A new Iran is emerging. New elites will arise. The battle has begun. Will the West be part of the problem or the solution? Will it be a merchant of the past, or a progressive actor of the future?
An ongoing tension
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps is the fruit of Iran's Islamic revolution. It was established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who called its members "his revolutionary children," and they were to him what the Royal Army was to the Shah.
Khomeini's "revolutionary children" over the past three decades have acquired immense power. The organization which was first established as an internal militia force to protect against a possible coup by the army gradually grew into what is known today as the IRGC: An army with a vast paramilitary branch, a well trained internal and extraterritorial intelligence apparatus and a vast military-industrial complex controlling the most important sectors of Iran's economy.
Yet, the IRGC's ambitions go even beyond its military and economic goals, with an intricate "soft power" infrastructure aimed at propagating the Islamic republic's "messianic" message, born with the 1979 Revolution: "Revolutionary Islam."
Since its inception, there has been ongoing tension between the IRGC and the clerics.
Although IRGC officers enthusiastically followed Ayatollah Khomeini, they have also persistently had a hard time coping with the clerics appointed by the supreme leader as his representatives within this "ideological army." It is emblematic that this ongoing tension has consistently been tipped in favor of the "revolutionary children," resulting in frequent changes of clerical appointees.
Who is Ali Khamenei?
After Khomeini's death, a mid-ranking cleric lacking all due scholarly credentials rose to power: Sayyid Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei, who had, prior to the revolution, devoted his entire seminarian's life to political activism against the Shah, began his own metamorphosis after the monarch's overthrow. Before the revolution, he was better known within some intellectual circles, enjoying music and poetry, rather than in religious seminaries.
His interest in politics and history brought him to translate into Farsi a work of the renowned Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb. After the revolution, his interests expanded to encompass military and intelligence issues.
Promoted Grand Ayatollah and Source of Emulation (Marja Taqlid) almost overnight, his outrageous rise was a direct insult to the traditional cleric establishment. The exponential growth of the IRGC coincides with his leadership. Illegitimate on scholarly grounds and non-charismatic, his rule could not be sustained, except on security pillars alone - provided by the IRGC. As the champion of messianic Islam, Khamenei is regarded by his zealots not only as the substitute of the Shia Messiah, but also as "Sayyid-e-Khurasani," the prophetic character who prefigures and prepares the coming of the Savior.
In parallel, he has built an astronomic network of financial firepower and influence. Survivor of an assassination attempt shortly after the Revolution, the 74-year-old leader is currently in poor health. His death could lead to a huge redistribution of wealth and power among the Shia elites, already torn with infighting.
Post-Khamenei era; possible scenarios
How will the IRGC move in the post-Khamenei era? The options are threefold: First, that IRGC commanders stay neutral, not intervening in the process of selecting a new supreme leader, while safeguarding the stability of the regime in the transitional period. However, well aware of the possibility of being ousted by the new leadership and its entourage, high-ranking IRGC commanders, all indebted to Khamenei for their current positions, risk more than just their wealth and power.
The post-Khamenei era could well become for them a matter of life or death. Thus IRGC commanders have both the ability and the incentive to weigh in, with all their means, in the selection process of the new leader.
The second scenario is that IRGC commanders do intervene, installing their own pick for the supreme spot.
At the moment, the best option for them is Mojtaba Khamenei, son of the current leader. Symbolic as it might be, the ambitious heir has already started teaching his own seminars, known as "kharej," interpreted as a sign of established religious credentials, a scholarly credit his own father did not have prior to his accession to leadership. However, it is no secret that Mojtaba's most valuable credentials are his close ties with the IRGC and its related security apparatus.
Following in his father's footsteps, Mojtaba Khamenei is personally involved in military programs and intelligence affairs. Also well known are the strong bonds between Mojtaba and Qasem Soleimani - the commander of the IRGC's Qods Force and the most powerful operative in the Middle East according to Western sources.
The final scenario is that IRGC commanders stage a coup against the clerical establishment. After over 30 years of disastrous management of the country in all aspects, IRGC commanders are well aware of the profound unpopularity of the clerical establishment. It would thus not be unlikely for the IRGC to plan to present itself as the savior of both the country and the people from the catastrophic reign of corrupt and unpopular mullahs. This in turn may well guarantee the IRGC's own power, at least in the short run. Such an ambitious move would, of course, face many obstacles, primarily within the IRGC itself, making it a possible yet perilous move.
The post-Khamenei internal battle has thus already begun in an emerging new Iran. The West has considerable interests in how this era will be shaped. The question is whether or not it has enough will and farsighted wisdom to abort shortsighted special interests. Realpolitik commands facilitating the emergence of a post-Islamist, open, plural and West-friendly Iranian society.