June 17, 2009

Iran's Hidden Revolution

Originally published in New York Times

Just after Iran’s rigged elections last week, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets, it looked as if a new revolution was in the offing. Five days later, the uprising is little more than a symbolic protest, crushed by the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Meanwhile, the real revolution has gone unnoticed: the guard has effected a silent coup d’état.

The seeds of this coup were planted four years ago with the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And while he has since disappointed his public, failing to deliver on promised economic and political reforms, his allies now control the country. In the most dramatic turnabout since the 1979 revolution, Iran has evolved from theocratic state to military dictatorship.  

Disenchantment with clerical rule has been growing for years. To the urban youths who make up Iran’s most active political class, the mullahs represent the crude rigidity of Islamic law. To the rural poor, they epitomize the corruption that has meant unbuilt schools, unpaved roads and unfulfilled promises of development.

This hostility overflowed during the 2005 presidential race, with the defeat of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a cleric widely considered corrupt, by Mr. Ahmadinejad, a former officer in the Revolutionary Guards.  

In Mr. Ahmadinejad, the public saw a man who repudiated the profligacy of the clerical class, a man who was ascetic, humble and devout. And he capitalized on that image to consolidate power and to promote his brothers in arms. Fourteen of the 21 cabinet ministers he has appointed are former members of the guards or its associated paramilitary, the Basij. Several, including Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, are veterans of notorious units thought to have supported terrorist operations in the 1980s.

This creeping militarization has not been restricted to the central government: provincial governors, press commissars, film directors, intelligence officers and business leaders are increasingly former members of the guard. The elite force controls much of the economy either directly — the Basij has rights to oil extraction — or through proxy companies like Khatam al Anbiya, which dominates construction throughout Iran.

Technically, the pinnacle of power in Iran remains Ayatollah Khamenei, along with the 12-member Guardian Council. Yet he has proved eager to fall in with the president’s overthrow of the clerics. Indeed, Western intelligence services suspect Ayatollah Khamenei approved the rigging of the second round of the 2005 presidential election to throw decisive votes to Mr. Ahmadinejad. And this time around, the supreme leader made clear his preference with coded references like his exhortation to vote for “a man of the people, sincere, with a simple lifestyle.”

Why would he deliberately undercut his own clerical class? Survival. Far from fretting about an impending attack from Israel or America, guard leaders have been warning the ayatollah that the most formidable threat to the Islamic Republic is a “soft regime change policy” involving the use of “orange revolutions” (as the hard-line Iranian newspaper Kayhan recently editorialized).

Encircled by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, besieged from within by disgruntled citizens, the supreme leader has turned to a bellicose strongman to preserve the system that elevated him. Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei — who was scorned as a religious lightweight by many more established mullahs when he was chosen for the top post in 1989 — has repeatedly shown himself willing to undercut the “Islamic” in Islamic revolution. In doing so, he has painted himself into a corner — a permanent alliance with Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards. And this fraudulent election will only push them closer together.

Many have been struck by the crudeness of the recent vote rigging, with reformist candidates losing even their hometowns. The unusually speedy certification of the election and Ayatollah Khamenei’s quick blessing — “a divine miracle” — only served to underscore an obvious sham.

Yet you don’t have to be paranoid to wonder if events were following a script: protesters pour into the streets only to be beaten down by Revolutionary Guard and Basij gunmen; the regime is prepared to detain dissidents — reportedly using Facebook and Twitter to locate them; Mr. Ahmadinejad is so unworried he jets off to Russia; and every element of the confrontation has provided a pretext for an overwhelming assertion of domestic power by the Revolutionary Guards. 

What does this mean for President Obama and the policy of engagement he hopes to pursue? Some will argue that Mr. Ahmadinejad may be in a conciliatory mood because he needs talks with the United States to underscore his own legitimacy, but that can only be read as a self-serving Washington perspective. Meanwhile, the Iranian people will have suffered the consolidation of power by a ruthless regime and the transformation of a theocracy to an ideological military dictatorship. That Iran neither needs nor wants accommodation with the West.


Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Ali Alfoneh is a visiting fellow at the institute.