The IRGC’s Dark Horse for Iran’s 2021 Elections: Saeed Mohammad
Saeed Mohammad represents a different kind of IRGC member. Could he emerge as the Guard's 'dark horse' in Iran's 2021 presidential elections?
2021 will be the first year since 1989 in which first term presidents will take office in both the United States and Iran. Yet, unlike the former where every ballot counts, in the Islamic Republic, only one vote matters: that of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who at 81-years old has ruled for over 31 years. The stakes could hardly be higher for the ageing Ayatollah as he prepares the foundations of a post-Khamenei Islamic Republic and searches for the right man to secure his legacy.
Earlier this year, Khamenei called for a “young and Hezbollahi (ideologically hardline) government” to become president. But this was not a consequence of outgoing president Donald Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy against Tehran as is often suggested in West-centric analyses of Iran, nor should we anticipate a shift in Tehran’s calculus with the incoming Biden administration. Rather, Khamenei is trying to ensure his hardline Islamist vision lives on after his death and, in doing so, he is empowering the most radical elements in the Islamic Republic.
As a direct result the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – the regime’s ideological army – is increasing its power at an unprecedented rate. This is hardly surprising given it has consistently shown it is prepared to spill blood on Iran’s streets to uphold Khamenei’s Islamist order. Today, the IRGC controls the Iranian parliament in all but name and, with less than a year to go until the presidential elections, it has set its eyes on the executive.
There are already a number of high-profile prospective candidates for the presidency, such as Hossein Dehghan, IRGC commander and senior military advisor to Khamenei, and Parviz Fattah, head of the Khamenei-run ideological-charitable organisation, Bonyad Mostazafan. But in recent months, a lesser known individual, who certainly fits the supreme leader’s “young and ideologically hardline” criteria, has emerged as the IRGC’s dark horse in the race: Saeed Mohammad, commander of the IRGC’s construction conglomerate, Khatam al-Anbiya.
Mohammad has spent the past few months raising his public profile, touring key Iranian cities such as Ahvaz and Tabriz as well as increasing his media presence, leading to widespread speculation that he intends to run. His statement in a recent interview that any decision to run would “depend on the circumstances”, has been interpreted as confirmation of his candidacy in all but name. Yet very little is known about him.
The IRGC’s Underdog: Saeed Mohammad
In some ways, Mohammad embodies a different kind of IRGC member. Born in Tehran, the 52-year-old joined the IRGC in 1987 and represents the second generation of Guardsmen who joined in the final years of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Although this generation is often regarded as being less zealous than the first, this does not apply to Mohammad, whose swift rise to head Khatam al-Anbiya, one of the Guard's most important bodies, is a testament to his loyalty – and Khamenei’s absolute trust in him.
Mohammad is not only the first ‘second generation’ Guardsman to head Khatam al-Anbiya, he is also the first with no military background or fighting experience in the IRGC. With a PhD in civil engineering, he represents the Guard’s technocratic and educated class and has been at the forefront of driving the economic expansion of the IRGC, which now controls as much as 40 per cent of Iran’s economy. He has held executive positions in key organisations affiliated with both the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya and the IRGC’s Bonyad-e Taa’von, which manages the Guard's economic investment, such as managing director of Sepasad (2007-2014), regarded the “most important engineering arm of the Revolutionary Guards” and CEO of the Iranians Atlas Companies Group.
This experience and the absence of a military background would enable Mohammad to present himself as both a loyal Guardsman and ‘civilian’ technocrat, potentially appealing to regime supporters beyond the IRGC’s traditional sphere. There is every indication that he is seeking to win the support of all circles within the Islamic Republic’s political elite. In November, Mohammad awarded a €610 million Khatam al-Anbiya project to Mehdi Jahangiri, the brother of Eshaq Jahangiri, the incumbent vice president in the government of Hassan Rouhani – a move that surprised many and was seen as an appeal for support from the so-called 'reformist' faction. But what would a Mohammad presidency look like and why would it be attractive to Khamenei?
The IRGC Takes Over the Iranian Economy
The current economic crisis will be central to next year’s presidential elections and above all else, a Mohammad presidency would focus on resuscitating Iran’s ailing economy which had already contracted by 7.6 percent in 2019. International sanctions, rampant corruption and government mismanagement have brought it to its knees and the pandemic has made matters worse, reducing GDP by between 15 and 30 percent. Economic turmoil has increased anti-regime dissent and has regularly brought Iranians onto the streets over the past three years – most recently in November 2019, when the security forces killed as many as 1,500 civilians.
Mohammad’s solutions to Iran’s economic problems – namely, an absolute commitment to Khamenei’s ‘resistance economy’ rather than negotiations with the US –make him an attractive choice for Iran’s supreme leader. First introduced by Khamenei at the peak of global sanctions against Iran in 2011, the ‘resistance economy’ doctrine relies on domestic production, smuggling and illicit trade to circumvent the pressure of international sanctions. As part of his manifesto for the next 40 years, Khamenei has not only blamed the failings of Iran’s economy on current and past administrations for “looking towards foreigners and not to domestic strength and capacity”, but he has also underlined that the policies of the ‘resistance economy’ are the only solution.
Mohammad has echoed these themes, also blaming current and past Iranian governments for failing to implement the supreme leader’s vision and for prioritising foreign investment – what he calls a policy of 'passive economic resistance'. “Sanctions have never been a threat, but are an opportunity”, he has declared, and for him and the IRGC’s construction conglomerate he manages, sanctions have indeed been an opportunity. In the absence of foreign investment, Khatam al-Anbiya – Iran’s largest contractor – has strengthened its grip on the Iranian economy. In recent interviews, Mohammad has been all too keen to boast how he oversees “285 active projects” across different sectors, such as mining, dam building, petrochemicals and oil and gas and how Khatam al-Anbiya has been able to “fill the place of large foreign companies.” This includes a stake in the South Pars Project – the largest gas field shared by Iran and Qatar – an opening that the IRGC rushed to fill following the departure of Western energy companies after the re-imposition of US sanctions.
In Mohammad’s own words, Khatam al-Anbiya has been “at the frontline of the economic war with the US” and has been able to “break the deadlock [of] sanctions” and “thwart the enemy’s conspiracies … with its jihadist and revolutionary spirit”. This chimes with the anti-Americanism at the heart of the ageing ayatollah’s worldview. Mohammad and his technocratic experience could be useful to the supreme leader as he seeks to resolve Iran’s economic crisis without diluting his ideology through any form of rapprochement with Washington.
Yet the reality is that the IRGC has neither the expertise nor the means to fill Iran’s foreign investment vacuum. It is much more likely that the expansion of the Guard’s business empire will lead to more corruption and opportunities for the regime’s elite to further enrich themselves. The IRGC’s economic activities have been rife with corruption scandals, such as the embezzlement of over $1 billion from Tehran’s city council by Bonyad-e Taa’von, the IRGC’s investment arm. Notwithstanding, a Mohammad presidency will put the IRGC one step closer to taking over the Iranian economy in its entirety.
Foreign Policy Under a Mohammad Presidency
On foreign policy, the odds are stacked against Mohammad, who has very little experience in dealing with matters beyond Iran’s borders. That said, over the past year he has stepped up his activities abroad, providing some indications about the kind of foreign policy he might pursue. His most significant international intervention occurred in May 2020 when the Islamic Republic defied US sanctions to supply oil to Venezuela. Mohammad was keen to publicise that the oil supplied to the Maduro regime was supplied by the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya refineries, declaring “[Khatam al-Anbiya’s] oil exports to Venezuela could be replicated in other countries, especially as many nations are also requesting Iranian oil”. Given the recent easing of UN constraints on Tehran’s ability to sell weapons abroad, should he win the presidency, Mohammad’s appetite for 'black money’ could see greater coordination between the Iranian government and the IRGC in relation to exporting Iranian arms to rogue actors and regimes across the world.
Mohammad has also expressed a strong interest in strengthening economic ties with the so-called countries of the ‘axis of resistance’, describing the Iraqi and Syrian markets as having “high potential” for Tehran. Earlier this year, Mohammad announced that Khatam al-Anbiya was in the process of setting up a “joint bank between Iran, Iraq and Syria” to evade international sanctions, not least on the Assad regime.
Increasing Tehran’s economic influence over fragile states in the region would be a high priority under a Mohammad presidency – and will be easier should the next US administration seek to withdraw from the Middle East, particularly Iraq. Tehran has sought to increase economic ties in Iraq by investing in projects run by its militia groups which have embraced its Shia Islamist ideology and consistently demonstrated loyalty to Khamenei over the Iraqi state or population. This policy not only emboldens Iranian-backed militants in Iraq, which continue to destabilize the Middle East and target Western interests in the region, but has also provides the IRGC with leverage over Baghdad government to ensure Khamenei’s interests are secured, even when they run counter to those of the Iraqi state. Having held several executive positions in the IRGC-run firms and foundations which often manage such projects, Mohammad would be well placed to strengthen economic cooperation with countries in the ‘resistance axis’.
On Iranian-backed militancy itself, Mohammad has also been very clear in his assertion that Tehran will “continue the path of [Qassem] Soleimani”, the late IRGC Quds Force commander who was killed by a US strike, and “dismantle the US army from the region.” Of course, beyond rhetoric , the technocrat lacks the necessary experience in this field, not least when compared to other IRGC contenders such as Dehghan, one of the IRGC’s most senior military commanders, and Fattah, who began his career in a special IRGC insurgency unit that would later form part of the Quds Force. But Mohammad seems to be aware of this deficit and recent public appearances in combat uniform, despite having no military experience, could be an attempt to visually demonstrate his adherence to the IRGC’s militaristic factions and policies.
On the world stage, Mohammad’s own lack of baggage in relation to Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism, despite being a member of the IRGC, could actually play to his and Khamenei’s advantage. Iran’s supreme leader deploys both militancy and diplomacy to achieve his objectives abroad. Until now, the IRGC has been responsible for the former, with the Iranian government charged with pursing the latter, often acting to mitigate the international impact of the Guard's actions. As the IRGC sets its eyes on taking over the government, with Khamenei’s blessing, Mohammad’s ‘clean’ past could be useful in keeping diplomatic channels open and the West at the negotiating table. Unlike Dehghan or Fattah, he has not been personally blacklisted by the US or Europe. While all foreign policy decisions in the Islamic Republic are determined by the supreme leader – not the government – the personality of the president matters, not least for Western policymakers looking to negotiate with Tehran. The new US administration, which has already declared its intention to reach an agreement with Iran, will find it extremely difficult to sit around the negotiating table with designated individuals with deep ties to Iranian-sponsored terrorism. A Mohammad presidency could ease external pressure on Khamenei and stem the remobilisation of international opinion against Tehran. But beyond the optics, there is little doubt that a government led by Saeed Mohammad would deliver an IRGC foreign policy in all but name.
Should he run, Mohammad will very much be the IRGC’s underdog in the 2021 race. That said, his hardline Islamist vision and charismatic persona could appeal to Khamenei who is searching for his “young and hezbollahi” candidate. Even if he fails to win the top job this time, he will almost certainly get a senior position either as a minister in the next administration, or possibly even as mayor of Tehran – an entry point to the highest echelons of power in Iran’s regime.
Many in the West will have pinned their hopes on the prospect of dealing with a more moderate Islamic Republic after the death of Khamenei – an opening that could dilute the clerical regime’s ideological hostility towards the West, like that which took place with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Fully aware of this prospect, Khamenei is doing all he can to ensure his hardline Islamist ideology outlives him and, with individuals like Mohammad well-placed for the presidency and other senior roles, he may well succeed.
This is the third piece of analysis on IRGC-affiliated contenders for Iran's 2021 presidency as the Guard transitions from the 'deep-state' to the state itself, see also: The IRGC eyes Iran’s presidency and The Militarisation of Iran’s Presidency: The IRGC and the 2021 Elections.