The history of the revolution shows us that anyone that wanted to transform the establishment and halt the revolution has withered. These are the words of former IRGC commander Major General Muhammad Ali Jaffari, echoing the role of a deep state in Iran’s internal politics.
The history of the Middle East is much aware of the presence of a deep state in the region. Considered as the birthplace of the term deep state, the region has a strong presence of it with distinct features.
Read more: The deep state’s long enmity toward Iranians
The region’s most modern history is full of authoritarian rule and the deep state is a strong enigma with roots in powerful regional states. It takes time, energy, and sharp observation to explore whether it’s a myth or a deepening reality.
The expression “Deep State” has its origin in the Turkish phrase ‘derin devlet.’ Similarly, the modern concept of a deep state has also been associated with Turkey. It was a secret Turkish network of armed forces officers and some civilians designed to protect the secular Turkish republic formed on the ideas of Kamal Atta Turk.
The term deep state is a negative connotation that has no agreed scholarly definition. Many refer to it as “state within a state” as it operates against the modern concept of state. Most scholars concede that a deep state is a shadowy kitchen network that operates covertly without a dictated mandate.
According to historian Ryan Gingeras, professor at Naval Postgraduate School and Ottoman historian, the deep state is “a kind of shadow or parallel system of government in which unofficial or publicly unacknowledged individuals play important role in defining and implementing state policy.”
Deep state in the Middle East
With the region’s history full of strong authoritative rule where political power rests in hands of few unelected authorities, the deep state is the first to be born.
Since its first presence in Turkey, a successor of the Ottoman empire, the deep state has evolved and grown into other regional countries later. A network of a secret alliance born out of the efforts of Kamal Atta Turk to keep Turkish secularism alive.
According to Economist magazine, the Turkish deep state is a “network of individuals in different branches of government, linked to retired generals and organized crime that exited without the knowledge of high-ranking military officers and politicians.”
The deep state was further detected in Egypt as the democratic government of Muhammad Morsi came in aftermath of the Arab Spring. The Egyptian deep state composed of old bureaucracy, military, and secret services undermined the elected government of Muslim brotherhood.
The goal was to return to a military-dominated system which was achieved when the army chief and the then defense minister Abdel Fattah al Sisi took over the country in the 2013 coup.
Similarly, the deep state in Iraq under Saddam, and Libya under Qaddafi remained active during authoritarian rule because the Iraqi deep state was a system of patronage and network to keep the state intact.
The Libyan deep state had mostly the secret duties to carry out. To keep control of the disobedient population, power-sharing amongst the elite and crushing the opposition were few of the assigned activities.
Although, both states were so weakened that their state structure fell to the point where its deep state failed to bring it back. Iraq is weakened by ISIS and sectarian conflicts Meanwhile, Libya is in its 10th year of civil war, with no end in sight.
IRGC’s growing influence
The Iranian deep state is composed of “security services, revolutionary powers, economic structures” whose single goal is to preserve the 1979 Islamic revolution and security of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Many of the analysts believe that the Iranian deep state consists of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). However, it must be kept in mind that there are other important players in this deep game. The office of the Supreme Leader, Iran’s religious clergy, and the judiciary are the power brokers in Islamic Iran.
It is also evident from the fact that IRGC’s influence is growing deep within Iranian politics, economy, and society. IRGC since the 1979 revolution has evolved into a strong institution with direct links to the Supreme Leader’s office.
The story of the Iranian deep state is a competition between elected bodies such as the executive and legislative branches especially the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the unelected bodies camouflaged as the deep state.
The survival of the Islamic Revolutionary system is the paramount objective of the deep state. To keep this system safe from internal and external threats, the deep state has a stronghold on Iran’s key policy decisions.
This is embodied in Iran’s political system, the rule of Vilayat-e-Faqi, regional proxy influence, and anti-American & Anti-Israeli posture. The deep state has succeeded so far to achieve its goal by maintaining dominance in Iran’s economic and security structure.
Rouhani’s government in conflict
With the deep state’s continued control of state policies and the future trajectory of the Islamic Republic, there remained strong friction. President Rouhani, since coming to office in 2013, has tried to curtail the influence of the deep state.
Albeit unsuccessful, his government stuck to its manifesto of reforms. In the 2017 reelection campaign, President Rouhani accused the deep state and associated entities of spreading wide corruption, mismanagement, and interference to block his efforts to reform.
Moreover, Former President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2016 JCPOA and the administration’s maximum pressure campaign have devastated the Iranian economy. The deep state has accused President Rouhani and his reformist of the country’s economic woes.
Equally important is the recently leaked audiotape of Iran’s top diplomat Javed Zarif. The tape exposed the internal struggle and effort to control the country’s foreign policy and Mr. Zarif’s comments that Iran’s military (IRGC) has got hold over the country’s foreign policy.
In the leaked audio, the Iranian foreign minister was critical of former IRGC commander Qoseim Suleimani, assassinated by the US in 2020. He reveals that the slain commander tried to sabotage Iran’s nuclear deal (JCPOA).
He also opened a new debate around Iranian presence in Syria and Iraq. According to Mr. Zarif, Suleimani moved military equipment and armed personnel into Syria without the knowledge of the elected government of President Rouhani.
With such power in hand and the coming election in June 2021, a new opportunity for the deep state is created. As reformist Presiden Rouhani’s performance has been hindered by harsh US sanctions, the hardliners are coming forward aggressively to play their role to lead a country.
The former IRGC commanders have jumped into the political field and are running for president. It’s still early to predict the future. However, if such hardliners come to the president’s office, the Iranian deep state will benefit more.
It is clear that Iranian leadership is divided and when it comes to diplomacy, the diplomats take a backseat and the military comes forward. Under this situation, what defines Iran’s relations with the west depends on how much the country’s deep state is satisfied.
The author has graduated in International Relations from NUML, Islamabad. He works as a sub-editor at Pakistan Strategic Forum, an online defense portal. He tweets @smalinaqvi05. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.