Is a military coup possible in Iran?
IRGC staff changes and talk of the merits of a ‘military president’ suggest that a coup might be under consideration.
Since the beginning of the year, Iran has witnessed persistent protests. In January, massive demonstrations against the government spread to more than 80 cities in 29 provinces in which at least in 21 people were killed. In early February, dozens of women were arrested for taking off their head scarves and protesting against mandatory veiling in Tehran.
Later the same month, police clashed with members of the Gonabadi Sufi order, which led to five deaths, according to Gonabadi activists, and hundreds arrested. In late March, Arabs staged protests in Khuzestan province after a the national TV excluded their community from a programme about Iran’s ethnic diversity. Then in April, the security forces cracked down on water shortage protests in Isfahan province. Labour strikes in various cities across the country have also persisted.
Apart from these protests, the Islamic Republic has been facing numerous social-economic and political problems, including a rapidly depreciating currency, worsening droughts and deepening military involvement in Syria. At the same time, the government has not been able to alleviate many of the root causes of these issues.
It is amid these heightened tensions that the possibility of a coup against the current government, whose term expires in 2021, has arisen. There are already some signs that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could be moving in that direction if Ayatollah Khamenei orders them to do so.
A government losing political capital
There is a growing consensus among Iranian political elites who believe implementing radical reforms is the only solution to these crises. But reforms seem very unlikely since Iran’s dual political structure is in deadlock.
The elected bodies of the regime, including the president and the parliament are incapable of creating any meaningful change because their powers are limited by the system in place. At the same time, the unelected bodies, including the supreme leader, the judiciary, and security forces, which enjoy vast political powers, believe that it is the government’s incompetency that is causing the current problems.
Any serious reform of the system could undermine the supreme leader’s position of power. Since Ayatollah Khamenei was selected as the new supreme leader in 1989, he has had sporadically tumultuous relationships with all the presidents who have served during his tenure, regardless of their ideological leanings. He has shown a deep desire to monopolise power and maintain the status quo. It is a common belief among Iranian observers that as long as Ayatollah Khamenei is in the power, change is unlikely.
At the same time, the political capital Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used to enjoy with the supreme leader has seriously declined. Back in 2013, Ayatollah Khamenei found Rouhani an acceptable candidate for the presidential post because he needed a moderate political figure to reach an agreement with the West over Iran’s nuclear programme and have the sanctions dropped.
But the escalating political hostility coming out of Washington is hurting the Iranian government, which risks losing its credibility if the US exits the nuclear deal and imposes a new round of sanctions on Iran. Also, Rouhani has gradually become unpopular among Iranians who have lost hope for the possibility of meaningful changes. His new liberal economic policies have already hurt the Iranian poor and lower middle classes.
If the situation gets worse and the stability of the clerical regime is endangered, Ayatollah Khamenei has the power to overthrow Rouhani’s administration. Hardliners in the Iranian regime believe that self-reliance and resistance against the hegemonic powers of the West can solve Iran’s problems. Ayatollah Khamenei could decide that the best plan of action at this time is to remove moderates from power and install hardliners.
Changes in the IRGC and the idea of a ‘military president’
As commander-in-chief, Ayatollah Khamenei controls all of Iran’s armed forces, including the IRGC, the volunteer militia Basij, and Iran’s military. The IRGC and the Basij are especially loyal to the supreme leader, who has massively invested in them since 1989, when he took office.
In recent months, there have been quite a few unusual changes in the political leadership of these institutions that suggest that Ayatollah Khamenei is preparing the IRGC for a possible mission.
In early March, Hojjat al-Islam Ali Saidi, who served as Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to the IRGC, was appointed as his representative to Iran’s armed forces. The main functions of the representative is not only to work as the eyes and ears of the supreme leader, but also to justify his orders among military personnel and ensure they will blindly obey them. In his new position, Saidi will control all the ideological and political bureaus in all branches of Iran’s armed forces. His deputy in the IRGC, Abdullah Haji Sadeghi, a radical cleric and very loyal to the supreme leader, took over his previous position.
Also in March, General Yadollah Javani, another Khamenei loyalist who was previously Saidi’s adviser, was appointed as the political deputy of the IRGC. Both Saidi and Javani played a key role in the suppression of the 2009 mass protests known as the Green Movement.
What these appointments mean is that Ayatollah Khamenei is strengthening his political grip over the Iranian military so if the time comes for action to be taken, he has the complete obedience of the officer corps.
He seems to be getting the IRGC ready for one of two scenarios: one, in the short term, if the crisis gets worse, the Guard would overthrow Rouhani’s administration; two, if the situation stabilises, Rouhani will be allowed to finish his term and thereafter the IRGC would install a military president.
At the same time, over the past few months, a number of outspoken hardliners have started talking about how having a military president could resolve Iran’s domestic and regional problems. Some have gone as far as suggesting Qassem Suleimani for the position, as well as other IRGC leaders. In 2016, Suleimani rejected suggestions that he would run in the presidential vote of that year; this year, however, polls show he is more popular than Rouhani.
These discussions of the possibility of a “military president” may aim not only to gauge public opinions towards this idea but perhaps also break its taboo among Iranians.
While it is impossible to predict Ayatollah Khamenei’s decisions, it is quite likely that in the coming months the crisis in Iran will deepen due to both international and domestic factors, which could prompt the supreme leader to take action against the government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.