Iran’s Revolutionary Guards get new political commissar but may resist civilian control
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed Abdollah Haji Sadeghi as his representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The function of the “representative of the Guardian Jurist” is not dissimilar to a political commissar in the Red Army of the former Soviet Union. As such, Haji Sadeghi is expected to serve within the IRGC as the eyes and ears of the civilian leadership.
However, Khamenei’s new commissar may run into bigger problems than ever faced by his predecessors: institutional resistance by the IRGC to civilian control.
There is little in Haji Sadeghi’s record to indicate he would be an effective commissar. In an interview with the IRGC weekly Sobh-e Sadeq, he disclosed that he enrolled at a seminary in 1974. The Tebyan website, another mouthpiece of the IRGC, further identified the Zolfaqar School at the Isfahan Theological Seminary as the first institution Haji Sadeghi attended. If that was his first school, Isfahan may be his native province.
However, in 1978, he transferred to the more prestigious seminary in Qom and became politicised. Even so, his “revolutionary” credentials appear to have been limited to distributing pamphlets.
After the revolution, Haji Sadeghi joined the Khorramshahr branch of the IRGC and served in very junior positions during the war with Iraq. From 1988, when the war ended, his responsibilities seem to have been limited to research and bureaucratic positions at the IRGC Imam Hossein University. He stayed there until October 8, 2011, when he was appointed the supreme leader’s deputy representative to the IRGC.
Now, Haji Sadeghi is commissar but this new job comes at a time the politically assertive IRGC is openly challenging Khamenei’s authority. It has been rebellious in other ways, too.
In January, Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami told the government-owned daily Iran that “Ayatollah Khamenei has tasked the General Staff of the Armed Forces [with] transfer of [ownership] of financial institutions of the army and the [IRGC].” This was meant, he said, for the IRGC to “abandon unrelated economic activities.”
He explained that “we do not consider running of financial institutions as the mission of the armed forces.” It was an obvious reference to the IRGC’s financial activities and the parallel banking sector, in particular Mehr Eqtesad Bank.
The IRGC denied knowledge of Khamenei’s decree, with Brigadier-General Esmaeil Kowsari, deputy chief of the IRGC’s Sarallah Headquarters, claiming: “I’m not aware of it and must investigate the details of the issue.” He also denied the IRGC engaged in economic activity, insisting that “most of its work is in the development sector” and mostly undertaken when it is “beyond the capacities of other [private sector] companies.”
Kowsari’s remarks were followed by a further disclaimer by the IRGC’s deputy for parliamentary affairs, Mohammad Saleh Jokar. He told the reformist Etemaad Online that he neither knew anything of the supreme leader’s decree nor the defence minister’s statements.
For leading IRGC commanders to feign ignorance of Khamenei’s decree strikes at the prestige of his office. It is not only a clear sign of institutional insubordination by the IRGC but also demonstrates the civilian leadership’s inability to control the force.
In the circumstances, the appointment of a timid functionary as Haji Sadeghi as the supreme leader’s representative to the IRGC may be an indication of civilian surrender rather than anything else.