Iran's security state

Published: Thursday | August 6, 2009

ONE SIMPLE fact now appears to dominate Iranian political life: its clerical elite is divided, its security forces are not.

Yesterday's inauguration of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad may seem like a victory of hardliners over reformists. But many analysts argue that the ultimate victory in the recent, contested presidential election belongs to IRAN'S security establishment.

When the Iranian monarch fled the country in the midst of the 1979 revolution - never to return - there followed a period of intense contestation as a new regime took shape. Factions from communists to Islamists, which had united to overthrow the Shah, now turned their sights on one another. By the end of the year, though, the Islamist faction had emerged dominant, quickly consolidating its hold on power.

Supreme Leader

Its then-leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, set out to create a theocracy, in which a clerical elite would hold sway over a nominal democracy. Given his popularity and charisma, Khomeini was able to secure his position as supreme leader, with the organs of state power coming under his guidance.

When he died in 1989, there was no obvious successor to what was virtually a monarchical role. The eventual victor of the election by IRAN'S leading clerics was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, because he lacked a popular base, as well as broad support within the religious establishment, Ayatollah Khamenei looked to the one constituency with which he had close ties - the security establishment. He bolstered them to underpin his own power.

Swift response

When this year's elections spawned a powerful opposition, the supreme leader made what looks to have been a calculated gamble: to throw his lot in with the disputed victor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at once. But the threat from the street was real, and needed a swift response. He looked to the Revolutionary Guards, assisted by their volunteer militias, to stamp out the opposition.

The fact that opposition still festers, means that the Ayatollah will with difficulty send the troops back to the barracks. Even if he retains considerable authority, it is growing harder to call Iran a theocracy. The country's religious establishment is openly divided. And just as Europe's medieval kings exploited splits in the Catholic Church to augment their own power, IRAN'S generals are solidifying their control while the mullahs argue.

In the 1979 revolution, the street was kingmaker, as protests clogged Tehran and strikes shut down the economy. After the 2009 election, that role has been usurped by the generals. That does not necessarily mean that what they are doing is unpopular. As the election revealed, Iran is deeply divided. A key fault-line runs between moderates, who want more democracy and less conflictual relations with the West; and conservatives, who support President Ahmadinejad's call for the revolution to return to its roots in religious fervour, economic populism, and a tightly-controlled democracy.

Conspiracy theories

It may well be that the majority of Iranians would put themselves in the conservative camp. Not all of them are the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, smart dressers we saw on the evening news. Many Iranians, particularly among the poor, trust their government. They take seriously the conspiracy theories used to explain street demonstrations, blaming them on Israel, the West, or the Bahai religious minority.

If they were Jamaicans, they'd say, 'if it no go so, is nearly so'. Since the West has meddled in IRAN'S affairs, to the country's detriment, notably in the 1953 coup, it must be up to its dirty tricks again.

Yet while the Iranians turn their angry glares outwards, they are standing by while a military coup slowly unfolds. And so, as one top general put it, the revolution has entered a 'new phase.'

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI) Institute, an independent think tank affiliated with the UWI, Mona. Feedback may be sent to