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Both the Revolutionary Guards and the Opposition are Split over Who to Support in Iran's Presidential Elections


By Muhammad Sahimi

Iran’s presidential elections, to be held on June 14, are entering the final stretch. Eight candidates are in the race, with six of them being conservative and ultra-conservative, one, former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rouhani, a moderate conservative, and the 8th candidate, former First Vice President in the second Khatami administration (2001-2005), Mohammad Reza Aref, being a reformist. No clear front runner has emerged, and most, if not all the polls are unreliable as they depend on who or which organization took them.

The presidential candidates during their 3rd debate

The two main centers of power in Iran are the office of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, known in Iran as the beit-e rahbari [abode of the Leader], and the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps [IRGC]. In particular, ever since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and especially after the disputed presidential elections of 2009, the political power of the IRGC, together with other security and intelligence forces, has increased dramatically to the point that they forced the Guardian Council to disqualify former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running. In the opposition are the reformists led by former President Mohammad Khatami, the Green Movement led by former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, former Speaker of parliament Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi’s wife Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, and the moderate conservatives, and a part of the traditional conservatives that are not happy about being marginalized by the hardliners led the IRGCS and intelligence forces, and look to Rafsanjani for leadership. The leadership of the Green Movement has been under house arrest since February 2013, and it has been impossible to learn about their views about the elections.

Thus, one important question is, who is the candidate that the hardliners support? In addition, another intensely discussed issue is whether the reformists, supporters of the Green Movement, and the moderate and pragmatic conservatives that are not happy about the nation’s current state of affairs and Khamenei’s leadership support any candidate, now that their main candidates, Khatami, who declined to run and made it clear that he did so because he believed that the hardliners will prevent him from running, and Rafsanjani, who was disqualified by the Guardian Council, are now out of the race?

Although many believe that Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator and secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council, is Khamenei’s and IRGC’s main candidate, the picture that has emerged based on talking with several reliable sources both in Tehran and outside Iran, as well as studying the websites and publications of the hardliners, indicates that the situation is not as clear-cut as some believe, and that there is significant behind-the-scene maneuvering. According to the gathered information, the high- and middle-rank officers of the IRGC have split into at least two main factions, and possibly a third one.

One group consists of the IRGC chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, and several other top commanders of the IRGC, as well as the regular military. This group is very close to Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s son, who wields considerable power behind the scene and was instrumental in the rise of Ahmadinejad to power in 2005. This group, together with the office of the Supreme leader that is run by security/intelligence figures, and Mehdi Taeb the hardline cleric who is the head of the IRGC’s Ammar Strategic Center that was founded after the 2009 elections (where Vahid Jalili, Saeed Jalili’s brother is a leading figure), the hardliner cleric who is the commander of, support Jalili. The Ammar Center has close relations with Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the hardline reaction cleric whose political group, Jebheh Paaydaari-ye Enghelaab-e Eslaami [steadfast front of the Islamic revolution] has endorsed Jalili. Many top IRGC officers also have close relations with Mesbah Yazdi. As reported previously, a large number of the Basij militia members are also working with the Jalili campaign. But, while Jalili has presented his leadership of the nuclear negotiations as one of his major achievements, in the third presidential debate held on June 7 in Tehran, he was strongly attacked by all but one candidate, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel who is father-in-law of Mojtaba Khamenei.

A supporter of Saeed Jalili

The IRGC officers that have a reputation for being uncorrupted and professional military officers in the second group, and appear to support Tehran’s current Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, an IRGC retired Brigadier General, former commander of the IRGC air force, and former commander of the national police. The most prominent of such officers that is Major General Ghasem Soleimani. Mehr, a news agency owned by the Organization for Islamic Propaganda, reported that Ayatollah Sayyed Yahya Jafari, the Friday prayer Imam of Kerman [a city in south-central Iran] and Khamenei’s representative to the Kerman province, met with Ghalibaf and told him that General Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force [IRGC’s special force that operates outside Iran], had told him that he supports Ghalibaf in the elections and will vote for him. This is highly significant, as Soleimani, one of the most formidable IRGC officers and part of its strategic brain trust, is believed to be highly popular within the force. In addition, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, Second Deputy Speaker of parliament and an influential traditional conservative, also said that some of the IRGC senior commanders support Ghalibaf, who was also a candidate in the 2005 presidential elections and was widely believed to be Khamenei’s choice in those elections, but Khamenei apparently withdrew his support and threw it behind Ahmadinejad. Two informed sources in Tehran told the author that Khamenei withdrew his support when he was presented with evidence of highly illegal activities.

A supporter of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf

Some have speculated that there is a third group of the IRGC officers that consists of those who have become fabulously rich over the past eight years. As a result of Khamenei allowing the IRGC to intervene in Iran’s national economy, the harsh sanctions imposed by the West on Iran, and the “generosity” of the Ahmadinejad administration, the IRGC-linked corporations that are believed to number about 7000, have taken over about 60 percent of the official economy. This group appears to support former IRGC chief from 1981-1997 and current secretary-general of the Expediency Discernment Council, Mohsen Rezaei, a retired Major General. Rezaei himself has become a very rich man himself by setting up several corporations and being active in a wide variety of areas, and has also been accused of financial corruption.

Supporters of Mohsen Rezaei

Do the reformists, supporters of the Green Movement, and unhappy moderate and pragmatic conservatives support anyone? They are also split.

One group believes that in the absence of Rafsanjani and Khatami the elections must be boycotted, because both Aref and Rouhani are not able to excite people to vote for them, and are not also the type of candidate that, even if elected, can stand up against Khamenei and correct at least some of his catastrophic mistakes. Thus, this group believes that under such conditions, supporting a candidate will allow Khamenei to claim to the world that the elections were democratic, and all the major groups had candidates running. In addition, they point to what Khatami said recently, “Even if they [the state] allow us to run, we will receive as many votes as they wants us to receive,” implying that, if necessary, the votes will be changed to prevent the victory of a reformist candidate. Many in the opposition in the diaspora support this. But, the Coordination Council for the Green Path of Hope, the temporary leadership council in the absence of the Movement’s leadership, as well as the Organization of Islamic Revolution Mojahedin, a leading reformist group that was outlawed by the government after the 2009 elections, have also called for the boycott of the elections.

The second group believes that Jalili must be prevented from winning the elections because he is the second coming of Ahmadinejad, but even more rigid and far less experienced than him, and absolutely obedient to Khamenei. This group has called for an “anyone but Jalili” slogan. This group consists mostly of the reformist figures inside Iran [see also here].

Poster of Mohammad Reza Aref on a bus

Meanwhile both Rafsanjani and Khatami have been publicly silent. There have been reports that the two may support Rouhani and call on Aref to withdraw from the elections, but that has not materialized yet. At the same time, pressure has been mounting on the two men to declare their positions, and support either Aref or Rouhani

New information indicates that the two former presidents differ on what to do. According to the information that the author has gathered, while Rafsanjani favors supporting Rouhani who is very close to him, Khatami is opposed to supporting any candidate. Khatami himself has been silent for a few days. If the reports are correct, it means in effect that the two former presidents are in the aforementioned two groups of the reformists, supporters of the Green Movement and moderate and pragmatic conservatives.

Evidence for Khatami’s thinking is provided by Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha’s speech to a group called Coalition of Aref-Rouhani for Iran’s Future. Khoeiniha is a highly influential leftist cleric and very close to Khatami. The two men lead the Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC), a leftist clerical organization that separated from the conservative clerics in 1988. Khoeiniha told the group [the group’s website,, has been blocked by the hardliners],

My view has always been that we should not take part in the elections at any price. I see such participation as damaging to the reform movement and the reform thoughts. Participation in the elections must be with the goal of advancing reforms. We must not allow the ruling elite that does not tolerate the reformists to put us on a path that is a dead-end.

If Khatami were running, the entire reformists and their social base would support him, and the elections would have produced a result that both enemies and friends would have been astounded. But, the opposition, both important and insignificant, acted in a way that made it impossible for Khatami to run.

Then, at the height of [our] despair, Ayatollah Hashemi [Rafsanjani] declared his candidacy. Not only did the candidacy receive the support of the reformists, but also created huge waves of support around the nation that could not really be analyzed. The support would have made Rafsanjani’s victory definitive, which would have been able to solve at least some of the problems that have been created over the past eight years [during Ahmadinejad’s presidency]...

The reformists should not do something that would damage their past achievements and honors that even the opposition acknowledges. Despite the great effort of the opposition and their “engineering” of the elections, they still had to acknowledge that the reformists received [at least] close to 15 million votes in the last elections, and are trying their utmost best to prevent not only a victory by the reformists in the current elections, but also lose their credibility.

Khoeiniha’s statements indicate that there are also fissures among the leading reformists. Various reports indicate that many members of the ACC believe that, if any candidate is to be supported by the ACC, it must be Aref, as Rouhani is a member of the Society of Militant Clergy of Tehran, the conservative clerical group from which the ACC split in 1988. Reports also indicate that both Aref and Rouhani have accepted to form a coalition, and that both have also accepted Rafsanjani and Khatami as the authority to decide which candidate to run, and which one to withdraw. The latest poll indicates that if the two men do form a coalition, the ultimate candidate will have a commanding lead over other candidates.

With only one week to the elections, the situation is still very fluid. The next two days are crucial.

Note: A version of this article was published earlier by Iran News & Middle East Reports,

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