How Khamenei and IRGC are winning Iranians’ support

When it comes to domestic policies, hardliners have been experiencing difficulty in winning the support of the people

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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It goes without saying that a majority of Iranian people, particularly the youth under the age of 30, who constitute more than 60 percent of the country’s 80 million population, disagree with Iran’s domestic policies – besides widespread corruption, economic mismanagement, human rights violations, lack of freedom, and strict social and political rules.

The majority of Iranians have voted for the moderates. When it comes to domestic policies, the hardliners have been experiencing difficulty in winning the support of the people.

But for several reasons, the hardliners – specifically the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Quds force – have been more successful than the moderates. They have successfully used various tactics to rally the public and obtain people’s support to achieve their hidden agenda – regional hegemonic ambitions, and keeping the politico-economic power in the hands of IRGC and Khamenei.

They have been projecting to the Iranian people that because of extremist Sunnis, the Shiites – whether in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, or other countries – would have their very survival threatened without the presence of Iran’s military power, the IRGC and Quds force. IRGC’s presence, role and power are disproportionately being exaggerated.

Iran has been successful at gathering people’s support for its regional military interventions by labeling all these Sunni groups and government as takfiris or terrorists

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Exploitation of sectarian agenda

First of all, the hardliners have been relying indirectly on exploiting the sectarian line of the Sunni versus Shiite, a simplistic and binary dichotomy. As a religious minority in Islam, they have been projecting the Shiite as the victims in a Sunni-majority region. Alongside, they also play the fear and terror card.

They seem to be instilling fear in people’s minds about the “danger”, “terror” and “threat” of the Sunnis taking over the region and Iranian territories. These tactics have frightened many Iranians so much so that they see no option but to support IRGC’s military adventurism, operations, and expansionism in the region.

Secondly, by using the media, they simplistically and masterfully dub all Sunni groups – who have different and diverse ideologies – into one category: terrorists or the takfiris.

They have created a narrative where the words “terrorist” or “takfiri” equal the word “Sunni”. Iran also spreads the narrative that these extremist groups are being supported by the Sunni governments.

In other words, Iran has been successful at gathering people’s support for its regional military interventions by labeling all these Sunni groups and government as takfiris or terrorists.

Khamenei has repeatedly warned of the “high price” that Sunni governments in the region would have to eventually pay for assisting and supporting Sunni groups, even for supporting the Syrian rebels groups which are battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran’s staunchest ally.

Khamenei pointed out: “Unfortunately, some regional countries do not take heed of the danger of takfiri groups, which will threaten them in future and they are still backing these groups.”

The Supreme Leader’s website ( states: “Some of the regional countries are backing the takfiri groups and supporting their massacres and crimes in Syria… Eventually these countries will be forced to eradicate these extremists, with a high price”.

Iran propagates the narrative that all the state or non-state actors – including ISIS, Jubhat al-Nusra, Syrian Sunni opposition groups, rebels, Iraqi Sunni opposition groups, and Sunni governments, are extremists, which are taking over the region and that their goal is to suppress all Shiite communities.

Exaggerating ISIS threat

Iranian hardliners have also exaggerated the power of these groups and their infiltration in Iran. Iranian TV news outlets and newspapers reportedly broadcast dubious reports not only of the horrific acts of Sunnis against Shiite minorities.

They also repeatedly show extremist Sunni fighters, including those from ISIS, being captured in Iran before reportedly carrying out their terrorist mission against Shiite communities.

Finally, powerful Iranian conservative moderates – including Hassan Rowhani and Akbar Rafsanjani – do not dare to challenge Khamenei and the IRGC’s narrative.

If they argue that not all Sunni groups have the same ideology, that Sunni governments do not support groups such as ISIS, or that Sunni opposition groups do not pose a threat to Shiite communities including Iranians, and that their threats to Iranians are exaggerated, then they run the risk of challenging the IRGC and Khamenei.

Such arguments would subsequently weaken Rowhani and Rafsanjani’s power, political position, as well as project them as not being nationalist enough to support Iran’s Shiites against the threat of extremist Sunnis. Khamenei and IRGC leaders believe that diplomacy is not the tool that will advance Iran’s regional ambitions and help maintain its power.

From their perspective, the reason behind the Islamic Republic’s success and expansion over three decades are two issues: Iran’s revolutionary principles and ideology, which can solely be advanced through military adventurism and expansionism of the IRGC and the Quds force, not through diplomatic initiatives.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected], @Dr_Rafizadeh.

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