Revealed: the shadowy wing of the IRGC rigging Iran’s presidential vote

New research shows the growing control exercised by the previously obscure Baqiatallah Headquarters


Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, casts his ballot during the runoff presidential election in Tehran (Photo: Getty Images)

Britain should sanction a shadowy wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for rigging Iran’s elections, a new report has argued.

Research from the United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) policy group based on original files obtained from the Islamic regime has revealed that the Baqiatallah Headquarters are behind efforts to ensure Iran’s clerical regime maintain control over the nation’s presidential selection.

Triggered after the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash last month, the poll is being held today.

It is being contested by conservative frontrunners Saeed Jalili and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, former heart surgeon and reformer Massoud Pezeshkian, who has criticised Iran’s morality police, and former prosecutor Mostafa Pourmohammadi. 

Just six candidates, two of whom later dropped out, were permitted to run out of more than 80 applicants screened before the campaign by the hardline Guardian Council.

While more than 61 million Iranians are eligible to vote, millions are expected to boycott the poll over expectations that it will not be a fair vote.

Previously a clumsy process, prior efforts at election rigging by the IRGC triggered public outrage and protests, including the 2009 Green Movement in which demonstrators demanded the removal of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office.

The IRGC, formed following the 1979 Islamic revolution to safeguard the new regime from internal dissent, has swollen into a hugely powerful body able to control large sections of Iranian society and plot terror attacks abroad.

In the past five years, the process by which Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, masterminds supposedly democratic polls has been streamlined, however. 

That is largely due to the work of an obscure faction within the Islamic regime known as the Baqiatallah Social and Cultural Headquarters, UANI write.

“Today’s presidential election in Iran is nothing more than a mafia-like tussle between Khamenei-controlled oligarchic clans competing for greater resources,” the report’s co-author Kasra Aarabi said.

“The outcome is highly engineered by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will ultimately select the next president. Until now, most of the focus has been on the Guardian Council’s hand in manufacturing the vote.”

Aarabi, the director of IRGC research at UANI, said the previously unexposed arm of the Revolutionary Guard is now playing a “leading role” in the electoral rigging process.

“The shadowy Baqiatallah Headquarters is now acting as the IRGC’s main institution and apparatus for suppressive cultural and political operations,” he said.

Iran’s senior clerical leadership, including Ayatollah Khamaini, consider it vital to maintain control over elections because their project is not yet complete, the report states.

On taking office following the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran’s current supreme leader, then the deputy of Ayatollah Khomeini, said the regime had four goals: an Islamic revolution, creating an Islamic regime, creating an Islamic government, and creating an Islamic civilisation.

While the first two have been secured, in the eyes of the hard line conservatives ruling Iran, the latter two have not.

In order to maintain strict social control and advance their project, the Baqiatallah Headquarters were put under the control of Mohammad Ali Jafari, a former IRGC commander with a track record of brutally suppressing protests, in 2019.

Under his leadership, the organisation has become an “umbrella entity,” UANI say, with the regime’s cultural, social and propaganda projects now under one roof.

This has been achieved by the creation of a “middle ring” of enforcers within Iranian society, who act at a local level but report directly to the heights of the Islamic regime.

Internal documents obtained by UANI reveal that the Baqiatallah Headquarters aim to organise at least four million Iranians into 800,000 small groups across the nation.

In some cases groups will be created from scratch, while in others regime supporters will be told to infiltrate existing bodies.

The regime will therefore be able to operate within civil society, carrying out so-called “fire at will” operations that might range from forcing women to wear the hijab to rigging elections.

“Members of the ‘Middle Ring’ are recruited, trained, and organised by the IRGC and occupy key election monitoring and administrative roles, enabling widespread electoral fraud through vote-buying, forging ballots, and manipulating voter registrations,” said Saeid Golkar, a UANI senior advisor and the report’s co-author.

Via the Baqiatallah Headquarters, these millions of regime functionaries can be directed by the central Iranian state.

According to the documents examined by UANI, such a strategy is necessary because much of regular civil society does not support the Islamic regime.

In 2022, widespread protests were launched against Iran’s clerical leadership after the killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman murdered in police custody.

According to human rights groups, the crackdown following her death killed 500 people.

The Baqiatallah Headquarters are now also playing a key role in ensuring the regime’s preferred candidates win elections.

UANI writes that the organisation helps to vet individuals before they run, as well as intimidating opponents and coordinating supporters of the supreme leader.

Golkar added: “In June’s presidential election the role of the Baqiatallah Headquarters in influencing the outcome will have occurred not just in the run up to the vote, but also on election day when it will engage in voter intimidation, co-optation, and ballot manipulation.”

During parliamentary elections held in March, there were reports that votes had been bought in exchange for food and aid packages, while in other cases people faced threats of violence around polling stations.

Baqiatallah Headquarters members have also taken jobs counting votes themselves or have volunteered for jobs observing the count.

They are then able to forge signatures, spoil ballots, and insert fraudulent votes, UANI claim.

“To counter Khameini and the IRGC’s plan and to protect against human rights violations in Iran, the US and its allies should immediately sanction the Baqiatallah Headquarters, its leadership, affiliates and apparatus,” the report states.

Britain and the European Union can use their respective human rights abuse sanction authorities against this entity.

The British government has until now resisted pressure to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety, though the Labour party say they will do so if they win power next week.

According the Daily Telegraph, they plan to bring in a “bespoke” proscription mechanism to make it easier for “state-based actors” to be formally declared as terror groups.

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