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Military Could Tip The Balance In Iran's Election

Members of Iran's Basij militia
Members of Iran's Basij militia
At the end of April, before the current Iranian presidential election campaign gathered momentum, two leading reformist presidential candidates, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Musavi, announced plans to form a joint committee to guarantee the transparency of the presidential election and protect against possible vote-rigging, ballot-box stuffing, voter intimidation, or other forms of electoral fraud.

That proposal was soundly rejected by the powerful Guardians Council and the Interior Ministry. Both bodies argued it would run counter to election legislation. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also weighed in, saying that some are "repeating the lies of our enemies and are questioning the integrity of the [forthcoming] elections."

On May 24, the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization, a small but influential reformist group, issued a statement warning the Basij Resistance Force against interfering in the election campaign. There are clear indications that many rank-and-file members of the Basij militia have become involved in the election campaign.

Reformist Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, who is a member of the Expediency Council and a founding member of the Militant Clerics Association, said in a recent interview: "While members of the Basij, as individuals, are entitled to vote, they should refrain from campaigning for a particular candidate and distributing pamphlets and brochures. I have seen this from close quarters, although this trend is not yet widespread in the Basij."

Responding to criticism against the Basij, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari noted in a statement that the Basij is divided into three sections: ordinary, active, and special. Ordinary and active members, Jafari pointed out, are allowed to take part in political activities and election campaigns, whereas special members are not.

Encroaching Militarization

Karrubi, however, told journalists that political activity on the part of any section of the Basij is illegal because this paramilitary organization is under the command of the IRGC, which is a military organization. Karrubi stressed that in line with the explicit instructions of the founder of the Islamic republic, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, military personnel, while entitled to vote as citizens, must refrain from political activities.

Concerns about the legitimacy of elections in Iran is not without precedent. Karrubi, after losing to Mahmud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election, complained bitterly about "organized" voting and vote-rigging. Although it is difficult to quantify the influence of the Basij in that election, Ahmadinejad benefited greatly in his 2005 victory from Basij support.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the prime mover behind Iranian policy.
The Basij were also heavily involved in the carefully stage-managed March 2008 Majlis (parliament) elections, which resulted in the victory of the so-called principlists. Stressing the right of the IRGC to engage in political activities, one Basij commander openly told former Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi in May 2008 that "we have joined the [Revolutionary] Guards in order to interfere."

In fact, most Revolutionary Guard commanders consider their political engagement fully justified under Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution, which describes the organization as the guardian of the Islamic revolution. But this article does not explicitly mandate IRGC involvement in the political process, nor does the constitution identify the enemies against which the IRGC is obliged to guard the revolution.

Nevertheless, IRGC commanders, who receive their orders directly from Khamenei, continue to interfere in many aspects of political life under the pretext of safeguarding the revolution and its achievements. In recent years, owing to a raft of internal problems and external challenges, including Iran's nuclear standoff with the West, Khamenei has relied increasingly on the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij to maintain his influence and domestic security.

Since Ahmadinejad came to power, the militarization of politics in Iran has gained momentum. The IRGC's presence in the Ahmadinejad government, the Majlis, and among provincial governors shows the broad extent of that militarization, which could not have taken place without Khamenei's explicit approval.

Breaks In The Ranks

Iran does not have active political parties like those in the West or other countries. In the absence of an institutionalized party system, and given that civil society remains weak, the Revolutionary] Guards and the Basij together constitute a unified political force that has been dubbed a "garrison party."

Within the hierarchy of this garrison party, the Basij, with a nominal strength of over 12.6 million (of which about 4.6 million are not yet old enough to vote), constitute the rank and file, directed and indoctrinated by clerical or nonclerical guides whose role is similar to that of political commissars in the old Soviet Union.

Visiting the province of Kurdistan two weeks ago, Khamenei was full of praise for the Ahmadinejad government. "The people should not vote for those who want to surrender to enemies and disgrace the nation," he said. "It would be calamitous if some people, on coming to power, seek to improve their standing by ingratiating themselves with arrogant Western powers."

Although Khamenei did not mention any presidential candidate by name, many observers believe he favors Ahmadinejad, who has close links to, and has provided financial backing for, the IRGC and the Basij. The IRGC's publication "Sobh-e Sadeq" regularly publishes articles in support of the Ahmadinejad government and bitterly attacks its critics.

Nevertheless, it is not clear whether the Revolutionary] Guards and Basij will support Ahmadinejad's candidacy en masse. Militarily, the IRGC is characterized by a strict hierarchy, centralized command, and esprit de corps, but politically it is not monolithic.

On the contrary, it is like a club. The political behavior of its current and former officers suggests rivalry, rather than cohesion. For that reason, it is by no means certain that the IRGC and Basij rank and file will automatically follow the political wishes of their senior officers in this election. In the May 1997 presidential election, the majority of the IRGC's rank and file voted for Mohammad Khatami, against the wishes of their commanders.

Conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai is a former IRGC commander who still has some support within the military, despite leaving it some 12 years ago.

Maintaining The Status Quo

In spite of this, as the supreme leader and the most powerful political actor, Khamenei wields tremendous influence, and his support for (or opposition to) a particular candidate could determine the outcome of the election.

Besides a host of domestic problems, Iran is facing international pressure over its nuclear program, especially from the United States. The three presidential challengers -- Karrubi, Musavi, and Rezai -- advocate a pragmatic approach to the resolution of the nuclear problem, including direct talks with the United States, which would require a degree of compromise if any progress is to be made.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, wishes to continue the current confrontational policies. During his election campaign, he has vehemently criticized the "shameful" nuclear policy of his predecessor, Khatami. He stated that the continuation of uranium enrichment is not negotiable and that, as far as he is concerned, the nuclear problem has already been resolved.

In this context, and in the domain of foreign policy, one of Khamenei's main preoccupations remains U.S. intentions toward Iran, an issue that is effectively linked to the security, and ultimately the survival, of the regime. It is therefore quite possible the ayatollah might see Ahmadinejad's confrontational policy as the best way to keep the United States at arm's length. As a result, he might be inclined to use all the levers at his disposal, including the IRGC and the Basij, to engineer Ahmadinejad's reelection.

That said, judging by the experience of past elections, the behavior of Iranian voters is not easy to predict, and the election results may yet prove quite different from what the supreme leader expects.

Iran Election Diary

Iran Election Diary
Disputed Presidential Vote
There have been protests and clashes with police on the streets of Tehran following the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. RFE/RL collects videos, photos, and messages on social-networking sites coming out of Iran to attempt to get a picture of what is happening inside the country. Click here

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