For many Iranians, the name “Mohsen Rezaei” is closely associated with memories of the bloody war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, thanks to his role at the top of the Iranian military during that conflict. Widely seen as a cat’s paw of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he is in many ways the ultimate insider, and an advocate of the need to reform the Iranian economy, if not its political system.
While it was his role as the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that first brought him into the public eye, he moved sideways into the power structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1997, following a decree by Iran’s supreme leader appointing him the secretary of the Expediency Council. This body, chaired by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, is charged with advising the supreme leader and mediating between Iran’s parliament and the influential Guardian Council.
Rezaei oversaw the macro-economic committee during his tenure on the Expediency Council. In addition, he supervised the basic studies that prepared Iran’s Twenty-Year Economic Perspective, a “road map” for Iranian economic, social and political development that was published in 2005.
Perhaps most significantly, Mohsen Rezaei is a key and trusted member of Ayatollah Khamenei’s inner circle. In a speech to IRGC commanders in 1990, Ayatollah Khamenei spoke of the depth of his trust in Rezaei: “I do trust in you and like you from the bottom of my heart. If anybody has heard anything but this, you must know he hasn’t understood [what I meant] properly or has been prejudiced.”
Mohsen Rezaei began his career as the commander of the IRGC at the age of 27, apparently appointed by order of Ayatollah Khomeini despite his youth. He served in this role for 16 years, including during the Iran–Iraq War.
“Our brother, Mr. Rezaei, is a true warrior in the way of Allah. We thank God that he has been active in the battlefield and all other fields since before the war [with Iraq] and since the very first day of the war. He is a highly competent man,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in 1990.
In 1989, following the end of hostilities, Rezaei divided the IRGC into separate Air, Ground and Naval forces and established Imam Hossein University, which remains affiliated with the IRGC.
With the help of the engineering units of the IRGC, Rezaei also founded the Khatam-ul Anbiya construction firm in 1989, a military construction organization that has undertaken several large government construction contracts across Iran.
Alleged role in Argentina attacks
In November 2006, an Argentinian judge issued international arrest warrants for Mohsen Rezaei and six other Iranian officials, based on accusations that they were involved in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center, AMIA, in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people.
Rezaei’s name was subsequently placed on the official “Wanted” list maintained by Interpol in March 2007. Rezaei himself has always denied any involvement in the attacks.
In February 2012, Rezaei’s name was removed from the Interpol list after Argentinean president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner reported that Argentina and Iran would form an independent committee to investigate the 1994 explosions at the AMIA centre.
A death in the family—and international intrigue
Mohsen Rezaei’s eldest son, Ahmad, was found dead in a hotel in Dubai on November 13th, 2011. He had defected in 1998 to the United States, and sought political asylum. He also created a scandal by giving interviews in which he criticized the Iranian government and implicated his father in the AMIA bombing. In 2005, Ahmad returned to Iran and recanted his previous statements.
The cause of his death has been described variously by different sources, ranging from homicide to suicide by overdose on anti-depressant medication. Unsurprisingly, it has remained a source of rumors both inside Iran and out whenever Rezaei’s name is mentioned. An Iranian official told Mehr news agency in November 2011 that Ahmad Rezaei’s death in Dubai was “suspicious.”
Rezaei says that if elected president he will continue the talks with the P5+1, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, over Iran’s nuclear program.
In an interview on the outskirts of Tehran reported by Press TV, Rezaei said: “We will continue negotiations in the next administration, but in a constructive way. In fact, talks should be based on national interests and values of the [Islamic] Revolution.”
“So far, the negotiations have been accompanied by the intensification of sanctions and in this regard we must change the course of the negotiations,” Rezaei said.
Stance on the Holocaust and the Arab–Israeli conflict
Rezaei has sought to defuse international tensions arising from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial statements on this issue. At the beginning of the 2009 presidential elections, in which Rezaei was a candidate, he publicaly criticized Ahmadinejad’s comments on the Holocaust, describing them as “not useful” in improving Iran’s international standing and in seeking a resolution between Israel and Palestine.
In an interview broadcast on June 1, 2009 on the Iranian news channel IRINN, he said: “We should not just say all the time that we support democracy, and that the Palestinian people should hold a referendum. Instead, we should take action with regard to this initiative. When we come to power, God willing, our first plan with regard to Palestine … We will put aside the issue of the Holocaust and all that, because this should not be part of the political discourse at all.”
“Our plan is to demand that the UN hold a referendum among the Palestinians as soon as possible, and we will progress step by step in this direction,” he added.
Third time lucky?
Friday’s poll will be the third consecutive election in which Mohsen Rezaei’s name appears on the list of candidates. To date, he has found very little backing from the Iranian electorate. He was a presidential candidate in 2005, but withdrew his candidacy shortly before polls were due to open. Rezaei also stood in the 2009 presidential election, but collected less than 2% of the vote. It was during this election that he proposed the idea of a coalition government.
According to Mohsen Rezaei’s website, he officially announced his candidacy for the presidential elections in March while in Iran’s Kurdistan region of Divandareh. He is quoted as saying: “I was asked many times to announce my candidacy in Tehran and to use the full reach of the media, but my approach is to focus on the growth and development of the entire country and focus on solving the people’s problems.”
His campaign slogan is the “government of inclusion and society of hope.” He has also stressed on many occasions that if elected, he intends to make economic issues a central focus of his government.
Rezaei has stated frequently that he considers the mismanagement of Iran’s central government to be the major obstacles to prosperity, and has proposed reducing both its powers and the scope of its economic activities in a program of free-market reforms.
In an interview published on his own website, Mohsen Rezaei says: “In order to fight against the sanctions and remove them, Iran must speed up its economic growth. The continuation of sanctions for the next twenty years is not in Iran’s interests.
“Only 30% of the present problems are caused by the sanctions and the rest is due to the mismanagement of the government. The scene of war begins in the alleys, streets, farms, factories, universities, schools and families, and, as in the past, will not be limited to the borders.”
In an interview with Associated Press in 2009, Rezaei said he hopes to bring order to Iran’s economy, promote privatization, guarantee foreign investment, and stop government interference.
As a candidate, he has proposed the formation of a federal economy in Iran, and supporting domestic producers by delegating economic authority to the country’s provinces.
• 1954: Born September 9, in Masjed Soleyman, south-west Iran.
• 1980: Joins the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
• 1981–1997: Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC.
• 1997–present: Secretary of the Expediency Discernment Council.
• 2001: Receives PHD in economics from Tehran University.
This article is part of a series of Asharq Al-Awsat profiles of the Iranian presidential candidates.