Children of the Revolution (and their parents)

Posted on June 18, 2009

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This is a great clip from the Rachel Maddow Show, where my current hero Reza Aslan breaks down a bit of the political dynamics driving the post election uprising. One of the more powerful and personally pleasing elements of the narrative crafted by Aslan is the fact that Iran’s people certainly don’t need our help, militarily or diplomatically, to bring down their corrupt government. On a more serious note, its difficult to say if [which increasingly becomes “when”] the current structure falls apart, what will replace it. On that count, I’m not very hopeful, but I do know that US involvement can only make things worse, not better. Aslan comes in at 7 minutes. Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “msnbc.com Video Player“, posted with vodpod

Also, if you want to know a little bit more background on what is driving current events, check out this excerpt from the Middle East Quarterly. The source is centrist, but the information seems to corroborate what I’ve been reading elsewhere. This is the most relevant stuff, but you can read the entire article here:

Rise of the Guards under Ahmadinejad

Iranian presidents can serve only two consecutive terms. On June 24, 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, won a surprise victory in a runoff election to determine who would succeed Khatami. As president, Ahmadinejad distinguishes himself from his predecessors in several regards. Unlike most previous presidents of the Islamic Republic, with the exception of the short presidencies of Bani-Sadr and Mohammad Rajai, Ahmadinejad was not a cleric or even the son of a cleric. His humble provincial background and his family’s migration to Tehran, his admission to the Polytechnical University in Narmak (the former University of Science and Technology), all personified the politicized, new middle class that emerged from the shah’s unbalanced modernization schemes.[49] But Ahmadinejad also distinguished himself from his fellow revolutionaries in another regard. Despite participation in the revolution and some role with the Students Following the Line of the Imam, the group that seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, it was the war with Iraq that shaped Ahmadinejad’s political fortunes. Not satisfied with Rafsanjani’s attempts to bribe them out of politics and fearful of political oblivion, the generation that fought trench warfare demanded their share of political influence. Their infiltration of centers of power in Iran was blessed not only by their soldier-president but also by the supreme leader and his representatives in the Revolutionary Guards.[50]

IRGC intervention in internal Iranian politics has peaked under Ahmadinejad. While the presence of former IRGC officers in the cabinet is not a new phenomenon, their numbers under Ahmadinejad—they occupy nine of the twenty-one ministry portfolios—are unprecedented. Nor do these commanders-turned-ministers only occupy secondary posts. The ministers of energy, welfare and social security, industries and mines, justice, culture and Islamic guidance, petroleum, defense, commerce, and cooperatives are all war veterans and former IRGC or Basij officers.

Ahmadinejad has continued this takeover with appointments of governors and deputy governors to Iran’s thirty provinces. He systematically swept provincial governorships of Rafsanjani and Khatami supporters, replacing them with officials recruited from the ranks of the IRGC, the Basij, and the Islamic Republic prison administration. The governors of Kerman, West Azerbaijan, Khuzestan, Hamadan, and Ilam are all IRGC veterans while the governors of Zanjan, Lorestan, Isfahan, and South Khorasan are veterans of the prison administration. To head the administration of West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Hormozgan, and Khorasan Razavi, Ahmadinejad tapped associates from his time as Tehran mayor. These lists are not comprehensive but rather depend upon available biographical materials of appointees. It is possible that the IRGC and security presence is even higher.

The significance of such appointments is great. As journalist Kasra Naji’s discussion of Ahmadinejad’s tenure as governor of Ardebil demonstrates, governors exert considerable influence on presidential elections both by diverting public funds to candidates and by transferring income from trans-border smuggling operations to campaigns. Naji writes that Ahmadinejad was engaged in such activities to support parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, the hard-line front-runner in the 1997 campaign, which Khatami ultimately won.[51] By appointing his old comrades as governors of the thirty provinces of Iran, Ahmadinejad expects the same support in the 2009 presidential campaign.

The 2008 parliamentary elections solidified the IRGC’s political infiltration and demonstrated that the supreme leader supports the IRGC’s growing role. According to the minister of interior, 7,168 candidates registered for the elections,[52] of whom 31.5 percent were veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. By January 22, 2008, the Council of Guardians had approved the candidacy of about five thousand candidates, or 69 percent of the registrants. Of the 31 percent whose candidacy was not approved, two-thirds were simply disqualified, and the remaining one-third were members of the outgoing parliament who had approval of their credentials revoked.[53] The Ministry of Interior provided a number of excuses to those who failed to qualify: 69 candidates had missed the deadline to file paperwork; 131 had a record of treason, fraud, or embezzlement; and 329 persons had a bad reputation in their neighborhood. In addition, 188 individuals were deemed to have deficient educational background or lacked five years of senior professional experience.[54] The bulk of those disqualified, the ministry explained, had lost their right to candidacy for narcotics addiction or involvement in drug-smuggling, connections to the shah’s pre-revolutionary government, lack of belief in or insufficient practice of Islam, being “against” the Islamic Republic, or having connections to foreign intelligence services.[55] If such measures were not enough to bar undesired candidates from winning the parliamentary elections, Khamenei also appointed former IRGC commander Ali-Reza Afshar to oversee the elections. Another IRGC veteran, Ezzatollah Zarghami, who now heads Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), refused to air remarks by reformist candidates.

While not all biographies of incoming parliamentarians are available, the list is dominated by the Comprehensive Principalist Alliance led by Rezai, by former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Larijani, and Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, former IRGC commander and current Tehran mayor. The winning candidates are a veritable who’s who of IRGC veterans.

Not surprisingly, the IRGC commander in chief, Safavi, embraced the Ahmadinejad government. Speaking to trainees participating in the Velayat Programme of the Student Basij, Safavi defended the regime: “Some political groups are trying to weaken the new administration and pitch up the people’s demands. … These groups are trying to obstruct the work of the new administration.”[56] Several months later, as criticism of Ahmadinejad intensified, Safavi warned, “We know you, and we will sort you out in due course. The IRGC will stand against anyone who intends to confront the revolution.”[57]

But Safavi’s expression of loyalty towards Ahmadinejad was not enough to secure him the position, and by September 1, 2007, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Ja’fari succeeded Safavi as the commander in chief of the IRGC.

Ja’fari’s appointment is an important development in the structural dynamics of the Guards. In a September 2007 speech, he confirmed the IRGC’s new role:

The Revolutionary Guards are not a one dimensional military organization. The mission of the Guards is guarding the revolution and its achievements against internal threats … The current strategy, which has been clarified by the leadership of the revolution, differs from the strategies of the [war] years. The main mission of the Guards today is countering internal threats.[58]

Ja’fari later described the IRGC as not “solely a military organization” but also a “political and ideological organization.”[59]

Mohammad Kowsari, another IRGC commander, said the Guards’ intervention in politics has been “successful” since those who left school to fight at the Iraq-Iran war front can now enter “a new scene” to preserve the “Islamic nature of the regime.”[60] Indeed, the supreme leader’s representative to the organization urged the officer corps to take an active role in parliamentary politics.[61]

Khamenei’s decision to mobilize the IRGC officer corps has not gone unchallenged. Seyyed Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, a former member of the Assembly of Experts and former prosecutor-general of the Islamic Republic, protested against what he called “a military takeover” ahead of the latest round of parliamentary elections in Iran.[62] Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, currently chair of both the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, protested against the Guards’ intervention in politics. Speaking in his capacity as the leader of Friday prayers in Tehran, Rafsanjani warned, “No one should allow himself to monopolize such forces [the IRGC and the Basij] since such an act would be an act of treason against them [the armed forces] and against the country.”[63] Ayatollah Yusuf Sane’i declared military intervention “opposed to democracy.”[64] Most dramatically, Seyyed Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, also criticized the IRGC’s growing involvement in politics,[65] provoking a storm of attacks against him and the Khomeini household.[66]

After the March 14, 2008 elections, the Islamic Republic’s reformist faction complained that the Ministry of Interior, the election’s organizer, had been transformed into a “military base.”[67] Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker and an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2005, was more refined, asking rhetorically, “Does it mean that if two individuals are engaged in a rivalry during elections, this force [the IRGC] should engage supporting one of the two?”[68] Karrubi may have meant his question to be rhetorical, but within the Islamic Republic today, it has no easy answer.

Ahmadinejad and Khamenei do not intend the IRGC’s and Basij’s insertion into politics to be temporary. On April 30, 2007, two decades after the Basij’s nominal independence from the Guards, Ja’fari again imposed formal IRGC control over the Basij in order better to fight “internal enemies.”[69] Sobh-e Sadeqh weekly, successor to Payam-e Enghelab as mouthpiece of the IRGC, addressed the apprehension of civilian politicians in a long piece meant to assuage those worried by the Guards’ new role. But far from choosing a conciliatory tone towards the critics of the Guards, Yadollah Javani, head of the political bureau of the IRGC’s Joint Command Council, explained,

In case a movement, or a party, or group has the political or cultural potential to topple [the regime], one can’t expect the Guards to deal with it militarily. Under such circumstances, the duty of the Guards is political and cultural resistance. Therefore, and because the Guards is needed to get involved in political or cultural work, one can’t restrict the nature of the Guards into the military sphere alone. [70]

Conclusion

While democracies fear external enemies, undemocratic regimes fear their own populations, whose choices and aspirations they suppress by military means. In the short term, Khamenei’s tactic might work. A unified and consolidated elite composed of the IRGC officer corps enables the Islamic Republic to maintain a tough international stance while repressing unrest at home. But the price for such policy will prove high. Not only will it politicize civil society and radicalize university students, labor activists, women in urban centers, and civil rights activists against the regime, but it will also alienate traditional regime supporters such as the bazaar merchant class, Rafsanjani-era technocratic and economic elites, and Khatami-era reformers whose hopes are already frustrated. More dangerously, the supreme leader’s sole reliance on the Revolutionary Guards—should the IRGC manage to preserve its cohesion as a social group in Iranian politics—make Khamenei a prisoner of his own Praetorian Guard, paving the way for a military dictatorship. As the Islamic Republic approaches its thirtieth anniversary, the Iranian president has commissioned a “symphony of the glorious Islamic Revolution.”[71] To judge by the current political trends in Iran, the symphony will most probably be a military march.

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