The cultural adviser to the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) recently raised the idea of a significant reform in the executive structure of the Islamic Republic: the abolition of the presidency and the reinstatement of a prime minister position. Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi said that under such a change, the Iranian parliament would then exercise the authority to remove and replace the head of the government at its discretion and expediency at any moment it finds such a figure unfit to rule.
This was not the first time a transition from the presidential system into a parliamentary one has been brought up by the Islamic Republic's political elite. In October 2011, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke of a distant future when such a change might take place. However, no steps were taken toward implementing the plan. Now, Saffar Harandi's suggestion comes as a significant part in a continuum of comments from IRGC commanders who have been disappointed in the results of the last two presidential elections, which first brought Hassan Rouhani into office and then kept him there.
In a debate broadcast on state TV March 19, Saffar Harandi said the head of the government needs to be appointed by an institution "such as the parliament" that enjoys the powers to "hold him accountable on a daily basis" and "whenever lawmakers find him unfit, they could appoint another person of their choice." The comments expressed open dissatisfaction with Rouhani's performance and, more importantly, showed how Iran's ultraconservatives are seeking to unseat any administration they deem opposed to their own political line.
Those remarks coincided with state-funded Soroush Magazine's interview with IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, where he directly blamed "the choice made by the people" in the presidential election for the current economic woes. Without naming Rouhani, the IRGC commander said today's "problems are not any one [person]'s fault. It’s the people who should have made the right choice. They are the ones who need to act with watchfulness."
He also referred to the controversial live presidential debates aired on state TV in May 2017, where Rouhani and his rivals waged an ugly battle before the eyes of Iranian viewers. Jafari criticized people for electing a candidate for his "eloquence" in the debates and "defeating his rivals" only in verbal exchanges, saying, "If the winner is supposed to be the good orator, then the whole system will be about words." The commander accused the Rouhani government of delivering nothing beyond words and sweet talk. He said, "But the candidate who is the man of real action might not be able to defeat his rivals during debates."
The references made by the IRGC commander were more than explicit. While finding the government to be responsible for the ongoing grievances, he believes that it was voters who made the wrong choice in the 2013 and 2017 presidential polls. Similar opinions echoed by like-minded hard-liners in recent weeks have strengthened the likelihood that such a view is the official stance of the powerful IRGC leadership.
"Today's economic condition is a fruit of the last vote," said Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the IRGC's deputy commander for cultural and social affairs. "If we have any complaints about the economic hardship these days, we are the ones responsible, because we voted for those who pursued a mirage in diplomacy as a solution to the economic problems."
The very same day, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who commands the IRGC's Aerospace Force, called on people to think hard about their future choices. "Whenever we elected qualified officials, we did witness positive outputs. Now, to guarantee a great future for our country, we have to think twice."
Early into his term in office, Rouhani demonstrated sharp differences with the IRGC. In recent years, disputes between the two sides have been fluctuating between very public and top secret. At some points, this has appeared in the form of implicit and sarcastic diatribes. The 2017 presidential debates laid bare the gap in the most explicit form, however. That's where Rouhani accused the IRGC of trying to sabotage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by launching its controversial missile tests.
The key clash between the IRGC and the Rouhani government revolved around the JCPOA back then, with IRGC officials never hesitating to vent their outrage at the deal. With the JCPOA seemingly hitting a dead end now, the commanders are in a stronger position, propagating the argument that Iran's economic failures are rooted in government mismanagement.
Still, given the supportive speech made by the supreme leader in August, a serious scheme to remove Rouhani almost halfway into his second term does not seem to be on the agenda of his die-hard critics. Khamenei's remarks came in reaction to a group of lawmakers who had called for Rouhani's head. "Those who argue that the government has to be removed are playing into the hands of the enemy," Khamenei said.
The current circumstances do not appear to be ripe for an immediate removal of the presidential position as a whole. But the parliamentary elections in 2020 and the presidential polls in 2021 will witness more serious efforts by senior IRGC generals toward a more favorable political atmosphere. They will prepare the ground for altering the fabric of the current parliament and the advent of a new administration, one which is less of a thorn in their side compared with that of Rouhani. That desire, long publicly untold, is now out in the open as it seems hard-line commanders cannot help but express it.