Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after becoming the country’s second supreme leader in 1989, gave considerable power to the IRGC, while sidelining other powerful clerics.
Although the IRGC still had obstacles preventing it from expanding its influence, recent developments suggest that those barriers are being lifted, allowing Iran’s military to be the key decision-maker in Iran’s policy-making.
Many people, who once had considerable amount of political weight and influence, which counterbalanced the IRGC’s increasing power, do not play a crucial role any more. The late Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic republic was sidelined by Khamenei towards the end of his life, still enjoyed a considerable amount of political legitimacy in creating challenges for the IRGC and others. However, Rafsanjani died this month.
Rafsanjani had significant power as a member of the Assembly of Experts, which is given the power to supervise, elect or remove the supreme leader. After his death, the IRGC is now much stronger, suggesting that the next supreme leader will be under the IRGC’s influence. If the IRGC controls the next supreme leader, it rules Iran’s political establishment unequivocally.
While the nuclear agreement remains in place, the Iranian government’s global legitimacy expands, leading to less scrutiny from the international community on how the IRGC treats domestic opposition.
The IRGC has successfully suppressed domestic opposition. Examples include supporters and leaders of the Green Movement, and religious and ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Sunnis and Arabs. As well, other political factions, such as the moderates, have come to the conclusion that they need the blessing of the IRGC in order to survive politically.
The reintegration of Tehran into the global financial system is deepening, and more countries are committing themselves to trade with Iran and investment in its markets.The IRGC and the office of the supreme leader are the main beneficiaries of the increased revenues, which have been diverted into upgrading the IRGC’s military capabilities. Iran’s lawmakers voted to increase the military budget despite the high unemployment rate.
Reuters reported, “Iranian lawmakers approved plans to expand military spending to 5 per cent of the budget, including developing the country’s long-range missile programme which US president-elect Donald Trump has pledged to halt. The vote is a boost to Iran’s military establishment – the regular army, the elite IRGC and the defence ministry.”
Regional stability was an obstacle for the IRGC’s objective of expanding its influence beyond Iran’s borders. Rafizadeh writes, “In fact, it was through domestic conflicts that the IRGC expanded its stranglehold by penetrating other countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, and gave birth to several critical Shia proxies. In the long term, these proxies increase Iran’s political and ideological influence.” He adds, “The more tensions and conflicts there are, the more the militaristic role of the IRGC increases in the region in order to achieve its regional ambitions. This has led to a vicious series of heightened conflicts.”
The IRGC, more than ever before, is capable of exploiting the rise of Sunni extremist groups such as the ISIL, not only to justify its military presence in the region, but also to increase its global legitimacy by arguing that it is fighting extremism. Without a specific agenda for fighting ISIL, western powers have allowed a certain amount of leeway to the IRGC. Additionally, some global and regional powers have been reluctant to address counterbalancing the increasing role of the IRGC across the region for economic or geopolitical reasons.
Although founded as a theocracy, Iran is becoming more of a military state as the IRGC pursues its regional ambitions. According to Rafizadeh, “We are more likely to witness the increasing influence and domination of the IRGC domestically and regionally as several major obstacles against Iran’s military have been lifted.”
Once the child that Iran’s Islamic revolution gave birth to, the IRGC is now becoming the father of the Islamic republic. This can only be reversed if global powers or a coalition of regional nations stand against the IRGC’s increasing influence in the region.