Es folgt eine Trouvaille für Iran-Kenner – vom BESA, dem Begin-Sadat-Institut in Tel Aviv. Der iranische Oppositionelle Farhad wirft die Frage auf, ob es 2021 so weit kommen kann, dass das Volk bei der Präsidentenwahl auf einen General einschwenkt, der das Land kraft “jihadistischen Geistes” und “militärischen Charismas” aus dem Elend führen müsste.
Der Beitrag nennt schon Generalsnamen. Der “natürliche” und unbestrittene Kandidat des Militärs wäre General Qassem Soleimani gewesen, den die USA am 3. Januar 2020 bei Bagdad “aus dem Verkehr zogen”.
Nicht vergessen! Wer immer auch als Irans Präsident “regiert” – der “oberste Herrscher” ist und bleibt seit 31 Jahren der geistliche Führer, der allmächtige Ayatollah Khamenei, der 81-jährige Nachfolger des Revolutionärs Khomeini. Gegen Khameneis Willen fällt in Iran kein Entscheid, auch nicht militärisch.
A Military Figure as President of Iran?
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,845, December 13, 2020
In 2021, Iran will be preparing for a presidential election even as it faces an unprecedented economic crisis. Some conservatives argue that a military figure could turn the country around by virtue of his “jihadist spirit” and “military charisma.” While the allure of such a person as president is attractive to some in Tehran, structural impediments remain. The power of the Office of the Supreme Leader will prove a formidable obstacle in the path of any military figure who hopes to ascend to the presidency in the near term.
With elections less than a year away in Iran, there has been much commentary on the electoral horse race among current and former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers. Speculation has ranged from surprising figures such as Hussein Dehghan, who could send a strong signal that the nation is prepared for war. There are many figures in Iran’s political establishment who believe war between Iran and the US is inevitable and that the country must prepare for conflict.
Thirdly, some argue the regime has lost its legitimacy and only a military figure can rebuild the nation’s trust in the system. The Islamic Republic has used oil revenues to bankroll its authority, but the combination of sanctions and corruption among the elite has tarnished the regime’s brand. According to the proponents, the likelihood of low turnout is the best opportunity to bring a military figure to power who can reorganize and restore the nation’s faith in the system.
Even ultra-hardline elements in the conservative camp openly argue that Iran needs a benevolent dictator at the head of the country to fix its problems and eliminate poverty. “We must move towards authoritarianism, or otherwise we will collapse,” said Ibrahim Fayyaz, who is considered the ideologue of the conservatives. “Today, our legitimacy is eroded, our efficiency is undermined, and even our system’s cohesion has been disturbed. Only a benevolent dictator, a military man or a person with military discipline, can fix this system.”
Pragmatists in the regime argue, however, that given that the country’s main problem is its ailing economy, the country would be better served by a president with economic experience. According to this line of thinking, electing a soldier president would imply that the Islamic Republic has reached a dead end and is unable to find solutions to the nation’s most deeply rooted problems.
The Supreme roadblock
A military man as president is unlikely to be a cure-all for the Islamic Republic’s woes. The Office of the Supreme Leader remains a formidable obstacle.
With the Guards’ increasing influence in Tehran, a new president with a senior-level IRGC pedigree could be a powerful player in the Islamic Republic’s hydra-headed establishment. He could, theoretically, thread the diplomatic and political needle more effectively through Iran’s armed, deep, and elected states. However, this does not mean he would be omnipotent.
A military man as president would not be a true “benevolent dictator,” as some proponents have argued. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains the constitutional commander-in-chief.
In his 31 years as Supreme Leader, Khamenei, through political balancing, has centralized and consolidated control over the regime’s sprawling state apparatuses. Recently, in the debate over the regime’s posture ahead of the US presidential election in November, Khamenei demonstrated that he remains firmly in control as state puppeteer. He reportedly rejected the IRGC-Quds Force’s request for significant reprisals amid the US maximum pressure campaign, the explosion at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, and Israeli strikes in Syria.
At the same time, he has taken swipes at the Rouhani administration. In Khamenei’s most recent remarks at a joint graduation ceremony for the Armed Forces he said “[c]owards are not entitled to speak of rationality because rationality means correct calculations. The enemy is trying to insinuate a wrong description of rationality and some people in the country ignorantly repeat the enemy’s words.” This was an implicit rebuke to President Hassan Rouhani, whose political brand has been “prudence and hope.”
Additionally, in October, after Rouhani invoked the peace of Imam Hassan to justify negotiations with the West and came under fire from hardliners in parliament, the Supreme Leader intervened and defended the president, saying “desecration is forbidden.” In all these episodes, Khamenei can be seen as checking the IRGC, conservatives, and Rouhani, and, in the process, ensuring his authority as indeed supreme.
Thus, the Supreme Leader’s balancing among different government organs, especially on the question of whether to negotiate with a Biden administration, will likely continue even if a conservative former military officer is elected president. This eventuality would not foreclose the possibility of negotiations. Khamenei authorized such talks even under hard-line administrations—the back channel between the US and Iran, for example, started under Ahmadinejad.
Lastly, the incumbent Supreme Leader has proven less willing to delegate than his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This difference in personal style could be seen amid the US maximum pressure campaign. Rouhani argued that Iran is engaged in an economic war, and that his administration should be afforded emergency powers.
He likened the situation to the Iran-Iraq War, when a supreme council was established that “held all powers, and even the parliament and the judiciary did not intervene.” But Khamenei has rejected such requests for more presidential authority. As the conservative managing editor of Kayhan retorted, “[Y]ou had enough powers.” However, Khomeini entrusted then Speaker of Parliament Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as acting commander-in-chief at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Khamenei’s reluctance to do so is a demonstration of his need for control.
The situation could change if Khamenei becomes incapacitated or dies. Given his age —81— it is conceivable that the next president of the Islamic Republic could be Khamenei’s last. To avoid a power vacuum, it is possible that upon Khamenei’s demise, the regime will establish an interim leadership council, which, according to Article 111 of the Constitution, would be comprised of officials like the chief justice, the president, and a clerical member of the Guardian Council selected by the Expediency Council.
This is where a candidate from the senior ranks of the IRGC emerging as president could prove pivotal. Having such a figure on the scene would constitutionally ensure a seat at the decision-making table.
In the end, the debate over having a military figure as president is a proxy for a larger battle over succession. While such a chief executive may be able to build consensus within the system more effectively, he will still be subject to the Supreme Leader’s authority. As long as Khamenei remains in office, that power equation will remain unchanged.
Farhad Rezaei is a visiting professor of international relations at Glendon College, York University and an associate research fellow at the Center for International Policy Studies. He is coauthor of Iran, Revolution, and Proxy Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He is on Twitter at @FarhadRezaeii.