Militarization of Iran’s Regime Could Bring Opportunities for Engagement

Media attention being paid to the massive overhaul of the Iranian national subsidy system and the sudden dismissal of Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki could be overlooking the possibility of increased stability in Iran as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) consolidates power, write Elliot Hen-Tov and Nathan Gonzalez write on Foreign Policy’s Middle East channel.

Hen-Tov, a a doctoral candidate at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies and Gonzalez, author of Engaging Iranwrite that Iran has actually overcome the typical challenges faced by newly militarized regimes.

On civil-military relations, the Islamic Republic’s unique hybrid system of elected republican elements, combined with appointed theocratic leaders, allowed for a triangular relationship; with an alliance of the clerical elite and the Revolutionary Guards emerging to counter the elected reformists-figures such as reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and presidential candidate and Green Movement figure Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Expanding on the strengthened role of the Revolutionary Guard, they say:

In terms of cycles of bribery, the Revolutionary Guards in Iran have actually become an independent economic player in their own right, distinguishing themselves from traditional praetorian entities. The Guards run a vast industrial complex, as well as illicit smuggling cartels, and thus do not need to please any other interest group.


[W]hile the Guards have moved into other arenas as large commercial players, they have also raised their level of professionalism as a military force in charge of domestic security, asymmetric warfare, the country’s sophisticated ballistic missile arsenal, and a presumed nuclear weapons program. While praetorian militaries eventually lose the capacity to effectively fight interstate wars, Iran only seems to be getting stronger in this arena.

While the IRGC cannot withstand complete economic failure, the Guard Corps’ increased strength could present a greater likelihood for meaningful engagement with the West.

They conclude:

[The IRGC] will no longer feel the need to pander to extreme anti-American ideology to placate domestic factions and it could be more responsive to engagement or coercive initiatives. While this would come at the expense of human rights and freedom inside Iran, it may portend a better future for Iran’s relations with the international community.

While not a pleasant prediction for human rights in Iran, their article asks an interesting question about how an increasingly consolidated Iranian political elite might choose to engage with the West.  While anti-Americanism has played an important role in the domestic political rhetoric in Iran, the shift towards a more authoritarian political structure could have some interesting effects on the role of anti-American ideology in the Iranian political sphere. As the IRGC takes on greater control–and the corresponding responsibility–for the economy, the interests and incentives for the state’s security apparatus may dramatically shift.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.