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Iran: New Worries Arise Over Military Involvement In Election

Iranian Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said on 7 June that there was no doubt that there was military interference in the election process and this was "dangerous," IRNA reported.

Khanjani's statement is just the most recent warning about this issue. In early April, pro-reformist political commentators expressed concern about the planned presidential campaigns of individuals with backgrounds in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 11 April 2005).

Now, with less than two weeks before the 17 June election, there are new concerns that the involvement of military personnel in supervising the election could lead to fraud.

The Guardians Council is tasked with supervising elections. "There is no legal impediment to the presence of military forces in the [elections] executive and supervisory domains," council spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said, according to "Eqbal" on 31 May.

This triggered a quick reaction from the Interior Ministry, which runs elections. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said the law clearly stated that military and police personnel were banned from entering election headquarters or backing candidates at polling places, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 30 May. Expressing astonishment with Elham's comments, Musavi-Lari said the possibility that military personnel might play a part in the election process was a matter of great concern.

"Behind the scenes, there is a whiff of preparations for interference by military men in the course of the elections," Interior Ministry spokesman Khanjani said at his 31 May news conference, according to IRNA.

Council spokesman Elham responded that "whipping up a topic" that "springs from illusion" was tantamount to carrying out the plans of Iran's enemies. Elham went on to provide a detailed written response to questions about military involvement in the election, "Sharq" reported on 1 June. "According to the law, membership of the military in executive and supervisory boards has not been banned and their responsibility is something personal as far as they are concerned," Elham said. According to the law, Elham wrote, military personnel cannot campaign on behalf of or otherwise represent candidates, and government officials generally are prohibited from making statements, announcements, or placards for or against candidates. He added that military and police personnel's activities were barred if they acted on behalf of their institutions but said they were not barred from participating in election-related activities as individuals. Although the Guardians Council has not employed military personnel in its supervisory activities, he continued, there is no problem if it does so in isolated cases.

Active-Duty Versus Reservists

Elham wrote that barring Basij personnel from election-related activities was impractical, "Sharq" reported on 1 June. He explained that this would deprive the 20 million people who serve in the Basij of their rights.

The 20 million figure is most likely an exaggeration based on revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's November 1979 decree creating the Basij. Khomeini said at the time that "a country with 20 million youths must have 20 million riflemen or a military with 20 million soldiers; such a country will never be destroyed" (

Full-time active-duty personnel serve in the conventional armed forces and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. The Basij is part of the Guards Corps and is made up mostly of boys, old men, and those who recently finished their military service. There are about 90,000 active-duty Basij members who are full-time uniformed personnel, and there also are up to 300,000 reservists, according to a 2005 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. That study adds that the Basij can mobilize up to 1 million men.

The real figure for Basij personnel falls somewhere between these extremes, if one includes members of the University Basij, Student Basij, and the former tribal levies incorporated into the Basij (aka Tribal Basij). Middle-school-aged members of the Student Basij are called Seekers (Puyandegan), and high-school members are called the Vanguard (Pishgaman), "Kayhan" reported on 6 November 2003.

General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij, stressed on 1 June that his personnel would not be allowed to participate in the campaign, ISNA reported. He added that some Basij members are not salaried and are only answerable to the organization when they are on duty. Their participation in the election is not prohibited, he said.

Brigadier General Alireza Afshar, deputy commander of the armed forces headquarters for cultural affairs and defensive promotions, stressed on 5 June that no military personnel would be involved in supervising or conducting the election, IRNA reported. As for the Basij Resistance Force, Afshar said Basij personnel were considered members of the armed forces only when they were on duty.

A Force Apart

Numerous commentators asserted that the Guards Corps voted in overwhelming numbers for the reformist candidate in the 1997 presidential election. Yet there is no solid evidence for these claims, such as exit poll data. Subsequent events -- such as commanders' threats against critical newspapers and reformist political figures -- put these claims in serious doubt and showed that the Guards Corps considers itself a praetorian force that holds itself above the civilian leadership and elected officials.

In 2003 municipal council elections and 2004 parliamentary elections, furthermore, the Guards Corps was linked with the political activities of the hard-line Islamic Iran Developers Coalition (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami). In the former case, Basij facilities were used for the Developers Coalition campaign activities, and in the latter case Guards Corps officers were given lists of Developers Coalition candidates for whom they and their troops should vote.

The role of the Guardians Council in vetting candidates always raises questions about the democratic nature of elections. The potential involvement of military personnel in supervising the election puts in greater doubt an already dubious process. The military personnel can ensure that their favorite candidate gets the majority of votes. Furthermore, military and law-enforcement personnel in polling places can intimidate or interfere with voters. Soldiers who vote in military installations or in the presence of their officers can be ordered to vote for specific candidates.

Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative to the Guards Corps, claimed on 6 June that the corps is unbiased and backs no specific candidate, ISNA reported. Nevertheless, four of the candidates in the upcoming presidential election have Guards Corps backgrounds. The other four candidates have no such association.

It is up to the Iranian people to decide who they will vote for, but military interference in the 17 June presidential polls undermines Iran's already weak democratic process.