Iran's Hardline Generals Line up to Replace Hassan Rouhani as President

Prominent members of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are lining up for this summer's presidential election, which marks the end of moderate President Hassan Rouhani's term and likely a pivot to a more combative and inflexible regime in Tehran.

IRGC figures are hoping to capitalize on a conservative wave, buoyed by the failure of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, former President Donald Trump's punitive "maximum pressure" campaign on Tehran, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's desire to secure the future of the Iranian theocracy.

American sanctions and diplomatic isolation have choked Iran's economy, which has also struggled to stay afloat amid the chaos unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Rouhani's moderate government has brutally crushed unrest, throttling internet connectivity and freeing security forces to gun down dissenters in the streets. Rouhani's landmark JCPOA deal was supposed to bring prosperity to Iran, but even before Trump torpedoed it the accord's benefits remained elusive.

There remains strong opposition to the theocratic regime in Tehran, but within the narrow confines of Iran's managed democracy, the conservatives—including the influential ideologues within the IRGC—are in the ascendency.

U.S. duplicity and belligerence has empowered the hardliners who always warned against the deal. For them, Trump's term was all the proof needed that Americans cannot be trusted to respect any deal, regardless of what party they represent.

Conservative candidates swept last year's parliamentary elections—though they were helped by historically low turnout—and have since been lambasting Rouhani's government for its overtures to the U.S. and its support for the JCPOA.

Lawmakers have even brought legal action against the administration for trying to water down the parliamentary legislation expanding the country's nuclear program in response to the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, reportedly by Israeli agents.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed internal conflict for the failure of the JCPOA. "Some people believe it is dangerous to negotiate with America, while others think that all interests are in this, but with the wisdom of Khamenei this taboo has been broken," Zarif said. "We negotiated the nuclear deal with America, which was defeated, not us."

Domestic rather than international trends, though, are the prime drivers behind the conservative swing. Khamenei is 81 years old, and wants to secure the future of the Islamic revolution and ensure an orderly and ideologically pure transition of power to whoever comes next.

June's presidential election will mark the end of Rouhani's time in office. It is widely assumed that the next president will be a conservative, and IRGC candidates are among those with their eyes fixed on the executive.

Among the expected candidates is one of the IRGC's youngest generals, Saeed Mohammad, who until his resignation this week, was the commander of the IRGC's Khatam al-Anbiya engineering body.

The young general would fit the "young and ideologically hardline" criteria set out by Khamenei, and his rise to the top of the powerful Khatam al-Anbiya shows he is trusted by the ayatollah.

Mohammad—who holds a PhD in civil engineering—is not believed to have had significant direct combat experience during his time with the IRGC. Rather Mohammad rose through the organization on his technocratic and educational credentials, according to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change helping shape and expand the lucrative economic operations of the IRGC.

Billboards declaring Mohammad's long service and ideological commitment have already appeared in Tehran and other cities as the election approaches and Mohammad increases his media profile.

Other candidates drawn from the IRGC include Hossein Dehghan—a former IRGC air force brigadier general who served as Rouhani's defense minister in the president's first administration; and Parviz Fattah—an IRGC member who currently heads the powerful Khamenei-run Mostazafan Foundation charity, recently put under sanctions by the Treasury Department.

Dehghan, now a military advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is lobbying against suggestions that the next president should not be drawn from the military. Dehghan told the ISNA news agency this week there is no reason to exclude IRGC or other military candidates. "The law does not prohibit a military person from running in the election," Dehghan said.

Brigadier General Ismail Kowsari—an adviser to IRGC chief Major General Hossein Salami—has also been lobbying on behalf of the military. "People should not be intimidated" by the idea of an IRGC president, Kowsari has said according to BBC Persia.

An IRGC capture of the presidency could present Biden with a more hostile negotiating environment, and might see Iran double down on the weapons programs and regional proxy operations that have prompted outrage in Washington, D.C.

Already Biden is struggling to bring Tehran back to the table while grappling with JCPOA opposition from Republicans and U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Rouhani and his top officials have repeatedly warned Biden that the window to JCPOA revival is closing.

With the president's imminent exit, it remains to be seen whether his successor would be willing to deal with the U.S. to secure sanctions relief or set Iran on another path, away from diplomacy and focusing instead on military strength and deterrence.

IRGC members in parliament in Tehran
Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps listen to a speech in parliament in Tehran on October 7, 2018. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images