AFP: They may now be wearing suits, but the line-up of candidates standing in Iran’s presidential election next month includes a roll-call of the Islamic republic’s Revolutionary Guards. While members of Iran’s military are barred by the constitution from direct involvement in politics, the issue is again being debated between those advocating the need for a strong leader and detractors fearing a militarisation of the regime.
TEHRAN – They may now be wearing suits, but the line-up of candidates standing in Iran’s presidential election next month includes a roll-call of the Islamic republic’s Revolutionary Guards.
While members of Iran’s military are barred by the constitution from direct involvement in politics, the issue is again being debated between those advocating the need for a strong leader and detractors fearing a militarisation of the regime.
One candidate, Mohsen Rezai, headed the Revolutionary Guards for 16 years and is challenging the taboo of mixing the army and politics by actively advertising his background.
“If we want to lay down the roots of democracy in Iran, we need a strong person, both politically and militarily,” he told the Iran newspaper.
According to Rezai, Iran’s current situation — under constant international pressure and fighting to revamp its stagnant economy — required “a government that has both political and military fibre”.
He is just one of three men — out of the five conservative figures who have so far declared they will stand in the June 17 election — who have a background as Revolutionary Guards.
In recent years the force, a force created in 1979 to defend the revolution from both foreign and domestic enemies and numbering some 350,000 men, has been steadily building up its status as one of the country’s most powerful institutions.
Under the direct command of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they have been charged with handling the deployment of the Shahab-3 medium range ballistic missile — devices that are capable of striking arch-enemy Israel.
In May last year, it was also the Revolutionary Guards that moved to shut down Tehran’s new international airport on the day it opened in protest at the involvement of a Turkish-Austrian consortium that allegedly also had business dealings with Israel.
And in June 2004 it was behind the arrest and humiliating parading of eight British soldiers alleged to have strayed into Iranian waters near the southern border with Iraq — despite the risk of causing a major diplomatic incident and embarrassing the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami.
Signs that they were taking a higher political profile came during parliamentary elections in February 2004, when incumbent reformists — most of whom were barred from even standing — were ousted by a coalition of conservatives and hardliners.
Among the new MPs were several dozen former members of the Revolutionary Guards or its volunteer militia, the Basij.
Also now contesting the presidency is Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who most recently served as national police chief but also once headed the Guards’ air force — although he had tried to play down that job as having been imposed by the Iran-Iraq war.
The other member of the ex-Pasdaran trio is Ali Larijani, who once held the post of deputy head of the elite force before heading the state broadcast network and working as an advisor to Khamenei.
Other candidates, however, are not shying away from pointing to the traditional barrier that separates the army from the government.
According to a close aide to powerful former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — who has said he is almost certain to attempt to stand in next month’s election — a campaign message will be to “avert a militarisation of political life” in Iran.
The embattled reformist camp’s candidate, Mustafa Moin, also told AFP that it was “natural” that ex-army commanders “lean towards the circles that they were once a part of and have a more militaristic vision of society”.
“In every country, when the army takes power, social and political liberties have been restricted and in general the armed forces do not like to give up power once they get it,” warned another politician, former reformist MP Mohammad Kianoush-Rad.
But according to an Iranian political analyst, the trend is almost inevitable — as aged clerics give way to those who fought for the revolution’s survival.
“What we are seeing is the arrival on the political scene of men in their 40s, who served in the Revolutionary Guards, who fought and suffered in the war and who ask themselves what they have got in return?” said the analyst, who asked not to be named.
“We are in a period of transition, where clerics give way and before another generation that is neither religious nor military moves in.”