On March 14, 2008, Iranians went to the polls to elect a new parliament, the Islamic Republic's eighth. Iranian authorities claimed near record turn-out, probably an exaggeration since many Iranians said they boycotted. Election results were pre-ordained. The Council of Guardians, which vets candidates for revolutionary fervor and commitment to the founding vision of the Islamic Republic, disqualified nearly all the moderates.
Ayatollah Musavi Tabrizi's experience highlights the arbitrariness of the vetting process: A member of the scientific board of the theological seminaries of Qom, he had his parliamentary candidacy rejected on the grounds of "lack of belief in the Constitution and in Islam." The Council of Guardians, however, had earlier qualified Tabrizi for a seat in the Assembly of Experts, the body of religious leaders who will convene to select the new Supreme Leader upon the death of Ayatollah Ali Khameini. The Council of Guardians also disqualified twenty current and several dozen former parliamentarians.
Adding to suspicions about the fairness of elections was the manner in which authorities announced their outcome. The official state news agency published the official election results 41 minutes before the end of voting. Then, a Council of Guardians decree barred 2,500 elections observers from monitoring the vote and its count, and ignored former president Muhammad Khatami and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi's joint call for a recount in Tehran.
Depending upon how analysts count and categorize, Principalist factions won between 60 and 70 percent of the 290 seats. This group is roughly aligned with the worldview of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although because personal animosities are rife in leadership circles, Principalists do not necessarily follow Ahmadinejad himself.
The formative experience of these hard core ideologues was on the front during the Iran-Iraq War, a conflict that resembled World War I in its style and brutality. Iranian troops were under-equipped, faced trench warfare, and Iraqi chemical attacks. Ahmadinejad's generation sacrificed their youth and often health for the Revolution. When the war ended in 1988, they returned to Tehran and other cities to find revolutionary leaders like Ayatollah ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had grown fat and rich while they sacrificed. They have single-mindedly fought through the system and its myriad power circles to restore the purity of the Revolution.
The 2008 elections confirm the dominance of these war veterans. Indeed, as the work of Danish Defense analyst Ali Alfoneh shows, at no point in Islamic Republic political history have Revolutionary Guardsmen had so much power. Ahmadinejad is a veteran, and appointed many peers to cabinet posts. The incoming parliament is dominated by Revolutionary Guards veterans. Many governors and deputy governors are Revolutionary Guardsmen. Khamenei has appointed Guardsmen to prominent economic posts and to the editorships and management of state newspapers and television.
This creeping coup d'état dominates Iranian political discourse. Newspapers, blogs, and political speeches all debate whether it is proper for the Revolutionary Guards to intervene in politics. Mostafa Tajzadeh, the election headquarters director of the reformist Mosharekat faction, declared a week before the election, "If the people of Iran desire to save the Islamic Revolution from the destiny of the Constitutional Revolution, when armed forces sacrificed the peoples' ideals and aspirations to promote their own inclinations and interests, then…the nation should expel them from the scene in order to preserve the military capacities of the armed forces, and in order to maintain unanimous popular support for the armed forces in the hour of need." Many of the papers, though, have run editorials spinning Revolutionary Guards intervention in politics to be positive.
What does a Revolutionary Guards-dominated Iran mean for Europe and the United States? Ahmadinejad's belligerent rhetoric, Holocaust denial, and Messianic beliefs shocked Western diplomats, but the Iranian president was only vocalizing an ideological strain that permeates the Revolutionary Guards. Far from a rogue faction, the Iran-Iraq War veterans now represent the mainstream within the Islamic Republic's political and economic elite. While Brussels and Washington hope to coerce Iran into the international community with incentives for moderation and perhaps sanctions for defiance, the new Iranian power elite will scoff at any punitive measure—no sanction that Europe would ever contemplate could compare to the hardship these veterans experienced in the trenches. Rather, they will seek to challenge and defy the West at every opportunity, believing if they bring the West and Iran to the brink of conflict, a weak West will back down or an ideologically pure Iran will triumph.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.