by Rasmus Christian Elling.
Is this a military coup against the clerics?
Ever since the ‘election results’ were announced, observers and protesters have talked about a military coup in Tehran: that the elections itself and the subsequent clampdown were part of a pre-arranged coup masterminded and executed by the Revolutionary Guards (Sepâh-e pâsdârân or IRGC).
Other speculation includes reports about support for Musavi among the powerful Revolutionary Guards (see Ebrahim Nabavi here); and about defections among Revolutionary Guards generals. However, there are no reliable sources or verifiable documentation for these claims. No doubt, some Revolutionary Guards commanders are thinking about the future of Iran these days, and whether or not they are on the winning team. However, in the words of New York Times’ MacFarquhar:
“Anyone attempting to identify divisions within the Iranian security forces that may dilute the government’s ability to stop the protests has thus far searched in vain, according to Iranian analysts and American government officials … Although outsiders may be cheering on the idea of people power, there is no sign yet that any part of the military will switch sides …”
The quite uniform response of Revolutionary Guards commanders leaves us with the impression that the Guards stand united and firm behind the government and the Leader. And it has made some serious and respected scholars talk openly about ‘the coup’. In his recent blog post, Gary Sick writes about the topic that has ‘been ignored’:
“Why did the regime resort to such a frantic manipulation of the vote when it was entirely possible that Ahmadinejad would have made a respectable showing—or possibly even have narrowly won—a fair election, and when the opposition in any event was devoted to the concept of the Islamic republic as it existed? The answer may be that the corporate entity saw this election as one of the final steps in cementing its absolute control. Accepting the Islamic republic as it is and not as they wanted it to be was simply unacceptable. The emergence of a relatively mild reformer—or even a substantial reformist vote—would undercut the kind of absolute authority that they were getting ready to assert. It would, in a word, complicate the coup that they were in the process of carrying out.”
On CNN, Fareed Zakaria and a former CIA-agent assess that there has been a military coup:
“BAER: Fareed, I’m quite sure there’s been a military coup d’etat by the Islamic revolutionary corp in Tehran. They’re taken over. And the fact that the Basij came out so quickly. They could have only done that on orders from the IRGC. The fact that Ahmadinejad’s a former IRGC officer, he has the backing of senior officers. I think what we’ve seen is a military coup against the old clerical establishment.”
He might be right. I just want to add that, that the ‘Basij came out so quickly’ doesn’t prove anything. They have been mobilized in such speedy and massive fashion several times (and of course, such mobilization is ordered by the IRGC; nothing new there) – and authorities had already before the elections announced that there would be a massive security presence.
To Ali Nader of the RAND Corporation, there is no doubt: The Revolutionary Guards are the real winners of the elections:
“The Guards indicated even before the election that they would not allow Ahmadinejad’s challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi, to succeed. And they are willing to use any means possible, including mass arrests of opposition leaders and the use of military force against protesters, to maintain their grip on power. Iran’s ruling political elite have earned much popular hostility in the last few days, but they appear to have enough military support to withstand the protests for now. Regardless, the Islamic Republic may no longer be able to count on the people’s will to maintain its legitimacy”
Nader sees the recent re-election (which ‘depended on systematic fraud’) as a battle between the younger military elite and the older clerical elite (see also the RAND report ‘The Rise of the Pasdaran’ here). To some extent, I think he’s right: when Ahmadinejad blasted Rafsanjani and Nateq Nuri on live TV for being corrupt, he was in fact sending a stern warning to all senior clerics in Iran, and their families – not just the two mentioned.
However, I still have a hard time buying the idea, floated among some observers, that Ahmadinejad is actually in total control now, and that Khamene‘i is merely his puppet. Surely, many clerics may now be threatened by an emboldened Ahmadinejad; however, it seems to me that:
a) Ahmadinejad could not do without the clergy; he will need their religious credentials to legitimize his government;
b) that so many clerics would not stay silent if they really felt threatened; we will have to see much more criticism from Qom before I can believe that the tables have turned in such a dramatic fashion. This is not to say that there isn’t criticism from Qom – more on that later.
An interrelated question is that of ‘Ahmadinejad’s crusade’ against ‘corruption’. If Ahmadinejad were to succeed in his self-declared mission to purge out the ‘mafia’, he will of course not do so only out of pure, idealistic conviction. The wealth will go to other people in power, and whomever they may be – including the Revolutionary Guards – they will need the aura of legitimacy that only a clergy can endow the religious-political system with.
And the stakes for the Revolutionary Guards are high, as this updated backgrounder from the Council on Foreign Relations point out:
“Political clout and military might are not only attributes of today’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is also a major financial player. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 2007 that the group, which was tasked with rebuilding the country after the war with Iraq, now has ties to over one hundred companies that control roughly $12 billion in construction and engineering capital. Former CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh has linked the guards to university laboratories, weapons manufacturers–including Defense Industries Organization–and companies connected to nuclear technology. Khalaji, of the Washington Institute, lists the Bahman Group, which manufactures cars for Mazda, among guard-owned companies. And Wehrey writes that “the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market.” The engineering firm Khatam al-Anbia, for instance, has been awarded over 750 government contracts for infrastructure, oil, and gas projects, he says.”
We could maybe describe this as the culmination of several years of militarization in Iranian politics, and a victory for the Revolutionary Guards establishment. Maybe we could also call the elections and the post-elections clampdown aspects of a military coup d’état. However, I still don’t think that the Guards and Ahmadinejad can survive without the sincere and voluntary support of the clergy. I might be wrong. Comments please!
Where are the ‘moderate conservatives’?
Ali Larijani – speaker of parliament, former presidential candidate and a pragmatic politician considered close to the Leader – has made several statements critical of the regime’s brutal response to the protests. He has condemned the violent attacks on Tehran University, called for investigations, stated that he would wish the Guardian Council was impartial and that Musavi should be given a chance to appear again on state-run TV.
To EurasiaNet’s reporter Yasin, Larijani – along with his brothers Sadeq and Mohammad-Javad, their cousin Ahmad Tavakolli and Ali Motahari – represents a ‘third force’ between ‘hardliners’ such as Khamene‘i and ‘progressives’ such as Musavi.
Larijani has recently made yet another interesting statement:
“A majority of people are of the opinion that the actual election results are different than what was officially announced,” Larijani said in comments posted by the Khabaronline website. “The opinion of this majority should be respected and a line should be drawn between them and rioters and miscreants.”
If Larijani is quoted correctly, it is indeed a significant statement. However, it can also be interpreted as pure opportunism – and part of the internal rivalries, as Yasin notes:
“There would appear to be an element of personal animosity at work in Ali Larijani’s relations with Ahmadinejad. Prior to becoming parliament speaker, Larijani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, but was pushed aside by political maneuvering carried out by the president and his neo-conservative allies, and undertaken with the backing of the supreme leader.”
Marsha B. Cohen, writing for Tehran Bureau, has a lengthy and detailed account of Larijani, which is highly recommended reading.
Another ‘moderate conservative’ is Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, former Revolutionary Guards commander and now mayor of Tehran. Qalibaf seeks to appeal to the young voters and is considered a likely future candidate for the presidency. Qalibaf has stated that the ‘election law is flawed’, that the protest rallies should be ‘legalized’ and he has condemned the violence. However, he has of course refrained from siding with Musavi. There are now calls for Qalibaf to join the new Special Committee which the Guardians Council has created to investigate the opposition’s allegations of fraud. It remains to be seen if Qalibaf would make a difference to the work of this committee.
Ahmad Tavakolli – who is the chief of the Parliament’s Research Center, a former presidential candidate and a prominent ‘moderate conservative’ – might also have made a surprising statement; however, he allegedly did so under a pseudonym.
Ayande News, a reformist website, indicated that Tavakolli used the name ‘Javad Kargozari’ to write a piece on his website Alef News recently (however, Ayande then changed the text of their article making it unclear who is behind the article). Of course, it is impossible for me to confirm this claim.
Nonetheless, if the statement is indeed Tavakolli’s – or if it represents Tavakolli’s opinion – it is remarkable: ‘Kargozari’ severely criticizes the state-run TV & radio for ‘illegal activities’, including the showing of fake declarations of guilt by pro-Musavi protesters, introduced on TV as ‘rioters’. These ‘rioters’ have been arrested during recent protests and allegedly forced to confess to working for Iran’s foreign enemies. ‘Kargozari’ demands to know who has given the state media permission to show such illegal ‘confessions’ before the persons have even been tried in a court.
A major figure among the ‘moderate conservatives’ is of course Mohsen Reza‘i – former Revolutionary Guard commander and himself a presidential candidate who has also rejected the election results. Despite the fact that there are still reports of ‘ambiguities’ surrounding Reza‘i’s votes coming out, and despite his recent letter to the Guardian Council calling for a change in the members of the Special Committee, he has apparently withdrawn his own complaints – citing concern for the security situation.
This does not bode well for Musavi and Karubi, who are now more or less alone with their complaints.
I think that the ‘moderate conservatives’ are following a calculated effort to appear 100% loyal to the system and the Leader while using the opportunity to air their criticism of Ahmadinejad. However, this should not be interpreted as support for Musavi/Karubi or for the protest movement. The ‘moderate conservatives’ are cunning opportunists – and certainly not interested in fundamentally reforming the Islamic Republic or in putting the human rights of the Iranian people at the top of their agenda.
This ‘third force’ is concerned with its own economic interests and political power under the government of an emboldened Ahmadinejad. Nothing more, nothing less.