Iran’s Revolutionary Guard points to fresh dissent within oppressive regime. A television film gives us first-hand testimony from recent defectors.

Mark Taylor
Taylor is working at FAFO, a political research institute based in Oslo.

One year on from Iran’s disputed election and in the wake of repeated protests by opposition forces in the country, the Guardian’s video documentary unit and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism interviewed former members of the elite Revolutionary Guard. Released on the web, this fifteen minute video documentary is just this summer’s latest salvo in the ongoing battle over how to relate to Iran. 1) See Guardianfilms and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2010/jun/11/iran-election-revolutionary-guard

What is the basis of political power in Iran? The answer used to be fairly straightforward: a conservative, religious elite backed by a praetorian military force of Revolutionary Guards and its auxiliary Basij militia. But since the June 2009 elections the fault-lines that previously described power in Iran have shifted.

The Guardian and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism have provided video testimony from recently defected Revolutionary Guard officers that throws some more light on this shift. The short video interviews three defectors, all now in exile, who left in the wake of the post-election government crackdown at the end of 2009, (the fourth person interviewed, a former Revolutionary Guard general, left Iran two years earlier). All three provide first-hand evidence that the regime was badly shaken by the protests which erupted after the elections and continued through 2009, culminating in December (on the feast of Ashura) with demonstrations and a brutal crackdown.

This is a straightforward piece of video journalism and the core of the film – first-hand testimony from recent defectors – succeeds in making its point: the Revolutionary Guard may have become unreliable praetorians. But the film goes on to conclude that there is an “unholy alliance” between young students and the old Revolutionary Guard that is “posing a new threat to the survival of the Islamic republic”.

Journalistic hyperbole? Almost certainly. There is no doubt that the strength of the demonstrations and the violence of the crackdown sent shock waves throughout Iran’s political system. But the movement which was galvanised by the election results in June 2009 is not threatening the Islamic republic itself; it is opposing what it sees as the theft of the elections and, more recently, battling the repression it has faced, repression meted out by a ruling faction within the regime headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

More importantly, there is little evidence for the “unholy alliance” between students and Revolutionary Guard. The testimony of the defectors in this documentary provides evidence of a distaste for the methods of the regime and of some kind of internal struggle within the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard. This corroborates the view that senior Guard leaders have been careful not to condemn the protesters outright or to participate in the regime’s demonization of the protests as part of a “soft war” or “velvet revolution” against the Republic. This may be careful positioning in light of serious political divisions higher up, but it may also have been the outward signs of a serious struggle over the hearts and minds of Revolutionary Guard leadership. But the results of any such struggle remain unknown. So, are the Guard unreliable praetorians and a potential threat to the Ahmadinejad regime? Possibly. Is dissent with the ranks of the Guard evidence of an alliance to bring down the Islamic Republic? No.

Probably more accurate is the view that post-election repression has resulted in a new divide between Iranian political elites. Iran expert Ketil Selvik at the FAFO Institute in Oslo says that, in the postelection struggle for power within the Iranian governing elite, the Supreme Leader Ayotallah Ali Khomenei took the unexpected step of choosing sides and backing Ahmadinejad. Since then, the Presidential faction has used its position to attempt to purge the reformist elements in the regime, or just anyone opposed to Ahmadinejad. This is yet another indication that it feels threatened from within. But its larger significance is that the old divide in Iranian politics between reformers and conservatives has taken a backseat to a new split between those with or against President Ahmadinejad. The torture and defection of Revolutionary Guards depicted in this documentary is confirmation of the governing faction’s insecurity, and evidence of the emergence of this new divide within the governing elites in Iran.

The opposition appears to be operating on this assumption as well. From its inception, the opposition has been careful not to adopt a revolutionary position. It is, after all, led and supported by stalwarts of the Islamic Republic. Despite the violence and brutality of regime repression, the movement has stuck to its democratic and peaceful line, (the movement chose not to mark the one year anniversary of the elections specifically to avoid provoking violence by the security forces). This has enabled them to create and strengthen alliances between those opposed to Ahmadinejad, whether reformers or not, both within and outside the regime. The struggle seems far from over.

The Ahmadinejad regime has shown itself brutally competent when it comes to repression, and adept at mobilising the rural and urban poor. But the economy is in a shambles and the key issue for Ahmadinejad’s constituency is unemployment. Using footage smuggled out of Iran via the Internet, the documentary suggests his position on this issue is weakening. In short, there are serious questions about whether Ahmadinejad’s particular combination of repression and mobilisation will be enough for his regime to govern effectively. Ayatollah Khamenei’s decision to back one faction makes him a political hostage to Ahmadinejad’s repression and political mistakes, but it also effectively prevents the latter’s removal by the opposition.

The opposition faces a difficult balancing act. If the economy continues to deteriorate, Ahmadinejad may pay a political price in the form of declining support from his base. But the opposition’s economic programme involves privatisation and other elements of economic liberalisation, and as such constitutes a potential threat to the established state monopolies – it is not a natural ideological home for Ahmadinejad’s popular base to defect to. Internally, the movement’s balancing act is more delicate: to the extent that the opposition remains loyal to the Republic, they will continue to accrue legitimacy from within the regime. But by the extent to which they appear to be cowed by or willing to accept a degree of regime repression, they run the risk of losing popular support and political momentum.

None of this seems to have been noticed abroad. In the U.S. and Israel, the cheerleaders for military action against Iran and its nuclear programme are loud and getting louder. Below the radar of the bellicose threats and counter-threats, the Obama administration is pursuing a policy of destabilisation both overt (aid to “democracy promotion”, often at the urging of democracy activists) and covert (aid to separatist ethnic groups). All of this merely serves to strengthen Ahmadinejad’s domestic position – and lessen the likelihood that the struggle within the Revolutionary Guard will turn out as the makers of this documentary suggest.

 


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References   [ + ]

1.  See Guardianfilms and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2010/jun/11/iran-election-revolutionary-guard
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