Does Iran’s ‘regime of the mullahs’ still exist?

Text by: Bahar MAKOOI
4 min

Only one candidate for the Iranian presidential election is an ayatollah, while several are from the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s military founded after the Islamic Revolution. FRANCE 24 spoke to an Iran specialist for further insight.


On June 14, Iran will elect its next president after eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Three out of six of the candidates – Mohsen Rezaei, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and Saeed Jalili -- hail from the Revolutionary Guard, suggesting the increasing importance of this branch of the Iranian military, which is meant to uphold the country’s Islamic traditions.

FRANCE 24 interviewed Clément Therme, a researcher at France’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, for further insight.

Here are some highlights.

F24: Is it accurate to refer to the “regime of the mullahs” in Iran when only one candidate out of six, Hassan Rowhani, is an ayatollah?

CT: The clergy are unpopular with a part of the urban population that no longer wants these men to be involved in politics. Even some religious figures, like Ayatollah Sanei or Ali Sistani, for example, disagree with the influence of the religious elite on the political ruling class.

This elite branch of the Iranian military was created in 1979 to protect the changes effected by the Islamic Revolution and ensure the security of Ayatollah Khomeini. It gradually evolved into a parallel army with its own budget.

After the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Revolutionary Guard took control of several strategic segments of the Iranian economy: construction, oil, and telecommunications. Today, it continues to invest in various sectors, including the automobile and food industries.

The Revolutionary Guard figures on the official US list of terrorist organisations.

But one must not forget that the clergy remain present at every level of the Iranian state, and are part of very influential institutions: the Guardian Council of the Constitution (which validates presidential candidacies), the Assembly of Experts, and local representatives of the Supreme Leader.

F24: Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf are the frontrunners on the conservative side. Both have climbed the rungs of the Iranian government thanks to their involvement in the Revolutionary Guard. Does that suggest that this military branch is reclaiming control over Iranian politics?

CT: It’s true that the military apparatus has an increasingly important role in the management of the Iranian state. But that doesn’t alter the deeper nature of the Iranian system, founded on “velayat-e faqih” (the principle that gives religious leaders authority over politicians), to which all the candidates you’ve cited are faithful. The Revolutionary Guard is an ideological army that serves the goals of the Islamic Revolution.

Moreover, it is important to remember that officially, the Constitution prohibits the Revolutionary Guard from getting involved in presidential elections and influencing politics in general. Just because they are not from the clergy does not mean we can automatically say these candidates are trying to secularise Iranian society.

F24: Faced with a bloc of conservative candidates, does Hassan Rowhani, the frontrunner reformist contender, actually have a chance?

CT: Rowhani can mobilise voters if the election is fairly organised. His ideas are progressive. Furthermore, he has denounced the increasing influence of the security apparatus on Iranian politics, but he’s done so without questioning the entire system. Rouhani has asked whether it’s wise to so frequently rely upon the military in Iran. He would like to reinforce the people’s participation in the system; it’s what I call “participative theocracy”.


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