They think they are the elite. You can do whatever suits you. As the most important and powerful institution, they support the regime and are its life insurance: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The “Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution” only has to answer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Observers are largely certain: Due to their position of power, the leadership of the Guard will have an important say when it comes to choosing a new president after the accidental death of Ebrahim Raisie.

Because such a high-ranking office is systemically relevant – and the Revolutionary Guards have the central task of preserving the theocracy, which has existed since 1979, at all costs and protecting it against all external and internal enemies.

The founding of the Revolutionary Guard, also known as Pasdaran, goes back to the founder of the state, Ruhollah Khomeini. The then new ruling caste distrusted the military, which had served the Shah for a long time.

As the protector of the Islamist state ideology, the Guard, which now has 190,000 members, was upgraded to an independent army with units such as the army, navy and air force. The Al-Quds Brigades have been specially set up for foreign missions.

But the Revolutionary Guard is notorious above all because it is tasked with cracking down on any form of opposition. It was also at the forefront of the brutal suppression of the unrest in autumn 2022 following the violent death of Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody.

“The Revolutionary Guard does not serve to protect the population, but rather to protect the ‘revolution’, i.e. the system of the Islamic Republic,” says Iran expert Gilda Sahebi.

Loyal to the regime, they are “mainly responsible for the military and police structures of repressive violence.” That includes the judiciary. “The Revolutionary Guard determines the outcome of sham trials and gives judges verdicts,” says Sahebi. In addition, their secret service apparatus is feared by the population.

The rise to a virtually untouchable power began with the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Their influence is now based on comprehensive military, economic and political control of the country, says Sahebi. The Guard has long been acting like a state within a state.

This includes the fact that she has built an economic empire that is almost impossible to keep track of, free of customs duties and taxes. It does business in oil and gas, has interests in hotel chains, mobile phone providers and airlines and is active in both the banking and housing sectors.

The Revolutionary Guard uses its economic and military clout to have an important say in political matters. This is likely to also be the case if the regime appoints a successor to Raisi. “Officially, i.e. according to the law, the Revolutionary Guard plays no role in the election of the next president,” says journalist and political scientist Sahebi.

In fact, however, there is no candidate who does not have the approval of the highest ranks of the guard. Only those candidates are nominated who are approved by revolutionary leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. “This process is not public or transparent; one can assume that suitable people – i.e. people loyal to the system – are already being chosen behind closed doors.”

Iran expert Walter Posch is somewhat more reserved when it comes to the Guard’s influence on the appointment of the president. “She is not institutionally integrated. On the contrary! It was founded for precisely this reason: Anyone who wants to get involved politically should go to parliament.” Anyone who wants to keep the weapons must integrate into the Revolutionary Guard, from which neutrality is expected.

Nevertheless, former high-ranking representatives of the Guard repeatedly try to gain a foothold in politics. One person who did it is Mohammad Bagher Galibaf. The former commander with the rank of general was Tehran’s mayor from 2005 to 2017 and has served as speaker of the Iranian parliament since 2020.

He is one of the conservative men who are now being mentioned as possible successors to Raisi. Those in power should have no doubts about his loyalty to the regime. Galibaf is said to have boasted that he was involved in the bloody suppression of student unrest in 1999, when he was the capital’s police chief at the time.

By Christian Böhme

The original for this article “How Iran’s untouchable shadow rulers even influence the presidential election” comes from Tagesspiegel.