The current president, Hassan Rouhani, won a surprise victory in 2013 amidst promises of domestic reform, the release of political prisoners, and reduction in tensions with the international community. But although Rouhani spearheaded the 2015 nuclear agreement with the US and five other world powers, he has failed to take any noticeable action on his other promises, and has in fact overseen accelerated crackdowns on dissent and executions of non-violent criminals. Nevertheless, the controversial nuclear agreement has apparently been sufficient to spur Khamenei toward repeated public criticisms of the presidential administration in the run-up to Rouhani’s May reelection bid.

In this context, Khamenei’s remarks can be seen as a preemptive rebuttal to suggestions that the regime may be positioning itself to install a hardline challenger to the current president. Government-backed manipulation of the vote is reportedly commonplace in the Islamic Republic. In previous years, the exiled opposition coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran has revealed reports alleging that members of the Basij civilian militia had been seen voting at multiple polling places and that state media coverage of electoral turnout had been highly manipulated.

In any event, the hardline Guardian Council is empowered to block the candidacy of anyone it deems to be undesirable – a fact that arguably goes a long way toward explaining Rouhani’s apparent disinterest in actively pursuing domestic reforms. Khamenei’s relative lack of confidence in the current president seems to stem from a dispute over foreign policy tactics and the perceived impact of the nuclear agreement. The supreme leader has criticized the Rouhani administration for failing to deliver the promised economic improvements to a country where the official government statistics put the unemployment rate at at least 12.4 percent.

Khamenei’s proposed solution to this has been the renewal of a “resistance economy” focused on domestic development at the expense of foreign trade. Agence France-Presse reports that this has been a main theme in his speeches for months, and that he has recently called for a ban on some foreign imports. This sort of protectionism promises to mostly benefit businesses owned, in whole or in part, by Khamenei himself and by the similarly hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran released a detailed report earlier this month on “the rise of the Revolutionary Guards’ financial empire.” It alleges that the IRGC and the supreme leader control well over half of Iran’s gross domestic product. The NCRI and other critics of the Iranian regime have also been regularly charting the overall increase in the IRGC’s power over Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. This is something that is arguably reflected in the difficult race that Rouhani seems to be facing in spite of the fact that a specific hardline challenger has not yet been named.

Without speculating on this particular topic, a recent piece in Commentary Magazine looked ahead to the 2021 presidential election and suggested that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s foreign special operations Quds Force may be positioning himself to take over the presidency at that point, following a possible second term for Rouhani. The article was quick to connect Suleimani’s rising celebrity status to the IRGC’s rising political and diplomatic profile.

The article highlights Iranian state media’s keen interest in covering Suleimani’s commentary on political topics, and it concludes that there is a clear message in this: “Any diplomat – in Washington, in Brussels, or elsewhere – who believes they can strike effective deals with Iranian diplomats while ignoring the Qods Force and the levers of power it controls is profoundly ignorant of how the Islamic Republic operates. Ordinary politicians and cabinet officials do not hold sway over the Revolutionary Guards; if anything it is the opposite.”

Khamenei’s Nowruz remarks can be interpreted as extending this message to a domestic audience and reinforcing the message that the voting population cannot seriously challenge the will of the IRGC. After all, those remarks were delivered in the midst of multiple reports from human rights advocates and global media, stating that the IRGC and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence had both been expanding their crackdown on political dissent and independent journalism in the run-up to the election.

Earlier this week, for instance, it was reported that Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had been sentenced to six months in prison on the charges of “spreading lies against the judiciary.” And last week the Center for Human Rights in Iran pointed out that the prominent activist Hengameh Shahidi had released letters composed before her arrest, in which she anticipated that the regime would take her and other activists into custody as part of an effort to manipulate the political situation ahead of the May elections.