Opportunity beckons for Iran’s Guards
By Brian M Downing
Jan 24, 2012
The United States and other powers are seeking to change the government of Iran from the present mullah-centered authoritarianism to a representative government, or at least to a government more acceptable to regional powers. This objective is being pursued amid a program of sanctions and violent attacks including assassinations and bombings. Strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities and perhaps even a protracted air campaign may be in the offing.
The outcome of these efforts cannot be determined, though there is no shortage of people, in Washington and elsewhere, who are confident that regime change can be brought about. A look at politics inside Iran might offer insight as to the likely political dynamics and outcomes. Perhaps some caution may be offered as well.
The Iranian public
The dramatic popular protests following the disputed 2009 elections that saw President Mahmud Ahmadinejad re-elected and the ongoing events in the Middle East have caused some to see Iran on the verge of a “Persian Spring” – a sweeping movement to oust the regime and move toward representative government.
Discontent among the urban middle classes is substantial, but pious rural dwellers and the urban working class constitute a larger portion of the public by far whose significance is minimized by outside observers. They tend to support the regime and are more likely to blame foreign powers for their country’s ills and to oppose outside interference. Religion, nationalism and suspicion of outside forces go hand in hand, as rulers and historians have known for centuries.
The effectiveness of external threats in channeling urban middle-class discontent into meaningful action is dubious. It is perfectly consistent for the middle classes to yearn for Western-style government and yet oppose Western meddling. Iranians do not see Anglo-Russian occupations during the world wars and continuous interference as irrelevant historical details, nor are the more recent assassinations and bombings. They are all of a piece of their long national travails and fighting them is an almost reflexive part of their identity.
The urban middle-classes do not see Iran’s nuclear program as aimed at destroying Israel or having any offensive intent or usefulness. It is a deterrent to foreign invasion such as the Iraq War that killed 800,000 Iranians, and also a source of national pride, much as the French nuclear program was in the aftermath of colonial losses in Indochina and Africa.
Historically, foreign danger has led to popular support for governments, even unpopular ones. Americans will recognize this from Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack rallied the country, even theretofore isolationist and anti-Roosevelt elements. More recently, the September 11 attacks on the US had the same centripetal effect.
Joseph Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union was deeply unpopular in 1940 yet it garnered tremendous support the following year when Germany invaded. Indeed, the war and ensuing victory solidified the communist government; its prestige and authority persisted for decades.
Similarly, Ruhollah Khomeini’s government, which took power in 1979, was far from solid until Iraq invaded the following year. Most Iranians rallied to the war effort, even many officers of the shah’s army who had fled the country. Even the Arab population of western Iran ignored Iraq’s calls for support, and fought against the invaders.
The Iranian state
Foreign pressure will lead to changes within the three main power centers of the state: the “elected” government, the ayatollahs, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Though the government is the most prominent of the three power centers owing to the boorish rhetoric of Ahmadinejad, in many ways it is the weakest. It has always had its power limited by the ayatollahs, its control over the military is negligible, and its attempts over the past few years to expand its purview have been quickly slapped down.
Ahmadinejad may seek to rally public support to him in time of crisis, but other centers of power greatly mistrust him and will act to halt such mobilization. Any attempt to expand his power is unlikely to meet with success – barring a paralyzing air campaign against the IRGC.
The ayatollahs look to the Arab Spring and shudder. It bodes ill for elite rule of any sort and introduces internal conflict and foreign intrigue. The Iranian presidency, they judge, has shown itself to be bent on reform, aggrandizement, and bowing to the public. The ayatollahs are looking for ways to avoid the election constitutionally mandated for next year, as it could entail another round of embarrassing public unrest and hamfisted repression.
The ayatollahs are losing prestige among all but the most pious. Much of the blame for the economic torpor of recent years has fallen on the elected government and on the sanctions imposed on the country, but the clumsy influences of the ayatollahs are not unnoticed. The sybaritic wealth of a few ayatollahs is commonly discussed, though only in private.
The once formidable unity of the sacerdotal caste has not held up well over the thirty-three years of governing a large, modernizing country. Divisions have arisen over national policy, allocating businesses to family members, and determining the proper course amid a welter of contradictory opinions and interpretations.
Some mullahs prefer the “quietist” approach to Islamism whereby the clergy establishes principles and offers occasional counsel then leaves government to politicians. Such is the approach of many ayatollahs in nearby Iraq, including the revered Ali al-Sistani – a Persian from Mashhad in northeastern Iran. Quietists know that theology is only a basis for modern politics and that when the saints go into the sausage-making business, they lose their unity and halos as well.
The IRGC is the third center of power and the one best positioned to benefit from the Gulf crisis. Since its creation during the 1979 revolution as a counterpoise to the regular army whose officer corps had been groomed by the shah, it has expanded into business enterprises including construction and hydrocarbons. Retired officers have been placed in many state bureaus where it is expected they will retain institutional loyalties.
The IRGC has ambitions of becoming an expansive military, economic and political conglomerate along the lines of the militaries of Pakistan and Egypt. Ongoing events will help to advance those ambitions.
The IRGC is a reasonably compact military (about 125,000) with an upper officer corps forged in the long Iraq war. It has used its considerable influence in Iraq to expel the US but still sees a powerful US-led alliance arrayed against Iran. Powerful air and naval assets are stationed throughout the Gulf and deadly attacks go on inside the country with seeming impunity.
Perhaps most ominous to the IRGC are the Kurdish and Baloch insurgencies in the northwest and southeast, respectively, which are encouraged by Israeli intelligence. Combined with Saudi exhortations to the Arab population of Khuzestan – an oil-rich region in western Iran – these could pose a graver danger than air strikes on nuclear facilities. Those sites can be rebuilt; not so territorial integrity.
A protracted air campaign on the air defense system, army and IRGC bases, communication centers and road systems leading to Kurdish and Baloch regions could trigger serious uprisings. The IRGC has seen Iraq fragmented by coalition forces and is watching Syria torn by sectarian fighting and Kurdish demands for autonomy. It will act to prevent Iran from going down the same road toward dissolution.
Improbable though dissolution may seem from without, national security institutions in Tehran, like those in Washington and Jerusalem and Riyadh and elsewhere, will almost instinctively attach great weight to the direst of scenarios. It is perhaps what they do best.
The IRGC can present itself to the state and public alike as expert in military matters, above political and theological squabbles, and the most capable institution to lead the country in parlous times and ensure territorial integrity. Many bewildered and worried people, pious or not, will find their arguments appealing.
The Gulf crisis, then, could lead to political change quite different from the one envisioned by the powers arrayed against Iran and the one worked for by reformists inside the country. The IRGC is well positioned to increase its power in the state and establish itself as co-equals with the ayatollahs, perhaps even as having the upper hand and transforming the ayatollahs into a consultative legitimizing body.
The prospect of the Iranian people pressing more earnestly for democratic reform as war looms is not likely. Such actions would be seen by most reformers as ill-timed and by security forces as treasonous. The hope of a new wave of reformism toppling the regime seems based on a mythic, romantic understanding of historical change and perhaps also on a disregard of the outcomes of recent efforts to bring change to the region.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.