(Reuters) - With 10 days until Iran’s presidential election, voters have been able watch the candidates in debate, but many remain unenthused, believing the result will depend not on those on the platform but on powerful men in the background.
The Revolutionary Guards, a military force over 100,000 strong which also controls swathes of Iran’s economy, is widely assumed to have fixed the vote last time around, silenced those who protested and to be preparing to anoint a favored candidate this year, having already narrowed down the field.
The successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who steps down after a second term, will remain subordinate to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And many see the hand of the Guards, the muscle of the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers, in steering victory toward one of several conservative loyalists -while stifling the kind of protests that followed the 2009 vote.
While many of the 75 million Iranians fret about an economy laboring under international sanctions intended to disrupt Tehran’s nuclear program, Guards commanders have made clear in public statements that they will only accept a winner who is both deeply loyal to Khamenei and committed to public order.
“The Revolutionary Guards are going to essentially be the most important force in shaping the outcome of the elections,” said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. If none of the eight candidates wins a majority a week on Friday, the top two will contest a run-off.
But opposition activists, and even some establishment figures, accuse the Guards - originally committed Islamists entrusted with “protecting the revolution” when the Shah fell in 1979 - of already crossing a grey line into overtly political action, notably by intimidating the Guardian Council of jurists and clerics who vet candidates into barring candidates whom the Guards saw as potentially troublesome to their own interests.
In an interview with ISNA news agency in January, Ali Saeedi, the Supreme Leader’s representative to the Revolutionary Guards, created an uproar when he said that it was the duty of the Guards to “engineer reasonable and logical elections”.
Estimated to control businesses handling up to a third of the entire national economy, with members and former members in a variety of powerful posts - as well as among the eight men running for the presidency, and with close to 100,000 more civilian reservists able to agitate among the population, the Guards have many levers to further their institutional goals.
In previous elections, the Revolutionary Guards presented themselves as above the fray, politically neutral and endorsing no one candidate or interfering with the process in any way.
That changed four years ago.
As votes came in and Guards commanders began to fear that Mir Hussein Mousavi, a liberal reformist, might sweep the poll on the back of dismay at economic hardship under Ahmadinejad, they and their paramilitary Basij reservist auxiliaries, stepped in. The opposition complained that ballots from hundreds of polling stations were either dumped or falsified.
When the incumbent was declared the winner by an absolute majority in the first round within hours of the polls closing, many voters were enraged. For days, millions took to the streets across the country to protest. And it was security forces controlled by the Guards who led attacks that silenced the biggest domestic challenge to the establishment in 30 years.
Revolutionary Guard commanders have issued warnings in recent weeks that they will not tolerate similar protests this year. In the capital, residents report heavier security already, with police in riot gear occasionally seen on patrol.
Just how sensitive the security forces are to potential unrest was demonstrated on Saturday during a rally for candidate Hassan Rohani, a cleric and the most moderate figure left in the race. Opposition activists said several people were arrested after some in the crowd chanted slogans in support of Mousavi, who has been under house arrest for more than two years.
“They’ve created a highly intimidating, securitized atmosphere in order to prevent a repeat of the 2009 protests,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Guards’ means are not only negative. They are also well positioned to positively promote any candidate by calling on their vast patronage network, observers say. Beyond the Guards and Basij themselves, millions of Iranians work for the dozens of companies linked to their military command or have ties to the powerful charitable foundations controlled by the Guards.
The ease with which the Guards have interfered in recent elections has rattled even some government officials.
“The military forces should not enter politics,” Ali Mottahari, a stalwart conservative parliamentarian from Tehran, said in an interview with the Qanoun newspaper last week.
“This was the recommendation of the imam, which unfortunately has been trampled on in recent years,” he said, suggesting the Guards’ activities were at odds with the ideas of the founding supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Particularly controversial has been the rejection by the Guardian Council of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president with impeccable revolutionary credentials who is viewed by Khamenei loyalists as having moved close to the opposition.
The Guards did not disguise their satisfaction with the decision of the Council to bar him from running. Last week, a news agency linked to the Guards quoted a former Basij leader, Reza Seraj, saying: “If (Rafsanjani) had been accepted by the Guardian Council, he would have become the symbol of the dialogue for change. And aside from the elections, this would have had heavy and negative repercussions for the regime.”
One opposition website even accused senior Guards figures of pressuring the Council to change an initial decision to allow Rafsanjani to stand. The website, Jonbeshe Rahe Sabz, said the head of the Revolutionary Guards went in person to the Council’s office before it ruled to reject Rafsanjani’s candidacy.
If the general goals of the Guards appear clear, it is less obvious which of the eight candidates they prefer.
One possibility is a former member, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran who commanded the Revolutionary Guard air force from 1997 until 2000. The Mehr news service this week carried a report in which it quoted Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force - a body accused by Western powers of hostile acts abroad - as telling an aide to Khamenei that he personally would vote for Qalibaf.
Qalibaf himself has voiced sentiments in the campaign that may be designed to appeal to his former comrades in the Guards. In a debate on Friday, for example, he defended the role the “military powers” played in Iran’s economy.
But he also faces another former Guardsman, Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator and a wounded veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, who is often hailed by Guards as a “living martyr”.
For many observers, a potential choice between different candidates from the Revolutionary Guards reveals how far the force will remain in control, whoever wins an election that critics say is stage managed by the conservative establishment.
One liberal in his 30s, speaking anonymously from Tehran, said he would not bother voting: “I’m sure there won’t be a fair election. It has always been manipulated.”
Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endowment said: “There is big a question of whether the votes will even be counted. Or whether Khamenei and the IRGC will simply make up the numbers out of thin air - as many suspect that they did in 2009.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald