Iran File

The Iran File is an analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.

Iran File: Ghalibaf empowers Iran’s coercive apparatus

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Hardliners in Iran are allocating more resources toward internal repression, which may intensify further after the upcoming presidential election in June. These hardliners are tied to Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) leadership and have historically supported brutal repression. Hardline Parliament Speaker and senior IRGC officer Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and his political allies have allegedly altered Iran’s 2021–22 annual budget to divert more funds to state security services.[1] They likely seek to enhance the security forces’ capabilities to better control the anti-regime protests that have erupted throughout Iran in recent years. Protests largely driven by economic discontent have fluctuated across the country, particularly during the 2017–18 Dey demonstrations and 2019 gasoline protests. Ghalibaf will likely run for president, and his allies likely seek to replace him in Parliament. They will empower the regime’s most oppressive institutions in the years ahead if they control the presidency and parliament.

The budgetary changes largely support the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Basij Organization—two of the Iranian regime’s most important instruments for social control. The LEF is the Islamic Republic’s national police force and first line of defense against internal threats and has participated in numerous crackdowns against anti-regime protests since 1979. Ghalibaf and his political allies more than tripled a line item pertaining to “strengthening the stamina of defensive [law] enforcement,” among other increases to the LEF’s spending. The Basij Organization is a paramilitary body under the IRGC that organizes regime supporters, indoctrinates members, produces state propaganda, and suppresses political dissent. Ghalibaf almost doubled the Basij’s budget.

Greater funding to the LEF and Basij will enable the regime to impose more oppressive control over its population and better secure itself from internal threats. These security elements could use the additional spending in many ways including:

  • Acquiring better equipment. The LEF, in particular, will likely use its larger budget to purchase military-grade arms and equipment and advanced crowd-control devices. Iran’s Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry is the government body responsible for providing such materials and *has *expanded cooperation with the police force in recent years as protests have mounted.
  • Building more security bases. The LEF and Basij have slowly entrenched their military footprint across Iran over many years and could use greater finances to enhance their pervasive presence. LEF commanders *have called for doubling the number of their facilities in recent years.
  • Supporting security patrols. The LEF and Basij have also increased their cooperation with one another, *instituting joint patrols across Iran to mitigate their lack of bases. They have particularly *emphasized the need to patrol cities’ outskirts and rural communities, where the greatest violence has occurred during recent protest waves.
  • Expanding surveillance infrastructure. The LEF *is installing cameras, many of which have facial recognition capabilities, throughout Iran. These cameras have benign uses, such as traffic monitoring, but also enable the security apparatus to more effectively identify and monitor dissidents and protest activity.

The growing budget of the LEF, in particular, is not new but could intensify as Ghalibaf and his friends consolidate influence. The regime has increasingly invested in the police force in response to Iran’s restive domestic security environment. Parliament nearly doubled the LEF budget for the Persian calendar year that began in 2018—only months after the Dey demonstrations. Funding that year rose to around 16 percent of the Iranian defense budget—more than was allocated toward Iran’s conventional military. Overall defense spending dropped in 2019 due to US economic pressure and the depreciation of the rial. Nevertheless, the LEF’s budget remained stable for the Persian calendar year beginning in 2019, totaling around 17 percent of that year’s military finances. The LEF’s budget again grew to 19 percent for the 2020–21 fiscal year following the gasoline protests. The final budget for the LEF in the 2021–22 period is unclear given the extent to which Ghalibaf obfuscated his changes.

Nevertheless, Ghalibaf’s interference in the latest budget provides clues to how he will wield increased political power in the future. He was not a member of the legislature when the previous LEF budget bumps occurred and only became Parliament speaker in May 2020. This most recent budget was the first that Ghalibaf oversaw, and he chose to alter the spending in an underhanded fashion to benefit an organization that he previously led and likely still favors. Ghalibaf commanded the LEF from 2000 to 2005. He will likely continue prioritizing the expansion and militarization of the LEF if he remains Parliament speaker.

Such preparations are particularly important given that protests could erupt after the presidential election. Iranian leadership remembers the popular unrest that followed the fraud-plagued reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Protesters took to the streets, condemned the Islamic Republic, and stoked concerns of instability among the political establishment. Iran’s rulers are sensitive to the possibility of such mass unrest reoccurring and are likely readying for whatever may follow the coming election.

Ghalibaf may also be preparing to oversee the LEF again after the election—only this time in a different capacity. He will likely announce his candidacy soon. The LEF is part of both the armed forces and the formal government’s Interior Ministry. Ghalibaf would therefore exert some control (but not total control) over the LEF if he wins the election. Moreover, he has deep relationships with the individuals leading the military, such as Armed Forces General Staff Chief Mohammad Bagheri, and would thus likely coordinate with them closely to oversee the LEF.

Ghalibaf’s changes to the budget risk undermining, however, his bid to become president or remain Parliament speaker. Over a third of Parliament *criticized the budgetary reallocations. Ghalibaf requires a parliamentary majority to win reelection as speaker if he does not become president. The political consequences for Ghalibaf’s reallocation move are not yet clear. He may dilute or reverse the budgetary changes if the political opposition seriously jeopardizes his position as Parliament speaker or efforts to become president. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could also order the modification or reversal of these changes, but he has not yet signaled his position on the matter nor have any of his senior advisers on the Guardian Council.

Ghalibaf becoming president or remaining Parliament speaker will likely fuel Iran’s development into an increasingly oppressive state. Khamenei remains the regime’s ultimate political authority, but the president and Parliament speaker are some of his key advisers. They serve on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and manage, to an extent, the regime’s coercive mechanisms along with the rest of the SNSC. Ghalibaf will also likely align more than Hassan Rouhani did with the other SNSC members given that Ghalibaf has intrapersonal relationships with IRGC leadership and is more ideologically hardline. More hardline IRGC generals and cohesion among them will enable the regime’s most authoritarian practices.

[1] The individuals with whom Ghalibaf reportedly cooperated to amend the budget include Parliamentary Budget Compilation Committee Chairman Elias Naderan, Ghalibaf’s adviser for service and development Jamal ol Din Aberoumand, and parliamentarians Malek Shariati Niasar and Mojtaba Tavangar. Naderan and Aberoumand, like Ghalibaf, have ties to the IRGC. Naderan is a longtime parliamentarian and IRGC officer who may work with the IRGC Quds Force. He attended an executive meeting in 2013 of the Reconstruction Organization of the Holy Shrines in Iraq, which the Quds Force controls and uses to facilitate its operations abroad. Aberoumand was the IRGC coordination deputy until 2018 and then the IRGC Soft War Headquarters deputy commander until becoming Ghalibaf’s adviser.

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