Iranian Military emerging as state within a state, backing hardliner President
Determined to protect a dominant security role and vast economic interests, Iran's Revolutionary Guards military force is quietly backing a hardliner in May 19 presidential polls, with an eye toward a bigger prize: the succession of the supreme leader.
President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected in 2013 in a landslide on promises to open up Iranian society and reduce its international isolation, is widely seen as the favorite to win a second term next week.
But the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the Basij, a volunteer militia under the Guards' command, are taking steps to promote the candidacy of his main rival, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi.
Media outlets affiliated with the Guards have been criticizing Rouhani's performance in power. Experts who study the force say they are also likely to use their street muscle to help get Raisi supporters to the polls.
"The IRGC will be running buses and mini-buses to make people vote. They will be mobilizing voters not only in the rural areas but also the shantytowns around the big cities," said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has done extensive research on the Guards.
"They want their supporters voting."
The Islamic Republic's security hawks are worried that Rouhani with a fresh mandate would chip away at prerogatives that have given the Guards huge economic and political power.
Whether or not Rouhani wins a second term, the bigger prize is controlling who will succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose power far exceeds that of the elected president.
Khamenei, in power since 1989, is now 77. Some analysts say Raisi's presidential bid is a test run for a man who could be groomed to take over as Khamenei's successor.
"This election is not only about choosing the president. It's about succession after Khamenei," said Alfoneh. "The IRGC believe that it's their chance to completely eliminate the technocrats and control the succession process after Khamenei."
Khamenei's successor will be chosen by a body called the Assembly of Experts, elected last year for an eight year term.
Rouhani himself sits in the assembly as one of its biggest vote-getters, and he and his allies nearly swept the seats from the capital Tehran.