The top brass of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Major-Generals Mohammad Bagheri (left) and Qassem Soleimani (right), today are advancing their bid for political power directly and more openly. (Image sources: Bagheri - Mehr News/CC by 4.0; Soleimani - Tasnim/CC by 4.0)
As Hassan Rouhani's presidency drifts towards what promises to be less than a brilliant end, speculation is starting about the next phase in the power struggle that has been a permanent feature of the Khomeinist regime from the start.
Some Iran-watchers argue that the regime's true backbone consists of the military-security establishment using the "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei as a frontman. While that view reflects an aspect of the Iranian reality, it would be wrong to conclude that the military chiefs would remain content with the present arrangement. The nature of political power, in any system, is that those who secure a share of it always want more.
Iran's military chiefs are no exception. Casting themselves as the regime's true protectors and claiming a purity associated with untrodden snow, they have always whined about the alleged corruption and incompetence of the mullahs and bureaucrats who have run the show since 1979. What is new is that today they are whining louder and louder while advancing their claim as the fittest candidates for ruling the nation.
The military chiefs, more specifically the top brass of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have always promoted their ambitions through the vast media empire they control inside and outside Iran. What is new is that today they are advancing their bid for power directly and more openly. The latest occasion for that came last month during the General Congress of the IRGC's commanders and political and religious commissars. While the previous congress, held in 2016, was a low-profile event, the gathering last month received top billing from the state-controlled media, and at times assumed the character of a political party's convention.
The congress put the limelight on two generals with thinly disguised political ambitions. The keynote speech was reserved for Chief of Staff Major-General Mohammad Bagheri who is regarded as the intellectual of the bunch, while Major-General Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the Quds Force, was cast as second fiddle.
Bagheri's speech, lasting more than 50 minutes, seemed to pursue three key objectives.
The first was to persuade the people that Iran was not heading for a war and that the military-led by him was strong enough to cope with any eventuality. Remarkably, his analysis seemed to exclude any role for the Islamic Republic's political authorities. All that Iran needed to be safe from foreign invasion was the "Supreme Guide" and his military machine.
Bagheri's second objective was to send a conciliatory signal to Iran's real or imagined enemies, more particularly the United States. He did this in two ways: by claiming that as far as establishing Iran's influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen was concerned, it was mission accomplished and that Tehran had no intention of opening new fronts or intensifying its presence in the region. He said Iran "recognizes its responsibility towards regional security and stability, playing a key role in that domain, having no intention to [practice] enmity or harbor any thought of aggression, fomenting insecurity and war."
In a hardly coded message, Gen. Bagheri added that Tehran was "trying to foster calm through regional cooperation."
To hammer in his conciliatory theme further, the general called for coping with the US-imposed sanctions "with patience and magnanimity."
Bagheri's third objective was to present the IRGC as a major player in Iran's economic life, claiming that its controversial presence in thousands of businesses was in the public interest. He implied that while the IRGC as an economic actor was snow-white, the public sector controlled by the government was riddled with corruption, nepotism and inefficiency. The implication was that if the IRGC were in charge of everything, most of Iran's current economic and social problems would disappear.
As for Gen. Soleimani, a master of public relations, he spoke in his signature hyperbolic style, claiming to have defeated the American military and revealed that the US was nothing but a scarecrow. He shared one key theme with Gen. Bagheri: the claim that the political leadership, that is to say, Rouhani and his team, had failed in almost everything and that their sell-by-date had long passed.
Does this mean that we now have two generals testing the waters for a direct bid for power?
Unlike many so-called "developing nations", Iran does not have a tradition of the military intervening in politics let alone running the government.
The Khomeinist regime has seen presidents. Of those, three were "hat-wearing" ones (mukalla in Persian). However, only one, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, managed to survive for two full terms. The first one Abol-Hassan Banisadr had to flee to exile after a year to save his skin. The second, Muhammad-Ali Raja'i, was blown into pieces in a terrorist operation just weeks after being sworn in. The remaining four presidents have all been turbaned (muam'mam). Two had black turbans, signifying descent from Fatimah, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. The other two had white turbans, indicating their pure Iranian origin.
Some observers, including a few among the regime's loyal opposition, believe that it is time to set aside both the "hat" (kolah) and the "turban" and give the military "cap" a chance to save the beleaguered regime.
Over the past 40 years, several generals, active or retired, have thrown their military cap into the ring in the hope of winning the presidency. However, none managed to make much of an impression, let alone reaching the run-off stage.
With the mullahs and their bureaucratic associates largely discredited, the military may have a better chance this time, at least within the Khomeinist movement.
In fact, informal groups promoting the idea of a military president for the Khomeinist regime are already taking shape. An exile group in Florida, led by a former senior diplomat, is campaigning for Gen. Soleimani, who has also even celebrated by a BBC Persian commentator as "a Sufi commander". Another group led by an Iranian-American university professor in New Jersey, is campaigning to draft Gen. Bagheri with the help of several retired IRGC officers.
The rationale behind these nascent campaigns is that it would be better to let those who hold real power in Iran also exercise it within a transparent and legal context.
This may or may not be a sound argument. However, I think the Khomeinist regime is fast entering a phase in its historic development in which no one would be able to save it from these inner contradictions. The hat, the turban, and the cap are of little use when the head is rotten.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.