By Ehsan Mehrabi
April 20, 2019
Mohsen Rezaei was born with the name Sabzevar, but ever since Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, appointed him as Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and called him Mohsen, he has been known by that name. For nearly 40 years, the self-described non-partisan has tried to prove himself in a variety of military, economic, and political capacities, all of which have been met with at best, frustration, and at worst, humiliation.
Hailing from a family of religious Lor nomads from Khuzestan, Rezaei grew up in the oil-rich city of Masjed Soleyman, where his father worked for the National Iranian Oil Company. He attributed special significance to an event that occurred in his childhood working as a shepherd. A passing stranger had taken pity on him, remarking that at his young age his talents would be put to better use in school. The man thereafter took young Mohsen to primary night school and paid for his enrollment. Rezaei would never see the kindly stranger again, but the future IRGC boss would never stop believing that he had changed his life forever.
As a teenager, Rezaei was a member of the Islamist Mansuroon, an armed Islamist rebel group founded in opposition to the Shah of Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, he joined the IRGC and soon thereafter assumed command of its Intelligence Division. It was while serving in this capacity that Rezeai publicly offered his support to Iranian students involved in the US Embassy hostage crisis, assuring them that should US forces attempt a rescue operation, the IRGC would come to their aid.
In 1981, Rezeai was a mere 27 years old when he was appointed to the office of the IRGC’s Commander-in-Chief, a post he would hold longer than anyone else before or since. Initially, his tenure was marked by armed conflict with the fledgling regime’s numerous enemies across the country. During the same period, he also took part in a debate on the side of Seyyed Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president after the revolution, against two members of the communist group the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai, Farokh Negahdar, and Ali Keshtgar, regarding the unrest in the northeast region of Turkmen Sahra of Iran.
As IRGC Commander-in-Chief, Rezaei found himself in near-constant struggle with the regular army (Artesh) over strategy during the Iran-Iraq War. It was likely Rezaei’s own machinations that lead to the eventual dismissal of Ali Ayad-Shirazi, commander of the Iranian Army’s Ground Forces, during the later stages of the conflict.
According to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoir, Rezaei also found himself in heated disagreements with then-president Ali Khamenei, as well as with the head of the Khatam-al-Anbiya Command Center, Hassan Rohani. The latter was a congressman and member of the Guardian Council in parliament, which had discussed strategies for ending the war. After furious objections from Rezaei, the Council meetings were canceled by order of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Before this, Rezaei and other IRGC commanders had lobbied hard for control over the regular Army, aiming to deprive the institution of its independence. It was even said that Rezaei had gone so far as to request a commission as a high-ranking Army officer so that he might have the full resources of the service at his disposal for prosecuting the war effort.
As the conflict with Iraq dragged on, Rezaei emerged as a hardline critic of Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s administration, arguing that insufficient resources were being devoted to the war. Officials within the administration agreed, and soon the government was spending over half of the country’s annual budget on defense alone.
On April 17, 1988, the Iraqi Army delivered a crushing blow by retaking the Al-Faw Peninsula, which had been previously captured by Iran. Hassan Rohani would later say that when Rafsanjani shared news of the defeat with Razaei via telephone, Razaei’s initial response inspired little confidence: “Al-Faw can only be taken back by means of a nuclear bomb!” Rezaei later confirmed the veracity of the anecdote, arguing improbably that since the Iraqis were likely tapping his phone line, he wanted to say something that would demoralize them.
The aftermath of the defeat led to a swirl of false rumors, among them that Rezaei had either fled the country or been arrested for incompetence. Rafsanjani wrote of finding the commander-in-chief at his home crying and clearly shaken by the battlefield losses and public rumors. “He cried a little … I sympathized with him. He wanted to resign, and I asked him to stay a little longer. We agreed that he would give a live address the following day to dispel the rumors and assure the IRGC soldiers.”
Despite the battlefield setbacks, the bloody conflict was in its twilight phase. Ironically, it was Razaei’s famous letter demanding yet more resources for the war that convinced Ayatollah Khomeini to at last accept the UN Security Council Resolution 598, bringing the eight-year war to its conclusion.
After the War
As commander-in-chief following the cessation of hostilities with Iraq, Rezaei presided over the IRGC as it embarked on ambitious projects beyond the scope of purely military affairs. Increasingly, the IRGC’s reach extended into economic and financial spheres, dubbed innocuously as “construction projects” by the Rafsanjani administration. Simultaneously, Rezaei pursued his education, eventually earning a PhD in economics.
In 1997, Rezaei tendered his resignation as Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC to Ayatollah Khamenei. By his own telling, Rezaei did so because he now saw the economy as the main challenge ahead for Iran, which, owing to his own education, he was now abundantly qualified to tackle as a civilian.
Events behind the scenes prior to this event would suggest otherwise. Earlier, Razaei had criticized the paramilitary Ansar Hezbollah group and claimed that one if its leading figures, Hossein Allahkaram, was not an IRGC member. A week later, Allahkaram could be seen decked out in his IRGC uniform with his official rank participating in a military parade.
One ex-member of Ansar Hezbollah, Mohammad Parvazi, stated that Ayatollah Khamenei objected to Rezaei’s tactless criticism, stating “Ansar Hezbollah is my sword. Don’t mess with my sword!”
Parvazi also claimed that, prior to his resignation, Rezaei had expressed concern over the direction of the IRGC, worrying that his own authority had been gradually eclipsed by the Supreme Leader’s representative, Mohammad Ali Movahedi-Kermani and Ansar Hezbollah’s sponsor, Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr. Furthermore, Razaei’s IRGC remained perpetually embattled with Rafsanjani’s administration.
After his departure from the IRGC, Rezaei unsuccessfully ran for office in the fifth Islamic Consultative Assembly election, campaigning against the candidates of the Executives of Construction Party, who were regarded as “liberals” and opposed by the IRGC. Thereafter, Rezaei established an ill-fated organization called “Student House,” which had the stated goal of creating a cultural movement involving people from all parties. Student House failed to gain traction, however, and was not taken seriously by any significant number of students or political groups.
Adding to his professional challenges were problems stemming from within his own family. Rezaei’s son, Ahmad Rezaei, had fled the country and thereafter began voicing heavy criticism against the regime. In subsequent interviews, Rezaei was predictably and routinely confronted with this embarrassment, much to his great annoyance.
Rezaei ran for office again during the sixth Islamic Consultative Assembly election, aiming to run as a candidate for the Islamic Iran Participation List. However, he failed to be included in the party’s final round of candidates.
In 2005, Rezaei sought office again, though this time for the presidency. His platform called for privatization based on the Supreme Leader’s order in Principle 44 of the Constitution. Sensing his prospects were hopeless, he withdrew from consideration just days before the election was held.
Four years later, Rezaei sought the presidency once more, emerging as a strong critic of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he publicly called a liar during the presidential debates. The internationally-criticized election resulted in widespread protests. Among the many grievances were the vote totals for Razaei’s defeated candidacy, which saw progressively decreasing tallies even as more votes were counted. Razaei also complained about this, but only to the Guardian Council.
The year 2013 would be the last attempt at the presidential office for the man who had now become a fixture of the quadrennial race. This attempt, however, was met with intense scorn and lampooning on social media, as people delighted in trolling his campaign. Predictably, it too ended in failure.
In 2015, burned by repeated political defeats and 18 years after his “resignation” from the IRGC, Rezaei once more donned the uniform. As an explanation for his abrupt return to military service, he stated that he had originally left the force to be a caretaker of the economy. “But the economy did not improve,” he said. “The security situation is worse now with the rise of ISIS, and that is why I put on the military uniform again.”
With his old political foes Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroodi gone, the former IRGC commander-in-chief finds himself as one of the main power players in the Expediency Discernment Council, despite objections from congressmen and officials within the current administration.
Mohsen Rezaei may have failed at everything he endeavored in — be it war, the economy, or politics — but for now, the perennial loser of elections is back in the regime. It remains to be seen whether he’ll at long last hit a long-awaited winning streak.