A revolution’s anniversary: Iran’s creeping military rule

Shaul Bakhash
  • Iran’s revolution marks its anniversary on Feb. 11. What is the political situation in Iran today?

Iran marks the revolution’s 32nd anniversary in dramatically altered circumstances. It emerged from the disputed 2009 presidential election as a far more militarized state. The commanders of the Revolutionary Guards now exercise influence in the principal seats of power. The security apparatus has grown more repressive. The government inclines towards a confrontational style in foreign policy. And while the regime remains firmly in control, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist style has opened fissures within the ruling establishment.

The Revolutionary Guards now have a much larger say in domestic and foreign policy, government jobs, and the economy since its Basij paramilitary wing played a principal role in crushing mass protests after the disputed elections, thereby saving the regime. Men closely associated with the Guards are prominent in the cabinet and in key government posts. Companies associated with the Guards get lucrative government contracts in the energy, construction and industrial sectors. The hand of Revolutionary Guards commanders, in collaboration with the Intelligence Ministry and their judicial cohorts, is also visible in the  arrests, trials and executions that continue unabated.

  • What forms has this crackdown taken?

Widespread arrests were followed by a televised show trial of over 100 prominent political figures and ordinary protesters. The aim is clearly to silence all dissent and warn would-be political activists about the harsh consequences of challenging the state. Recent individual trials have produced unusually harsh sentences:

  • Nasrin Sotudeh, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to 11 years in prison and barred for 20 years from practicing law and traveling abroad merely for defending political and human rights activists and criticism of Iran's human rights record made when she was abroad.
  • Mohammad Seifzadeh, also a lawyer, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
  • Zahra Bahrami, a Dutch-Iranian woman, was hanged ostensibly for drug trafficking but principally for taking part in the post-election demonstrations.
  • Bijan Khajehpour, a business consultant, recently had his five-year prison sentence confirmed by an appeals court.
The security agencies have also targeted student and trade union activists, bloggers, women's rights campaigners and leaders of ethnic Kurd, Baluch and Arab minorities. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, over 60 Iranians were executed in January 2011 alone, making Iran the country with the highest number of executions per capita worldwide and second only to China in absolute numbers. Several of those executed were Kurd or Baluch activists.
The crackdown has also included dismissals of university faculty, deans and administrators. There is renewed talk of revising university curricula to exclude “foreign” ideas and theories in the teaching of history, political science and philosophy. National radio and television have always spoken for the regime but, as  propaganda tools, they now resemble the Soviet media in the worst days of Soviet rule.
  • What has been the role of  Iran's Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in these developments?
With his usual political acumen, Ayatollah Khamenei has adapted to these new circumstances. In the same way that he fully endorsed Ahmadinejad's electoral victory and the harsh repression that followed, he has facilitated the expanding role of the Guards commanders and the security agencies in the government. The Guards commanders need Khamenei to lend religious and constitutional legitimacy to the regime. They, in turn, protect the regime against the opposition—even if the opposition rises from within the ruling establishment's own ranks.
Khamenei did face some criticism from senior clerics for the harsh 2009 repression and subsequent arrests and trials. But for all intents and purposes, that source of dissent has now been neutralized. In two trips to the holy city of Qum over the past year, Khamenei received visits from all but one of the most senior clergy. Either through coercion or persuasion, these men appear to have bought into the argument—at least for the time being—that only the supreme leader, the military and the security forces will preserve the Islamic Republic’s clerical rule and prevent chaos.
  • How do you see President Ahmadinejad's role in Iran today? 

Ahmadinejad cultivates a populist style that is more reminiscent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez than of previous Iranian presidents. Although a member of the ruling elite, he poses as the champion of the "little man" against the establishment. He and his coterie of appointees represent a new generation now challenging the first generation of revolutionary leaders, such as former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for their hold on power.

Ahmadinejad flouts the established order in other ways. He has ignored the rulings of the Majlis, or parliament. He has ignored budgetary restrictions and spent money as he wishes. Both he and his chief of staff, Rahim  Mashaei, make sometimes outlandish pronouncements on religious matters that raise the hackles of the senior clergy.
In foreign  policy, Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements on the Holocaust (he denies it ever took place) and Israel (it should not exist) are significant not only for substance but for style. He actually likes acting the "bad boy" on the international stage. His main audience is domestic and challenges to the major powers resonate with elements of the Iranian population--and the Arab street.
Discontent with Ahmadinejad remains widespread among the urban middle class, who believe he was reelected through fraud. But he has managed to carve out a popular constituency among some elements of the working class and in the countryside. And he also has support among the security agencies and Revolutionary Guards commanders. Partly for this reason, he has retained the support of Khamenei as well. Ahmadinejad's confrontational style towards the United States and Europe also suits Khamenei well. The supreme leader was never entirely comfortable with the accommodation that two previous presidents, Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, sought with the West.
  • What are the regime's vulnerabilities?
The regime has survived the serious challenge posed by the 2009 protests when millions poured out in cities across Iran to demand change--but not without cost. Resentment festers against the crackdown and what many Iranians regard as a stolen election. Protesters are no longer in the streets, but the two main opposition leaders, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mir Hossein Mousavi, regularly condemn the government’s repression and publicize people’s grievances.
None of the young generation’s demands—jobs, freedoms, and government accountability--have been addressed since the 2009 protests. And power monopolized by a narrow ruling group is not sustainable in the long run, as demonstrated by other protests in the Middle East.
High oil revenues have provided the government with a comfortable economic cushion--both for its largesse and mistakes. The recent cut in subsidies and the consequent rise in the price of fuel, electricity and other basis commodities went off without even minor unrest, due to good planning, a weary population, or cash hand-outs as a substitute. But Iran's recent history also indicates that even ample oil revenues cannot always make up for economic mismanagement. In addition, if Egypt undergoes a successful transition to democracy and constitutional rule, the reverberations will extend beyond the Arab world. They will be felt in Iran as well.
Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.