Saturday, November 28, 2009

The “Coup” in Iran and What it Means

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By Barry Rubin

For a couple of years it has been visible; for months the opposition has been talking about it. What’s happening is the gradual takeover of a huge amount of power by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranian government has generally been radical since the revolution, 30 years ago. But now the most extremist faction of all has taken over, pushing out its rivals.

Of course, Spiritual Guide Ali Khamenei is the most powerful man in Iran. But obviously he has no problem with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being president and the IRGC becoming the power behind the throne.

This is important because the IRGC is the most fanatical and risk-taking part of the regime. It is very much committed to expanding the revolution and maintains the regime’s links with foreign revolutionary and terrorist groups.

Oh, and it will also be the institution that will have actual possession of Iran’s long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.

Not only are these people nobody can make a deal with, but they are also the ones most likely to make a war some day.

The BBC reports that the IRGC now controls one-third of Iran’s economy, either openly or through front groups. This is probably too high. But more than one-third is controlled either by the IRGC or foundations under the control of regime hardliners so the basic idea isn’t far off. Moreover, Ahmadinejad has been appointing former IRGC commanders to a lot of top jobs, including cabinet ministries and provincial governorships.

Now the group has won a $2.5 billion contract to build a big railroad project. And the IRGC is taking control of intelligence, running key prisons, and taking custody of political prisoners.

This is one reason why foreign observers can underestimate the regime's stability. With the IRGC playing such a central role, so well-armed, united, and ready to fight, any serious threat of a revolution or internal collapse would be blocked, no matter how much bloodshed it takes. The opposition and those critical of the regime are also aware of that fact.

Another reason why this is important regards Iran's intentions after getting nuclear weapons. Whether or not it would fire off such armaments, Iran will certainly use them to become more powerful, threatening, and influential throughout the region. The loser here will be the United States, its interests, and policies.

Judging from his statements, President Obama seems to have the following picture of Iran: There are many factions; the supreme guide really runs the show; Ahmadinejad is just a noisy front-man without much power. Iran should be judged by its past record, which has often shown caution. In this conception, it is possible to engage Iran, appeal to its interest, and find some relative moderates or pragmatists who will make a deal.

One could argue this position two years, perhaps even a year ago. But it no longer applies. The Iranian regime has changed to become far more hardline and risk-taking.

My personal view is that Khamenei is preparing for his departure from the scene by putting the revolution into the hands of those who he trusts not to dilute it. While Iran is a country of endless factional bickerings, this analysis means that the power of Ahmadinejad and the IRGC will grow greater in the coming years. That provides still another reason why soft diplomacy won't work and that a world where Iran--meaning Ahmadinejad and the IRGC--have nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is far more dangerous.

That doesn't mean that Iran will immediately attack Israel with nuclear weapons. Even in the radical worldview that would be foolish. What is more likely is that Iran will systematically try to turn much of the region into Islamist satellite states, putting off any confrontation with Israel to the future. (This is parallel to the strategy of Arab nationalist regimes--despite their 1967 miscalculation and 1973 attempt at revenge--over the last half-century.)

Do you think the Arab states will choose to appease Iran or stand firm in the belief that President Barack Obama will go to war on their behalf?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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