Rohani plays the army against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps
As Iranian President Hassan Rohani presented his new largely technocratic cabinet to the parliament, his candidate for the Defence and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry was the greatest surprise: If Brigadier-General Amir Hatami gains a parliamentary vote of confidence, he will be the first regular military officer to serve in a cabinet position, which since 1993 has been the privilege of officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
By offering the Defence Ministry to the regular military, Rohani is raising the stakes in his struggle against the IRGC. The president’s relations with the IRGC deteriorated in the run-up to and after his re-election, in which he defeated Ebrahim Raeisi, the main challenger widely believed to have been the IRGC and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s favourite not only as president but also as a potential supreme leader.
Since the election, both parties have tried to establish more correct relations and on July 24, the IRGC’s top leadership met with Rohani to express belated congratulations on his re-election. However, an editorial in the influential Iranian newspaper Kayhan suggested the tone was anything but congratulatory.
Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, IRGC chief commander; Major-General Qassem Soleimani, IRGC Quds Force chief; Gholamhossein Gheibparvar, Basij chief; and others present allegedly “criticised the performance and positions of the government concerning the security of the regime and the fundamental values of the revolution.”
Kayhan’s editorial remarkably dismissed “reports” on “composition of Rohani’s cabinet” being on the agenda. Kayhan’s dismissal may have been directed at parliamentarian Elias Hazrati, who, in a tweet, for the first time raised Rohani’s intentions to appoint an army officer as his defence minister. This indicates that the question of the cabinet composition was raised by senior IRGC leaders at the meeting with Rohani.
The appointment of Hatami reflects much more than Rohani’s preference for the regular military and indicates the president is attempting to take advantage of the rivalry between the main branches of the armed forces.
This rivalry is in part due to the early history of conflicts between the army and the IRGC but also relates to the overlapping responsibilities of the two military organisations enshrined in the constitution, doctrinal differences and the civilian leadership’s apparent desire to keep the two military organisations in a permanent state of rivalry. The political leadership’s desire is reflected in uneven access of the two forces to the political leadership, unequal access to funding, recruitment opportunities and materiel and different levels of subjective civilian control and prestige.
While the IRGC has superior access to the political leadership, a higher budget — including vast economic resources beyond the military budget — prestige, enjoys access to the best recruits and is subjected to a lower degree of subjective control mechanisms of the civilian leadership, the army has — with the exception of the nuclear programme — access to fairly sophisticated military hardware.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran had two competing defence ministries: The Defence Ministry, which, with two exceptions (one civilian and one irregular warfare partisan), was led by army officers. The Defence Ministry was countered by a competing Ministry of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, at the helm of which IRGC officers served. By 1993, the two ministries were merged into the Defence and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry, which has since had ministers from the ranks of IRGC officers.
Rohani appointing a defence minister from the regular military not only breaks with that tradition but signals the president’s attempt at playing the army card to neutralise the IRGC. This should be no surprise to those familiar with Rohani’s character: As a regime insider who enjoys enough popular support to get re-elected despite systematic obstructions against him, Rohani is better positioned to take the fight against the IRGC than all his predecessors. He fights an uphill battle and badly needs a parliamentary vote of confidence to his candidate for the Defence Ministry as a first step to sidelining the IRGC.