Battle of the factions: How populists triumphed in Iran's IRGC
Karl Marx famously complemented Hegel’s idea on the repetition of history: first as tragedy then as farce. Earlier in June, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, reaffirmed Marx.
In a public speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1981 terror attack against the then dominant political party the Islamic Republic Party, which led to the deaths of dozens of senior politicians, including the head of the judiciary, several cabinet ministers, and dozens of MPs, Khamenei compared Iran’s critical internal and external situation now with that in the 1980s.
“The God of the 1980s is the same God of now,” he declared, “and all the divine rules are still in place.”
There are, in fact, many parallels between present day Iran and Iran in the 1980s, such as the dire economy, rising inequality, cultural fanaticism, the ‘brain drain’, international isolation, and internal suppression. But only a closer look can test Marx’s thesis.
"The purge opened cracks within the young revolutionaries, splitting them into centre-left and centre-right, a split which, for the next three decades, shaped the internal and external dynamics of the Islamic Republic"
Iran in the 1980s was led by an ailing yet hyper-charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini, whose popularity far exceeded the limits of conventional politicians. He was more akin to a saint, who was followed by hearts rather than minds of the Iranians at the time. The people who governed Iran were mostly Western-educated religious technocrats in their early thirties, who had abandoned their cosy lives in the US or Europe to return to Iran and serve the revolution.
As staunch revolutionaries with close ties to the Khomeini’s clerical disciples, they quickly dominated the Iranian political scene after Ayatollah Khomeini purged all their rivals, including the moderate nationalists and the radical leftists who were deemed insufficiently loyal to him.
The purge consequently opened cracks within the young revolutionaries, splitting them into centre-left and centre-right, a split which, for the next three decades, shaped the internal and external dynamics of the Islamic Republic.
Ayatollah Khomeini was personally closer to the centre-left faction, perhaps because his son, Ahmad, and his closest advisor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, had close affinity to ideas from the left. However, Khomeini kept a delicate power balance between the two factions.
This was crystallised in how the six senior clerics who make up the Guardian Council, the most powerful political institution that oversees elections and ratifies parliament bills as a de facto senate, were selected by the Supreme Leader to represent both factions.
The balancing act not only kept both factions in check, but also helped Ayatollah Khomeini maintain maximum legitimacy, particularly when making difficult decisions, such as agreeing to a ceasefire with Iraq in 1988 despite having pledged to continue until Saddam was defeated.
His political manoeuvring proved successful: despite violent oppression of his opposition and a deadly war that cost tens of thousands of lives, Khomeini’s funeral saw the largest crowd in Iran’s history.
The new Supreme Leader, Khamenei, who immediately came to power through a complex constitutional process in 1989, belonged to the centre-right faction. It took nearly a decade for him to step out from under the shadow of his old friend, Rafsanjani to whom he undeniably owed his ascent to the supreme leadership.
Rafsanjani, who governed Iran until 1997 as an all-powerful president of the post-war reconstruction era, continued Khomeini’s balancing attitude, while Khamenei was trying to find his own political base within the centre-right.
In the 1997 presidential elections, the surprising landslide victory of a centre-left former cabinet minister of Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, over a centre-right figure, Nategh Nouri, whom the entire establishment backed, incited Khamenei to redefine the political scene.
Khamenei first homogenised the Guardian Council with his loyal centre-right clerical allies, a departure from Khomeini’s balanced approach. With the help of the armed forces and the judiciary, both constitutionally appointed and overseen by the Supreme Leader, Khamenei began undermining the centre-left, who had rebranded as the ‘reform movement’ and were quickly liberalising both internal and external policies as well as the economy. Labelling their rivals ‘conservatives’, the reformists kept actively advancing their aims for over two years through a combination of the student movement, NGOs, and the press.
It took a public intervention by Ayatollah Khamenei and his officers at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to slow down the reformists, who by then had managed to take control of parliament. All reformist newspapers were shut down overnight and dozens of movement leaders arrested.
"Raisi’s easy victory in the absence of any serious challenge felt like déjà vu from the 1980s, when Ayatollah Khamenei himself won an election without any real rival"
As the main intelligence agency fell under the reformists control, a new security organisation was quietly formed by Khamenei within the IRGC, becoming a significant rival to the ministry of intelligence.
By 2005, a younger, aggressive populist group emerged from within the centre-right, who now called themselves ‘principalists’ to evade the label of ‘conservatives’ that the reformists had popularised. The group had strong ties to the voluntary wing of the IRGC, Basij, which recruits from the less privileged youth in rural towns and provinces.
It was this group that helped Ahmadinejad win the election in 2005. For Ayatollah Khamenei, the two centre-right factions were loyal enough to be worthy of balanced support. The 2009 protests over the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad and then the surprising victory of a moderate president, Rouhani, united both the new populist and old pragmatist factions for a while.
In a discursive shift, the principalists rebranded themselves as ‘revolutionaries’. The tension within the ‘revolutionaries’ exacerbated after Ghalibaf, the leader of the pragmatists, conceded in endorsing Raisi in the run up to 2017 elections.
Despite support from the IRGC and Supreme Leader’s institutions, Raisi lost to Rouhani, who secured a second term. Raisi was pushed to run by the populists, Basij and the clerical and cultural wing of the revolutionary guards, who were strongly opposed to pragmatist IRGC veterans. Yet both joined forces against Rouhani, who was bolstered by the nuclear deal and consequent removal of the international economic sanctions.
In 2021, things looked different. After his loss to Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei rewarded Raisi the judiciary, which allowed him to play Robin Hood in the public eye. Despite having a majority in parliament, the pragmatic faction was extremely weakened after the assassination of General Soleimani and after some of its influential figures were found guilty of corruption.
This time Ayatollah Khamenei seemed determined to guarantee an easy win for Raisi, perhaps to pave the way for him to succeed in his role. Khamenei effectively barred anyone, including a close confidant, Ali Larijani, who could pose a challenge to Raisi from running.
Raisi’s easy victory in the absence of any serious challenge felt like déjà vu from the 1980s, when Ayatollah Khamenei himself won an election without any real rival. Khamenei’s rise to power followed a series of top-level assassinations of competition by the militant opposition. In 2021, Khamenei killed anyone’s chance to beat his favourite candidate before campaigning even began.
Having eliminated all reformists and moderates from the political scene, Raisi’s first year in office has given an upper hand to the populist faction of the ‘revolutionaries’, headed behind the scene by Saeed Jalili, a former security official and presidential candidate. Raisi’s cabinet is dominated by populists with affinities to Russia and who are strongly opposed to the nuclear deal and any other engagement with the West.
They are also extremely illiberal in women’s and minority rights, internet access, cultural production, and even personal freedoms. State TV and radio was handed over from a pragmatist ally to a populist loyalist, who quickly marginalised pragmatists' voices.
Several leaked documents and tapes further wounded pragmatist leaders. To make matters worse, the all-powerful IRGC’s spy chief, Hossein Taeb, who has been a significant ally to the pragmatists, was fired by the Supreme Leader over a combination of corruption cases and failure to stop Israel’s sabotage and assassinations in Iran.
The difficulties of the 1980s took place when the majority of Iranians were extremely young, idealistic, collectivist, uneducated, revolutionary, anti-Western, and pious. They selflessly loved Ayatollah Khomeini and trusted the highly educated, technocratic civil servants who had devoted themselves to the success of the revolution.
"The revolution that was a collective ideal for many in the 1980s is now nothing more than a lucrative profession for some"
Today, Iran’s ageing population is evermore individualistic, liberal, educated, pro-Western, secular, globally connected, and resentful of the revolution, its consequences, and its leadership. Corruption and hypocrisy is now the norm among state officials at all levels, and those with the loudest revolutionary claims have the most comfortable lives in the greenest parts of the capital.
The revolution that was a collective ideal for many in the 1980s is now nothing more than a lucrative profession for some.
Ayatollah Khamenei has been encouraging the re-enactment of 1980s discourses and practices, but he has failed to see how history is repeating itself, this time as farce.
Hossein Derakhshan is a media researcher at London School of Economics. He spent six years in prison in Iran from 2008 over his pioneering blogging and digital activism.
Follow him on Twitter: @h0d3r