The administration of Iran’s new president, hardline Islamist cleric Ebrahim Raisi, is now crystallising. A student and loyal follower of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi was groomed to become president to ‘purify’ the Islamic Republic. For Khamenei and his hardline followers, purification is necessary to advance the next stage of the Islamic Revolution – the creation of an idealist Islamic state – which, they believe, has not yet been achieved.[_]
As well as cleansing the system of Western influences, one of the goals of an Islamic state is to make the Islamic Republic more efficient by reversing decades of government mismanagement. To advance this goal, Iran’s clerical regime is aware that it requires trained technocrats and bureaucrats who can implement the regime’s policies.
However, Khamenei and his close circle believe that running an Islamic state requires ideologically devoted technocrats equipped with both modern knowledge and religious-ideological training. The supreme leader and his allies blame decades of mismanagement in the Islamic Republic not on corruption and a lack of technical expertise but on Western-oriented and -educated technocrats not having undergone the ideological-religious training they believe is required to run an Islamic state. As Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the supreme leader’s representative to Iran’s eastern Khorasan Razavi province and Raisi’s father-in-law, asserted in October 2020, “Belief in the [Islamic] Revolution is the difference between classical and jihadi management styles … if this jihadi management style, which genuinely believes in the revolution and God, enters our social and political life, all the problems can be solved.”[_]
In lockstep with the views of Khamenei and Alamolhoda, Raisi is replacing the Islamic Republic’s old cohort of specialists – faces familiar to the West like Javad Zarif, a former foreign minister, and Ali Akbar Salehi, a former head of Iran’s atomic energy agency – with new, so-called jihadi and hizbullahi technocrats who have undergone years of intensive ideological indoctrination alongside their skills training. These changes, the first of their kind in 42 years, are shifting the power equilibrium in Iran’s regime.
These replacements are not aimed at displacing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the clerical regime’s ideological army, as the bedrock of Raisi’s administration. Indeed, the president has awarded IRGC affiliates senior cabinet positions, including those of foreign and interior minister.[_] Rather, Raisi’s push to purify the technocracy is precipitating the mass rise of another elite group in Iran – one that is entirely unfamiliar to the West.
This emerging cohort can be best described as ideological technocrats. They all have one important affiliation in common: the Imam Sadegh University (ISU), an elite institution designed to indoctrinate Iran’s next generation of civil servants. From August to October 2021, alumni of the university, known as Imam Sadeghis, packed out key technocratic postings across ministries and the state bureaucracy. Some of the most prominent among them are Ehsan Khandoozi, economics minister; Ali Bagheri Kani, the deputy foreign minister selected to lead international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme; Hojatollah Abdolmaleki, minister of cooperatives, labour and social welfare; Meysam Latifi, vice-president and head of employment affairs; Peyman Jebelli, the head of Iranian state broadcasting; and Ali Salehabadi, the governor of the Central Bank of Iran.
This trend has resulted in the emergence of the Imam Sadeghis as a new social identity among the Islamic Republic’s elites, replacing traditional technocrats. The West has typically viewed Iran’s technocratic class as the so-called pragmatic and nonideological branch of the clerical regime, as opposed to the IRGC’s zealous ideologues in uniform. But while observably nonmilitaristic, the emerging technocrats of ISU are equally ideological, having gone through rigorous selection processes to enrol and extensive indoctrination to graduate.
The structure of the Islamic Republic’s elites has conventionally been shaped by an alliance between the clergy and the IRGC, with technocrats deliberately kept away from the core of the regime’s decision-making. This is partly because the clerical regime has been suspicious of Iran’s technocracy, viewing it as Western oriented and influenced and, ultimately, uncommitted to the hardline Islamist vision of the Office of the Supreme Leader (Bayt-e Rahbari). However, both the clergy and the IRGC have come to realise that to operationalise this vision, they need a skilled and trained workforce. The rise of the Imam Sadeghis under Raisi is satisfying this demand and, by altering Iran’s elite dynamic for the first time, is resulting in an emerging three-way alliance between the clergy, the IRGC and ideological technocrats.
As Western policymakers try to make sense of the nature and priorities of Raisi’s presidency to formulate a policy stance, it is vital they understand the nuances of both the IRGC and the Imam Sadeghis, the forces behind Raisi’s administration. In fact, in many ways, understanding the latter is even more critical. This is because there is an erroneous perception in the West that the Islamic Republic’s technocrats are nonideological. As the outdated reformist-hardliner dichotomy in the Islamic Republic’s politics comes to an end, Western policymakers may misread Raisi’s technocrats as the lesser of two evils – men in suits presenting themselves as individuals with whom the West can do business. To avoid this trap, it is of utmost importance that policymakers familiarise themselves with ISU, its cohort and the Iranian regime’s emerging elite.
The rise of the Imam Sadeghis will also have significant implications on the Islamic Republic’s domestic and foreign policies. Coupled with the empowerment of the IRGC under Raisi, this shift in the power equilibrium will mean greater coordination between Iran’s ministries and the Guard. That will result in more significant support for the IRGC’s external ambitions and a blurring of lines between “diplomacy and the battlefield”, as Zarif once said.[_] The United States must familiarise itself with this rising elite in Iran so it can foresee the regime’s direction of travel before making a decision on re-entering the 2015 international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. Such a move would free up $90 billion in sanctions relief for Raisi, the IRGC and the Imam Sadeghis.[_]
Until now, there has been very little insight into ISU or the Imam Sadeghis. Using new primary Persian-language material, this report is the first comprehensive analysis of the Imam Sadeghis and their alma mater – the institution designed to provide the Islamic Republic with indoctrinated technocrats who can carry out the next stage of the revolution envisaged by Iran’s supreme leader.