In the wake of Iran's stolen election last June, observers including Gary Sick and the Times' Neil MacFarquhar brought attention to a stealth militarist takeover of Iran's religious establishment over the past several years, emphasizing that Ahmadinejad had packed key government posts with Revolutionary Guard officers and veterans.
In Today's Times, Michael Slackman cites "the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as the most powerful decision-making bloc in the country" while reporting that Iran's intransigence on the nuclear issue has reached a new level, as the post-election crackdown has "made it nearly impossible for anyone to support nuclear cooperation without being accused of capitulating to the West." Ironically, on this issue Ahmadinejad has reportedly been more pragmatic and conciliatory than political opponents inside and out of power, including Mousavi.
The militarization of Iran's theocracy is not a new story. Ray Takeyh's account of the Guards' economic empowerment in The Hidden Iran, published in 2006, sounds very like reports that have reached the newspapers in recent months -- and would have provided a basis to forecast the regime's reaction to the outbreak of demand for reform that crested so suddenly in the runup to the June election:
...the hard-liners today are one of the few segments of Iranian society that is actually benefiting from the current economic order. the mainstay of the right-wing power bloc remains the vast religious fundations, the bonyads, which have come to dominate the trade and manufacturing sectors. The bonyads began in the aftermath of the revolution as religious foundations that expropriated the assets of the defunct monarchy for philanthropic purposes. However, in the intervening quarter-century they have metamorphosed into huge holding companies that dominate key industries while evading competition and state regulation. These interests are inimical to a truly free market and dissuade their beneficiaries -- mostly conservative clerics and other defenders of the current system -- from implementing any serious structural reforms to Iran's economy.
Such corrupt practices are now being emulated by the Revolutionary Guards, who in recent years have steadily intruded into economic activities, estabishing their own commercial firms with privileged access to contracts in key industries such as telecommunications and imported consumer goods. Through this network of companies, the Guards have enhanced their patronage power, allowing them to further cultivate their constituents. In an even more ominous manner, much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure is being procured by firms owned by members of the Guards, making compromise on this issue even more difficult. At any rate, the fundamentals of economic reform, including decentralization, free competition and the rule of law, cannot be instituted without endangering the conservatives' lurcrative power base (pp 38-39).Viewing the current state of the 5+1 negotiations with Iran, Takeyh, in a Dec. 17 op-ed and a Dec. 21 interview, asserts several ironies. First, that Ahmadinejad saw success in the nuclear negotiations as way to boost his faltering power at home. Second, that the Revolutionary Guard elements that Ahmadinjad has helped to consolidate power rejected the deal to ship Iran's nuclear fuel abroad for processing -- and turned Khamenei against it. Third, that the hardliners' new view of Iran's chief security threat in the wake of the busted election -- that the country is threatened mainly by internal enemies controlled by Western puppet-masters -- actually militates against the need for nuclear weapons, which offer protection against perceived attacks from abroad. For that reason, Takeyh suggests that the deal to ship Iran's fuel to Russia may not in fact be dead:
In Tehran, no deal ever dies. So it's entirely possible that the LEU export proposition could be resurrected, not with the specifications of the October 1 deal, which called for the shipment of 1,200 kilograms abroad, but there may be 400 today, 400 tomorrow, 400 next Thursday. Something like that can still evolve. I wouldn't suggest an obituary on the LEU deal should be written; a lot of variation may be plausible, who knows.At the same time, Takeyh also notes, as many have, that negotiating with the current Iranian regime is like trying to hug a sunbeam: "As the breakdown of the Geneva deal demonstrates, the vagaries of Iran’s domestic politics can always undermine arrangements seemingly beneficial to all the parties."
Another needle for the Obama Administration to thread: might it yet buy time through a resurrected LEU export deal while also finding ways to support the Iranian dissidents without either undermining negotiations or feeding into the regime's narrative of a revolt directed and controlled by Western powers?