforcer. Raisi’s involvement in the mass-execution of dissidents in the late 1980s catapulted him to significant government positions under Khamenei’s patronage, including that of prosecutor-general (attorney general) and of chief justice. Given this relationship, small wonder that Raisi was a subservient president who advanced Khamenei’s efforts to personalize power within the regime. 

The patron-client relationship that developed between Khamenei and Raisi hinged, however, on the late president nurturing close ties with the IRGC—the Iranian supreme leader’s ideological paramilitary. It is almost certain, therefore, that Raisi’s successor will already have a deeply embedded relationship with both the IRGC and the Office of the Supreme Leader—and is compliant with their directives.

As illustration, consider this history: In 2016, thanks to Khamenei’s influence, Raisi was appointed to chair Astan Quds Razavi, a bonyad (an ideological-charitable foundation) that functions as a business conglomerate controlled by Khamenei’s office. This bonyad makes up a key part of the regime’s “black economy,” operating as a slush fund for Khamenei and providing a main source of funding for the IRGC and its proxies. Raisi utilized the bonyad’s portfolio to cultivate ties with the IRGC’s leadership. Key individuals, like former IRGC commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari, has identified Raisi’s tenure at the bonyad as critical for developing his relationship with the Guard. Raisi also used this position to establish a close bond with proxy leaders, not least Hassan Nasrallah, whom he met in Lebanon alongside other Hezbollah personnel. 

The extent to which Raisi had already nurtured ties with senior IRGC commanders was revealed in a key meeting in 2016. In a move emblematic of his unique relationship with the IRGC, key commanders including Soleimani met with Raisi ahead of the 2017 presidential election. As part of the meeting, these commanders sat at Raisi’s feet—a veneration almost exclusively reserved for Khamenei. Shortly thereafter, elements of the IRGC, including the Basij militia, threw their support behind Raisi’s unsuccessful candidacy. In many ways, Raisi constituted the perfect blend for the IRGC: a deeply ideologically committed figure with very little individual agency. This combination enabled the Guard to use him as an instrument for further consolidating political power.

This much is made clear by the circumstances under which the IRGC began to support Raisi. The IRGC’s influence within the regime had already accelerated under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013), as it assumed control over key institutions and approximately one-third of the Iranian economy. Though its power continued to grow under Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “moderate” presidency (2013-2021), tensions emerged between the IRGC and civilian administrators, coinciding with deteriorating relations between the president and Supreme Leader Khamenei. This in turn resulted in renewed IRGC support for Raisi in 2017, in an attempt to install a more ideologically aligned and pliant president. 

With the looming issue of succession in 2019, Khamenei introduced his manifesto for a “Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution,” designed to “purify” the regime and consolidate the authority of his office and the IRGC. Through this agenda, Khamenei has sought to complete his decades-long project of personalizing power, installing his cult of personality across key political, military, and bureaucratic positions in order to ensure that his hardline Islamist ideology outlives him. Regime officials identified the 2021 presidential election as critical to this process. Given both his political dependence upon Khamenei and his ties to the IRGC, Raisi was selected for the job. Ultimately, the Guardian Council and Khamenei’s office secured Raisi’s 2021 presidential victory through electoral engineering.

Understanding who was ultimately responsible for his victory, Raisi quickly moved to fulfil the role set out for him as part of Khamenei’s agenda, by forming the foundation of his administration through the IRGC’s centers of political, economic, and military power. This included appointing IRGC-affiliates in key ministerial roles, not least in the interior and foreign ministries. Overall, a majority of the 874 positions appointed by the president were filled by IRGC affiliates. This process further formalized the Guard’s  expanded influence over policymaking, and ensured Khamenei’s directives would go unchallenged. Additionally, Raisi furthered the IRGC’s dominance over the Iranian economy through non-competitive state contracts and expropriation. In return for Raisi’s support, the IRGC shored up his vulnerabilities— through use of force. Throughout the rise of the anti-regime “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement beginning in 2022, the IRGC was instrumental in implementing the regime’s brutal crackdown against political dissent—a pattern that continued throughout Raisi’s presidency.

Given Khamenei’s agenda and pattern of behavior, he will not choose a candidate this election cycle who will change course as the next president. The increasingly stringent Guardian Council, along with cratering electoral participation and brutal crackdowns against dissent, all but guarantees that a Raisi 2.0 president will take office. Rather than relitigate tensions that had existed under previous presidents, Khamenei will almost certainly ensure that the office is filled by an obedient ideological loyalist whose power is dependent upon Khamenei’s office and the IRGC, such as Ghalibaf or Jalili.

More important to consider here is that Khamenei had invested significant resources in grooming Raisi as a potential successor as supreme leader. With Raisi’s death, Khamenei’s son Mojtaba has emerged as the frontrunner for this role. Unlike Raisi, Mojtaba has taken an active role in leading the paramilitary. He has also amassed significant informal powerbecoming the de facto leader of his father’s office. Leveraging this position, Mojtaba is heavily involved in the IRGC’s decision-making. Leaked documents indicate that he has taken an active commanding role in directing the IRGC’s most vicious anti-democratic crackdowns, including the the Sistan-va-Baluchestan campaign. As the regime becomes ever-more personalized, Mojtaba’s influence over the IRGC will be critical in the transition of power. 

Regardless of who succeeds Khamenei, the regime will be more dependent upon the IRGC than ever before. Given that the regime ‘s legitimacy has significantly diminished among the wider population, the IRGC’s brute strength will become increasingly instrumental in maintaining power. The paramilitary will be crucial for any candidate to navigate the difficulties of succession. And it will certainly adopt the role of kingmaker should the situation devolve into chaos.

The IRGC’s political influence will only continue to expand under the next president. That president will be taking office at a time when anti-regime dissent is surging, as the structural factors that led to the 2022 anti-regime protests—like economic crisescorruptionpolitical suppression, and environmental crises—have worsened. Khamenei’s chosen candidate will accordingly rely upon the IRGC’s repressive force, further solidifying the IRGC’s status as a powerbroker. Given this situation, it is almost certain that the next president will, like Raisi, serve as a blindly obedient yes-man to both Khamenei and the IRGC. To the almost certain detriment of the Iranian people and of the world, regardless of who takes power, the regime’s aggressive regional posture and repressive actions will continue.

Kasra Aarabi is director of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) research at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Previously, he was the Iran Program lead at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him @KasraAarabi.

Jack Roush is a research associate at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a Ph.D. candidate in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He studies the bilateral relationship between Iran and the United States in the 20th century and its present-day implications. Follow him @RoushJackW.

Image: Ebrahim Raisi by Mostafa Meraji (CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

AuthoritarianismIranMiddle East