Monday, July 06, 2009

Wings beating against a web, cont.: Iran's Revolutionary Guard asserts "deciding role"

Those who see the Iranian government's crackdown on election protesters as cementing a militarist coup that's been in progress throughout Ahmadinejad's presidency will note these chill words from the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, reported in the Washington Post:

In a conference on Sunday, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the top commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, said his elite military organization had "taken the initiative" to quell the street protests in Tehran, IRNA reported. The remarks illustrated the growing importance of the 120,000-strong force, which Jafari said would remain highly influential in the future.

"We are convinced that the IRGC must play a deciding role in the preservation and continuation of the revolution," he said.

While denying that the Revolutionary Guard played a role in politics, Jafari said its members' actions on the streets caused "a revival of the revolution and clarification of the value positions of the establishment at home and abroad."

He indicated that a new phase of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution has started.

"All of us must fully comprehend its dimensions," Jafari said.

For Jafari, this crackdown represents the fulfillment of a vision. In a history of the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) published in the Fall 2008 issue of Middle East Quarterly, Ali Alfoneh, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, cites a September 2007 speech by Jafari that "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.

Alfoneh details both Rafsanjani's long struggle to keep restrain the IRGC's intervention in politics (while "effectively bribing them" by giving them a central role in postwar reconstruction, creating an economic basis for much of their current power) and Ahmadinejad's packing of governorships, cabinet ministries, media, and election oversight with Guard veterans.

Reading the long arc of the militarist counterrevolution against liberalizing trends in the Iranian theocracy, it's hard not to see the current unrest as wings beating against a tightening web. Alfoneh, providing a thirty-year context for this impression, ends with a note of prophecy that is so far right on target:

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.

Of course, like all good prophecies, this one maintains a strong tincture of ambiguity. Is the "danger" in Khamenei's support of Ahmadinejad's power grab a danger to Khamenei himself (prisoner of his Guard), the entire restive nation, or the militarized regime that has alienated broad sectors of the society? Since the danger to the Iranian people is already manifest, let's hope the answer proves to be "all of the above."

Update: AEI's Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Review, highlighted the above-cited Alfoneh article, along with a follow-up published just prior to the Iranian election, in a June 15 post at NRO.

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