“The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] has excelled in every field it has entered both internationally and domestically, including security, defence, service provision and construction,” declared Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, then chief justice of Iran, in a speech to IRGC commanders on 17 March 2021.
Four months on, Raisi, who assumes Iran’s presidency on 5 August after the country’s June 2021 election, has set his eyes on further empowering the IRGC with key ministerial and bureaucratic positions likely to be awarded to guardsmen under his new government.
There is a clear reason for this ambition. Expanding the power of the IRGC serves the interests of both Raisi and his 82-year-old mentor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. The ageing ayatollah is in the process of securing the foundations of a post-Khamenei Islamic Republic to ensure the survival of his hard-line Islamist regime after his death. To do this, Khamenei has been empowering the Guard, which has continuously demonstrated how far it is prepared to go to uphold Khamenei’s system (nezam). At the same time, the supreme leader has been laying the ground for his successor, who, according to all signs so far, will be his former student, the 60-year-old hard-line cleric Raisi.
Raisi’s election as president was a de facto appointment by Khamenei. The presidency is the perfect internship for the supreme leadership – a path Khamenei also followed before assuming the role. This is why expanding the IRGC’s power is in Raisi’s interest: he is seeking to consolidate his support base for when the moment comes to select Khamenei’s successor. Raisi is fully aware that if he is to become the next supreme leader, he will need the IRGC’s backing more than ever before – not least because antiregime dissent is surging in Iran and the IRGC is Khamenei’s iron fist.
The likelihood of Raisi’s presidency further entrenching the IRGC across the government and state bureaucracy corresponds to the rising trajectory of IRGC power since the Guard’s inception in 1979. Most recently, the 2020s have begun with the Guard expanding its power across the Iranian state on an unprecedented scale. In the process, the IRGC has effectively extended its grip over the visible state after taking control of the deep state. Critically for Khamenei and his successor, the IRGC will play a vital role in smoothing the transition to the next supreme leader. In short, the Guard can be the kingmaker.
Forty-two years on from the Islamic Revolution, what began as an Islamist (hizbullahi) militia designed to consolidate the clergy’s grip over postrevolutionary Iran is now operating as a state within a state with its own economic, cultural, political and intelligence arms. The IRGC will be a critical element in any possible scenario for the Islamic Republic’s transformation. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Islamic Republic is the IRGC.
Understanding the dynamics of the IRGC’s higher echelons is therefore of the utmost importance for appreciating both the Guard itself and Raisi’s incoming administration. Western and international policymakers must be able to read the Guard’s inner workings, identify its competing factional centres of power and dissect its decision-making nucleus to formulate effective policies to counter this rising challenge.
While there are a growing number of studies on the IRGC and its branches, there is a void when it comes to understanding and analysing the Guard’s higher echelons, its decision-making and its internal factionalism. This paper puts forward a new model for understanding intra-elite rivalry in the IRGC, enabling governments and policymakers to identify and place IRGC ranks in the competing centres of power and determine their factional relationships and alliances. This model is also meant to forecast, as it allows observers to anticipate what kinds of policy priorities IRGC commanders are likely to pursue should they obtain key political appointments in the next government.