Is a military coup possible in Iran?

Saeid Golkar,
Al Jazeera, 24 Apr 2018

staff changes and talk of the merits of a ‘military president’ suggest that a
coup might be under consideration.
President Hassan Rouhani is facing declining support among Iranians [AP
Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi]

Since the
beginning of the year, Iran has witnessed persistent protests. In January,
massive demonstrations against the government spread to more than 80 cities in
29 provinces in which at least in 21 people were killed. In early February,
dozens of women were arrested for taking off their head scarves and protesting
against mandatory veiling in Tehran.

Later the
same month, police clashed with members of the Gonabadi Sufi order, which led to
five deaths, according to Gonabadi activists, and hundreds arrested. In late
March, Arabs staged
 in Khuzestan province after a the national TV excluded
their community from a programme about Iran’s ethnic diversity. Then in April,
the security forces cracked down on water shortage protests in Isfahan
province. Labour strikes in various cities across the country have also
from these protests, the Islamic Republic has been facing numerous
social-economic and political problems, including a rapidly depreciating
currency, worsening droughts and deepening military involvement in Syria. At
the same time, the government has not been able to alleviate many of the root
causes of these issues. 
It is
amid these heightened tensions that the possibility of a coup against the
current government, whose term expires in 2021, has arisen. There are already
some signs that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could be moving in
that direction if Ayatollah Khamenei orders them to do so.
government losing political capital
There is
a growing consensus among Iranian political elites who believe implementing
radical reforms is the only solution to these crises. But reforms seem very
unlikely since Iran’s dual political structure is in deadlock.  
elected bodies of the regime, including the president and the parliament are
incapable of creating any meaningful change because their powers are limited by
the system in place. At the same time, the unelected bodies, including the
supreme leader, the judiciary, and security forces, which enjoy vast political
powers, believe that it is the government’s incompetency that is causing the
current problems.
serious reform of the system could undermine the supreme leader’s position
of power. Since Ayatollah Khamenei was selected as the new supreme leader in
1989, he has had sporadically tumultuous relationships with all the presidents
who have served during his tenure, regardless of their ideological leanings. He
has shown a deep desire to monopolise power and maintain the status quo. It is
a common belief among
Iranian observers that as long as Ayatollah Khamenei is in the power, change is
At the
same time, the political capital Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used to enjoy
with the supreme leader has seriously declined. Back in 2013, Ayatollah
Khamenei found Rouhani an acceptable candidate for the presidential post
because he needed a moderate political figure to reach an agreement with the
West over Iran’s nuclear programme and have the sanctions dropped.
But the
escalating political hostility coming out of Washington is hurting the Iranian
government, which risks losing its credibility if the US exits the nuclear deal
and imposes a new round of sanctions on Iran. Also, Rouhani has gradually
become unpopular among Iranians who have lost hope for the possibility of
meaningful changes. His new liberal economic policies have already hurt the
Iranian poor and lower middle classes. 
If the
situation gets worse and the stability of the clerical regime is endangered,
Ayatollah Khamenei has the power to overthrow Rouhani’s administration.
Hardliners in the Iranian regime believe that self-reliance and resistance
against the hegemonic powers of the West can solve Iran’s problems. Ayatollah Khamenei
could decide that the best plan of action at this time is to remove moderates
from power and install hardliners.
in the IRGC and the idea of a ‘military president’
commander-in-chief, Ayatollah Khamenei controls all of Iran’s armed forces,
including the IRGC, the volunteer militia Basij, and Iran’s military. The IRGC
and the Basij are especially loyal to the supreme leader, who has massively
invested in them since 1989, when he took office.
In recent
months, there have been quite a few unusual changes in the political leadership
of these institutions that suggest that Ayatollah Khamenei is preparing the
IRGC for a possible mission. 
In early
March, Hojjat al-Islam Ali Saidi, who served as Ayatollah Khamenei’s
representative to the IRGC, was appointed as
his representative to Iran’s armed forces. The main functions of
the representative is not only to work as the eyes and ears of the supreme
leader, but also to justify his orders among military personnel and ensure they
will blindly obey them. In his new position, Saidi will control all
the ideological and political bureaus in all branches of Iran’s armed
forces. His deputy in the IRGC, Abdullah Haji Sadeghi, a radical cleric
and very loyal to the supreme leader, took over his previous position.
Also in
March, General Yadollah Javani, another Khamenei loyalist who was
previously Saidi’s adviser, was appointed as the political deputy of
the IRGC. Both Saidi and Javani played a key role in the suppression of
the 2009 mass protests known as the Green Movement. 
these appointments mean is that Ayatollah Khamenei is strengthening his
political grip over the Iranian military so if the time comes for action
to be taken, he has the complete obedience of the officer corps.
He seems
to be getting the IRGC ready for one of two scenarios: one, in the short term,
if the crisis gets worse, the Guard would overthrow Rouhani’s administration;
two, if the situation stabilises, Rouhani will be allowed to finish his term
and thereafter the IRGC would install a military president.
At the
same time, over the past few months, a number of outspoken hardliners have
started talking about how having a military president could resolve Iran’s
domestic and regional problems. Some have gone as far as suggesting Qassem
Suleimani for the position, as well as other IRGC leaders. In 2016, Suleimani rejected
that he would run in the presidential vote of that year;
this year, however, polls show
he is more popular than Rouhani. 
These discussions of
the possibility of a “military president” may aim not only to gauge
public opinions towards this idea but perhaps also break its taboo among
While it
is impossible to predict Ayatollah Khamenei’s decisions, it is quite likely
that in the coming months the crisis in Iran will deepen due to both
international and domestic factors, which could prompt the supreme leader to
take action against the government.