On September 1st, Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei announced a change in the leadership of Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami (IRGC). Brigadier (now Major) General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari was given a new star and appointed as sepah’s new commander while Yahya Rahim Safavi who had led sepah for the past 10 years became the leader’s military advisor, occupying a newly created and probably ceremonial position.
Given the recent news about the possibility of the United States placing sepah on the list of terrorist groups, the move led to speculations about it being a reaction to American pressures. Chances are, however, that it had very little to do with the possible designation, the news for which, from what I now understand, was in any case inaccurate as the contemplated designation was apparently regarding the Qods force, a part of sepah that is said to be engaged in operations in Iraq.
Indeed, in response to direct questions in this regard both commanders in separate news conferences suggested that the decision for change was made about two months ago. Safavi went as far as to say that Ayatollah Khamenei simply does not like anyone serving at any position for more than 10 years. The move nevertheless reveals a couple of interesting points about the role of military in Iranian politics which is usually overlooked.
First and foremost is the tight civilian control that exists over the military in Iran. In the past couple of years, since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, there has been a lot of loose talk about the increasing importance of the military in Iranian politics. The reality is that sepah (as well as the regular military) as an institution remains under the constitutionally sanctioned tight reign of the leader’s office. And for years Ayatollah Khamenei has taken that job very seriously, rotating leaders and demanding institutional changes depending on perceived needs and circumstances.
This is nothing new. Iran simply does not have a historical tradition of military prominence in the way for instance Turkey has had. This does not mean that since the inception of modern military in the 20th century, various civilian leaders of Iran, particularly when under pressure, have not used the military arm to “take care of the country’s problems,” by bringing “discipline” to the country or building its roads and pipelines. As Masoud Behnoud, one of Iran’s most astute journalists now living in exile, points out in his Persian blog, even during the Shah’s reign many of the tasks seen as too difficult for public institutions or the private sector were handled and managed by the military. As such, under the current circumstances of sanctions and international pressures, Behnoud I think is right to say that it is not the institutional or internal urge by sepah to grab power that has increased its role in Iranian politics and economy but circumstances. Once circumstances change, so will sepah’s role.
In his press conference Aziz Jafari, the new commander of sepah, was totally unapologetic about this predicament. He acknowledged sepah’s economic role in various construction projects, welcomed them, and in fact defended them as part of sepah’s mission, not to make profit, but to build the country. He identified sepah as a “precautionary force at the service of the commander in chief in order to rush to the help of other organizations wherever help is necessary.”
The second point that the new appointment reveals is about the individuals that have come to constitute the core of sepah’s leadership and the role they are playing in contemporary Iran. It is important to understand that sepah is different from Iran’s regular army in so far as it came into being during the revolution as a people’s army. It is constitutionally expected to “guard the revolution and its achievements,” (unlike the regular military which is given the task of “guarding the independence, territorial integrity, and political order of the Islamic Republic), and found its character during the war with Iraq, a war in which Iran was clearly out-resourced and had to rely on tactical innovations to counter Iraq’s technological superiority.
Many of the men who joined this people’s army to fight in the war and ended up being its commanders were very bright university students in their early twenties. Many of them died, some survived but left sepah during or immediately after the war to turn into politicians, diplomats or bureaucrats (of reformist, centrist, or hard-line kinds), and some remained to make sepah a more professional institution with various branches. These men who stayed on are now in their late forties or early fifties and as individuals see themselves as capable leaders who, precisely because of the experience they gained during the war and afterwards, can influence the direction of the country, in the same way, I would say, ex-IDF generals have seen themselves in relation to Israeli politics.
A number of them, like Mohmmad Baqer Qalibaf (the current mayor of Tehran who has presidential aspirations) and Mohsen Rezaie (the secretary of the Expediency Council, also with presidential aspirations) eventually left their military posts and are making their marks as politicians. Other high ranking officers like Mohammad Baqer Zolghadr and Alireza Afshar are now powerful hard-line bureaucrats in the Interior Ministry (which is in charge of internal security as well as conduct of elections).
Others like Aziz Jafari, who is from the province of Yazd and reportedly a good friend of another Yazdi, the former president Mohmmad Khatami, continue to serve in sepah but are playing a critical role in the transformation of the institution itself. A closer look at Jafari’s biography reveals why it is in the continued commitment of people like him, a man reported to be very genial and well liked within sepah, that one must locate the strength of the Islamic Republic.
He was a student at the very prestigious and difficult to get into architecture school at the University of Tehran during the revolution. According to his official bio he was instrumental in the establishment of the Islamic association at his school, was a representative of his school to the university wide association, and “was active in the takeover” of the American embassy. As such, he must have been friends with many others involved in the event who later became prominent reformist leaders (e.g., Mohsen Mirdamadi who is currently the secretary general of the reformist Islamic Iran's Participation Party) or journalists (e.g., Abbas Abdi). He went to war as a member of the basij militia, immediately joined sepah, and “out of the necessities of the war” soon ended up in command positions. After the war he managed to finish both his architecture degree as well as go through the military leadership training programs. Later he became the commander of sepah’s ground forces. It was as the commander of sepah’s ground forces in 1999 that he signed, along with several other sepah commanders, a threatening letter to his friend and the then President Khatami expressing concern about student riots and the latter’s inability to maintain order.
But the job that qualified him for the current leadership of sepah came in 2005 when Ayatollah Khamenei appointed him to be in charge of setting up sepah’s Strategic Center, a center tasked with drawing up a new command structure and military strategy, preparing the country for the changing regional environment and the kind of foreign military confrontation it may have to face.
In his news conference with the Iranian press, Jafari was very blunt about his task. Pointing out that the threats to Iran have changed, he identified sepah’s role as one of deterrence and defense. He also identified it as a “learning organization” that because of its popular roots and organic ties to the population is very flexible in the kind of asymmetrical war – “similar to the one Hezbollah fought against Israel” - Iran needs to be prepared for just in case it is attacked.
His response to a question regarding the recent American threats against Iran was equally blunt:
The enemies have intensified the tune of threats but they should know that an organization such as sepah that is revolutionary and popular cannot be destroyed and they must show more deliberation in their threats…. The presence of the enemy in the region is causing problems for them and every path they take ends in an impasse. I suggest that they end their presence and interact with Islam and countries of the region form afar. This will surely be to their benefit and I suggest that they leave the region as soon as possible.
The appointment of Aziz Jafari seems to be yet another signal that the Iranian leadership takes the American threat seriously enough to prepare for the kind of fight it feels it might have to fight but undoubtedly prefers not to.