With the election of former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf as speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “Second Phase of the Revolution” is well under way in two of the three branches of government in the Islamic Republic. All eyes have now turned to the presidency, with elections less than one year away.

Unveiled by Iran’s supreme leader in February 2019, the “Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution” seeks to prepare the next generation of Islamist revolutionaries to uphold Khamenei’s hardline vision and prepare the foundations for succession after his demise. At its core, it rests on “young and hezbollahi” (“ideologically hardline”) leadership across the three branches of government, which translates to Khamenei giving these posts to his clerical confidents and members of the IRGC.

In an initial step last year, Ebrahim Raisi was appointed Iran’s chief justice. But with Khamenei’s protégées now in key positions in both the judiciary and Parliament, the focus has shifted to the presidency.

While there is talk of both Ghalibaf and Raisi as frontrunners, having already secured top jobs, the former is unlikely to want to draw renewed attention to allegations of corruption in his past, and the latter has his eyes on a bigger prize: the supreme leadership.

Beneath the surface, however, Parviz Fattah, a member of the IRGC and current head of the Khamenei-run ideological-charitable organization, the Mostazafan Foundation, appears to be the perfect “young and hezbollahi” match. Recent polling within hardline circles showed Fattah among the top four most popular candidates. There is also speculation that the ultra-hardline faction, known as the “Front of Islamic Revolution Stability” (Jebeh Paydari),is on the verge on endorsing him. Indeed, Fattah has been described as “the only star of the Principalists (hardliners)” for the 2021 elections.

Yet, Fattah is relatively unknown outside Iran. So, who is this likely frontrunner and what could the West expect from a potential Fattah presidency?

The IRGC’s man

Born in 1961 into a working-class, religious family in Urmia, Fattah has been described as a “symbol of revolutionary leadership.” Despite staying out of the limelight, the 59-year-old has a wealth of practical experience. This includes being minister of energy during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term (2005-09), as well as heading Khamenei’s richly endowed ideological-charitable foundations: the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (2015-19) and the Mostazafan Foundation (his current position). But underpinning all this experience are his ties to the IRGC.

Fattah is a product of the IRGC. He began his career as a Guardsman on the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), but his links extend well beyond the battlefield. After leaving government in 2009, he became the deputy commander of the IRGC’s construction conglomerate, Khatam al-Anbia, and the executive director of its investment arm, Bonyad-e Taavon-e Sepah. Both of these entities have been blacklisted by the West due to their links to the proliferation of sensitive nuclear equipment — as has Fattah himself, who is on both the U.S. and European Union’s sanctions list. Even after his departure from organs directly controlled by the IRGC, Fattah went out of his way to maintain his close ties, going as far as remaining on its payroll during both his tenure as minister of energy and head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation. Unlike Western militaries, as the IRGC is an ideological armed force organization, its higher-ranking members are not classified as “civilians” once they retire. Fattah therefore remains a Guardsman, despite being out of uniform.

Ideological purist

As an ideological purist, Fattah has rejected the notion that the Islamic Revolution’s ideology can or should evolve. There is only one “school of Imam [Khomeini],” in his view, based on “devotion to the system, supporting the supreme leader, following the path of the martyrs, and never forgetting Imam [Khomeini].” He describes himself as having the “culture of the frontline,” which itself is a reflection of the core tenets of his beliefs: a militant blend of Shi’a Islamism, hinged on divine submission to the supreme leader and supporting the so-called “downtrodden” (mostazafin) class.

Fattah has attested to his total faith in Khamenei. “We must obey the supreme leader like during the war,” he has asserted, recalling how soldiers would volunteer to cross minefields for their love of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. His militaristic obedience to the supreme leader is emblematic of his IRGC DNA and is rooted in the Guard’s “Alavi [Imam Ali] Doctrine.” This doctrine, which calls for blind obedience to Khamenei and is at the heart of the IRGC’s military strategy, is based on the belief that the first divinely ordained Shi’a Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was defeated in 657 CE because of the disloyalty of his troops. Fattah has himself explicitly echoed this, stating “Imam Ali was alone, but today the Supreme Leader is with us and we must obey him.” For Khamenei, Fattah passed the test of loyalty after he publicly denounced his former boss Ahmadinejad for daring to challenge the supreme leader’s will.

While some describe Fattah as having the same traits as Ahmadinejad, in reality he is more akin to his close friend, the late Qassem Soleimani, former IRGC Quds Force commander. Like Soleimani, Fattah has always ensured that no man — including himself — is greater than Khamenei and has demonstrated visible humility akin to submission to his will. Khamenei tends to favor these types of personalities, which are easier to control and less likely to challenge his authority. Fattah is, as he has described himself, merely a “soldier of the velayat [supreme leader].” But, should he become president, what does all this mean practically?

Fattah’s domestic agenda

Fattah’s domestic agenda would almost certainly be defined by increased state support for poorer, religious Iranians — the mostazafin — and furthering the Islamization of Iran. The former would likely range from populist photo-op gestures to cash handouts in a way that would be not too dissimilar from Ahmadinejad. “Taking care of the deprived is the key to the country's problems,” Fattah has asserted. Like other hardline purists, he views the Islamic Revolution as being about supporting the mostazafin, who make up the regime’s traditional support base.

Alongside this, accelerating domestic Islamization would be at the top of the agenda under a Fattah presidency. This would see an authoritarian push to nurture the regime’s all-encompassing Shi’a Islamist ideology across every aspect of Iranian society, with the goal of creating a more radical generation of revolutionaries. This would be in line with Fattah’s previous record and his declaration that “the culture of resistance must be institutionalized in society.”The thrust of this objective would see an even greater domestic role for the IRGC — especially its Provincial Guards— the Basij, and bodies like the Islamic Development Organization, which is tasked with promoting Islam in all fields of life. Fattah’s recent actions demonstrate his willingness to empower the IRGC domestically. In April 2020, he aided its efforts to control Iran’s COVID-19 financial relief response by temporarily ceding the Mostazafan Foundation’s autonomy to the IRGC’s new Imam Hassan Headquarters.

For Khamenei, the prioritization of the mostazafin and domestic Islamization could not be more important today. Since 2017, anti-regime unrest has been led by poorer Iranians, who have suffered most from the country’s ailing economy. The mostazafin have also suffered most from the outbreak of the coronavirus, increasing fears of post-pandemic unrest that could prove fatal for the survival of the system. Simultaneously, the regime is also worried that the human and economic consequences of COVID-19 could affect the ideological commitment of its security forces and in turn reduce their willingness to suppress protests.

While these two issues will undoubtedly dominate the 2021 presidential elections, what sets Fattah apart from other frontrunners is that he can flaunt tangible “results.” Apart from PR stunts like moving the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation from affluent north Tehran to the poorer city center during his tenure as its head, Fattah increased the income of families’ dependent on the foundation’s financial aid by up to 300 percent. Similarly, he worked closely with the head of the Islamic Development Organization to — in his own words — “promote and institutionalize pure Islam in society,” tying aid to cultural Islamization. This included joint projects like the creation of 2,000 “Dar al-Quran Organization” offices nationwide, which are tasked with the goal of “expanding the Second Phase of the Revolution” by “promoting religious principles and values ​​in society to preserve, protect, and strengthen” the regime.

Fattah’s domestic politics are the essence of hezbollahi leadership and given his track record Khamenei would likely view him as a safe pair of hands as president as he seeks to implement his
“Second Phase.”

Foreign policy under a Fattah presidency

A return to core “revolutionary values” at home would almost certainly see the simultaneous adoption of a zealous foreign policy abroad. This would bring an increased commitment to regional militancy and the further militarization of the Islamic Republic — all with the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei, of course.

Again, Fattah is very well placed to achieve this. He has already built a strong personal network across the region, having accompanied the late Soleimani on many of his trips to Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. This includes close ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, and with senior members of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi. Given that the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation’s regional activities often serve as a tool of the IRGC Quds Force’s “soft power,” Fattah will also have worked closely with Quds Force commanders during his tenure as its head. These personal relationships could prove valuable for Khamenei’s ambitions to strengthen the so-called “axis of resistance,” a key pillar of the “Second Phase.” And this could not be more important in the post-Soleimani context, which has seen Tehran struggle to fill the void the Quds Force commander left behind.

Fattah has already asserted that the “path of Qassim Soleimani will continue [and] become stronger,” and should he take office in 2021, funding Iranian-backed militias across the region would likely be a top priority. Together with Ghalibaf, who has committed the new Parliament to increasing support for the “axis of resistance,” this could turbo-charge Tehran’s regional ambitions. While Iran’s ailing economy may not appear to be in the right condition for this — having already lost 15 percent of its GDP due to COVID-19 — the regime, not least the IRGC, has shown no hesitation in prioritizing its ideological objectives over domestic needs. Indeed, Fattah has already demonstrated his willingness to divert money from home to abroad. In February 2020, he revealed that when he headed the IRGC’s Bonyad-e Taavon-e Sepah — which is barred from military spending — he allocated funds to pay the wages of the Fatemiyoun Division, an Iranian-backed Afghan Shi’a militia active in Syria, upon Soleimani’s request.

But what are the prospects for a future deal with Iran under a Fattah presidency? As with all high-level foreign policy decisions, the supreme leader is the ultimate authority. However, the style of presidency can matter, not least for Western policymakers looking to sit around the negotiating table without looking foolish. While Fattah praised the nuclear agreement when it was signed in 2015, his comments should not be overstated as they were merely a reflection of the supreme leader’s position at the time. Unsurprisingly, once Khamenei’s position on the deal changed, so too did Fattah’s. The fact that the ultra-hardline Jebeh Paydari faction, which has made future negotiations with the West its redline, is looking to endorse the Guardsman is an indication of Fattah’s likely approach toward the West. Since the killing of Soleimani, Fattah has been a leading voice calling for “hard revenge” against Washington through military means. There is little doubt that a Fattah presidency would produce an IRGC foreign policy in all but name.

Less than a year remains until Iran’s presidential elections and its importance cannot be overstated. But this is not because the people’s vote matters — the Islamic Republic is, after all, an authoritarian theocracy and its “elections” are nothing more than a rubber stamp. Rather, the election’s significance is rooted in Khamenei’s “Second Phase of the Islamic Revolution” and preparing the ground for his succession. Only one man’s vote — namely, Khamenei’s — is likely to count. It is without question that Fattah will be an attractive choice for the ayatollah. A Fattah presidency would lead to the further consolidation of the IRGC, an escalation of domestic Islamization, and a deepening commitment to Tehran’s regional militancy. These outcomes all meet the requirements of Khamenei’s “Second Phase” and in tandem with Ghalibaf and Raisi will pump young blood into the ayatollah’s ageing ideology.

 

Kasra Aarabi is a non-resident scholar with MEI's Iran Program and an analyst in the Extremism Policy Unit at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, where he works on Iran and Shi'a Islamist extremism. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP via Getty Images