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Iran at the Crossroads.
Between Military Dictatorship and Freedom

Mostafa Danesch

The power of the Iranian theocracy is faltering. A life-and-death power struggle is going on within the ruling class of the “Islamic Republic”. The theocratic fraction is fighting a war on two fronts – against their foes inside the establishment, and against the public manifestation of social unrest and discontent.
In hopes of gaining the people’s support and establishing its legitimacy, the Regime in Tehran temporarily eased the terror on the streets by the so called Guardians of Morality during the weeks preceding the presidential election in June of 2009. It even countenanced publicly televised debates between the four candidates. All of these attempts failed miserably. The debates only revealed the deep mistrust and hostility inside the establishment, and the profound weakness and illegitimacy of the theocracy.

The system cannot be reformed

The Civil Society who boycotted the 2005 elections, so far marginalized by the Tehran Regime, saw an opportunity to stand up to the Theocracy and let their voice be heard during the 2009 presidential election. Millions of people, mostly young men and women, participated in the electoral campaign and supported the liberal wing of the Islamic Republic. This is exactly what had already happened in 1997 and 2001. Then, hopes had been pinned on Mohammad Khatami, who entered the political stage calling for a reform inside the religious establishment, and raising the issues of democracy, human rights, and civil society. Twice – in 1997 and 2001 – he was elected President, each time with an overwhelming majority of 20 and 27 million votes respectively.
Khatami’s election expressed the expectations of a country with one of the youngest populations in the world. Of Iran’s 70 million inhabitants, two thirds are younger than 30 years and are striving for economical, political, and individual freedom. However, Khatami’s message was an ambiguous one. From the beginning, his attempts at reform stood in sharp contrast to his professed belief in the Iranian Constitution.
This is also where Western observers went wrong. They portrayed Khatami as a Reform President who would be a precursor for the democratization of the country. This was a huge mistake. Khatami was a strong believer in the “Rule of the Islamic Jurist” – or “velayat-e faqih” – which is the constitutional cornerstone of the Islamic Republic. It is a closed system consisting of the Revolutionary Leader, the Assembly of Experts, and the Council of Guardians; with the Revolutionary Leader appointing the members of the Council of Guardians from the ranks of the Clergy and the Theocrats. The Council of Guardians acts as a supervisory authority for the electoral farce, censoring the lists of candidates for the parliamentary and presidential elections on the basis of their loyalty to the system. The Council of Guardians has become an instrument of power in the hands of Revolutionary Leader Khameinei, counteracting the institutions elected directly by the people, i.e. Parliament, President, and Assembly of Experts. Additionally, article 57 of the constitution stipulates the command of the Revolutionary Leader over all three branches of Government: Executive, Judiciary, and Legislature. Division of power does not exist.
Consequently, Legislature is subject to the control of the Council of Guardians; the Executive Powers – Police, Guardians of the Revolution and Bassiig-Militia – as well as the Judiciary are under direct control of the Revolutionary Leader. This is a closed circle, offering not a single starting point for any reform inside the system.
The theocratic part of the Islamic Republic, lead by Ali Khameinei suppressed Khatami’s reform camp with all means available, ranging from political repression to sheer terror. Today’s mass movement is not the first to demand an end to the Islamic republic. Six years ago, in June/July 2003, massive student demonstrations, supported by hundreds of thousands of citizens, called not only for reforms, but for a radical change. “Khatami, Khatami, resign, resign”, was the demonstrators’ motto. At that time, many people believed that resistance would spread like wildfire, particularly as it seemed like Washington was encouraging the movement. On June 20th, 2003, Condoleezza Rice announced that America felt obliged to support the people of Iran against the Tehran regime.
However, the balance of power in the region shifted to the disadvantage of the USA, the main reason being that the USA were not able to establish a working post-war order in Iraq. They were simply not able to attack one “rogue state” after the other. After the debacle in Iraq, the rulers in Tehran could rest easy once more. It was highly improbable that America would try a new military venture in the Middle East in the near future.
«The mixture of fear and awe that the world used to feel towards the USA has been destroyed», former President Rafsanjani declared during the Friday prayer on 9th April, 2004. The radicals felt empowered. Furthermore, the Regime prevented an uprising of the opposition by mobilizing all its forces – Guardians of the Revolution, Police, Basiig-Militia as well as the “Ansar-e Hezbollah”, paramilitary troops directed via the mosques and counting a further two hundred thousand men. The movement was put down brutally and four thousand members of the opposition were arrested and vanished in the gaols of the regime or were executed. President Khatami was discredited once and for all, and any hopes for reforms inside the system were crushed.
And there was more to come. With the cold putsch of the Guardians under Ahmadinejad in 2005 (presidential election) that compromised all levels of the state, the religious radicals consolidated their power. After his assumption of office, Ahmadinejad dismissed more than two hundred thousand leading officials, replacing them with his own followers, mostly from the ranks of the Guardians. In addition to that, he militarized the political system. In order to even further establish his dominance, Ahmadinejad created enormous economical power for the Guardians. He especially gave plenty of rope to the Generals of the Guardians who subsequently built vast business empires in the fields of oil and gas, the construction sector, in the automobile industry, and other sectors of the economy. The Guardians would no longer stand on the sidelines and watch the prosperous elite of the theocracy enrich themselves after having sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands of their young man during the war against the Iraq in the 1980s.

The economical power of the political elite

The interweaving of military, economy, and political power had given rise to a mighty and immensely rich religious mafia dominating the economy of the country. Khomeini the founder of the Islamic Republic himself had sowed the seed of this development when he – immediately after the revolution in February 1979 – allowed the Clergy to confiscate the property of political opponents that had fled or had been arrested or executed. Only after the ascetic Revolutionary Leader’s death in 1989, under his successor Khameinei, the interlacing of military, religion, politics, and economics grew to really unholy proportions. Now the main interest of the top Clergy was their personal financial enrichment. Former President Rafsanjani, the current President of the Assembly of Experts, acquired more than a billion US-Dollars during his eight-year rule.
Powerful Ayatollah Ahmad Janati is the chairman of the “Organization of Islamic Propaganda” that dominates the media as well as chairman of the Council of Guardians. But he has not only been concerned with his spiritual well-being. He and his sons hold the monopoly for the import of electric and electronic home appliances and run important commercial enterprises in Dubai and Bahrain that possess their own cargo ships and other means of transportation.
The sugar monopoly is held by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, the theorist of the Theocratic State and president Ahmandinejad’s mentor.
However, the financial exploitation of the land is only the short-term problem. What matters more in the long run is the fact that the commercial caste and the closely connected radical elite of the Clergy go for fast profits and neglect domestic production. Many sectors of production are lying idle. Last year the domestic production of sugar plummeted to 50 percent, while at the same time 1 million tons of sugar was imported.
Khameinei’s family was also deep into corruption. In the context of the Tehran upheaval after the 12th of June elections, it became known that Khameinei’s son, Mudjtaba, had deposited 1.6 billion US-Dollars with a London bank. According to the British government, Khameinei is one of Iran’s richest oligarchs. Under the roof of the religious foundations “Bonyadeh Mostasafan” (foundation for the poor) and “Bonyadeh Astaneh Qudse Rasawi” (foundation of the eighth Imam Reza), the Khameinei clan maintains a widely ramified network of firms. Rumour has it that the aforementioned 1.6 billion US-Dollars came from the funds of these two foundations.
There are around 120 religious foundations in Iran today, traditionally collecting the believers’ alms for the poor – one of the most important religious duties in Islam. Once social-welfare institutions, they have turned into multi-billion Dollar conglomerates.
This process has lead to the monopolization of foreign trade as well as to bigger industries run by these foundations. They own 90 percent of the country’s modern industries and dispose of at least one quarter of the national product. The executive floors of these foundations are peopled by either radical priests or newly-rich bazzares[1]. According to Forbes Magazine, the “Mostazafan-Foundation” for example, commands funds the equivalent of 115 billion US-Dollars.
However, these foundations do not only make money, they meddle with social, defence and foreign policies. Far from consolidating the government, this conglomerate of religion and commerce controls the centres of power and makes key decisions. The foundations pay neither taxes nor dues. They are under direct command of Revolutionary Leader Khameinei and constitute the basis of his economical and political power.
Since Ahmadinejad’s assumption of power in 2005 the foundations’ supremacy in the Iranian economy has been threatened, and thus the power of the theocracy. Ahmadinejad has been pushing the formerly almighty foundations from many areas of business, diverting one large contract after the other to the Guardians of the Revolution that he once was a Commander of. More and more has the Clergies economical power been diminished by the paramilitary Guardians of the Revolution. Furthermore, after the second round of the 2008 parliamentary elections, the Clergy found themselves outnumbered in Parliament as well. Currently, more Guardians are occupying seats in Parliament than imams. Hence, Ahmadinejad’s silent coup d’état has been going on for some time already.

The necessity to change the political system

The economical situation of the population has worsened. Ahmadinejad could not keep his promises from his electoral campaign in 2005, when he vowed to reduce poverty and unemployment. The rate of unemployment is 30 percent. Amongst young people it is 40 percent. Moreover, inflation sky-rocketed to 30 percent in 2008. Half of the Iranian population lives beneath the poverty line. During Ahmadinejad’s Presidency, domestic production slumped by 50 percent. While exports amount to about 60 billion US-Dollars, petroleum amounting to 80 percent of the total, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) estimates the worth of imported goods at 70 billion US-Dollars. In 2005, military goods constituted the lion’s share of the imports. According to statistics of the UN, in 2005 Iran spent 5.8 percent of the entire gross national product on the military. As a comparison: in Germany, the third largest industrial nation of the world, it was a meagre 1.4 percent. A change in Iran is becoming more and more necessary as the Iranian economy has hit rock bottom.
According to opinion polls, former president Khatami had good chances of succeeding in the presidential election against Ahmadinejad as late as March 2009, but forewent his candidature in favour of Mir Hossein Mousavi, knowing that Khameinei’s theocrats and the radicals around Ahmadinejad would undermine his election by all possible means because conservative circles were loathe of his reform program. By contrast, Mir Hossein Mousavi enjoyed a good reputation even beyond the ultra-religious political camp, calling himself a “principled reformer” and seeing himself as belonging to both political camps.
On May 22nd 2009, the electoral campaign began, after the Council of Guardians had accredited only four of the 476 candidates. Former Prime Minister Mousavi and the former President of Parliament, Karubi, presented reform programs demanding even a revision of the Constitution in order to deprive the institutions that were not elected by the people from their powers. They also called for the establishment of private TV-channels, for freedom of press, and civil rights. Mousavi declared that he was going to abolish the omnipresent and hated moral police, should he win the presidential election. This reformist programme was an open declaration of war against the theocratic fraction of the Islamic Republic. Subsequently, it would have lead to the brake down of the entire system.
Reformers and conservatives alike appealed to the population to participate in the election. For the conservative camp a high voter turnout would mean an indication of consent for the system of the Islamic Republic. The reformers on the other hand, wanted to mobilize the voters who had boycotted the 2005 elections but might vote for the reformist candidates in hope for a real change. Analysts were sure that a high voter turnout would see Mousavi as the winner of the election.
According to an anonymous source inside the Interior Ministry 5.7 million people had voted for Ahmadinejad but more than 35 million had opted for the candidates of the opposition. Mousavi alone garnered more than 19 million votes from all strata of society. However, the huge electoral fraud alienated even a part of Ahmadinejad’s own clientele and shook the legitimacy of Ayatollah Khameinei and the theocratic rule. In fact, eight of Iran’s nine Supreme Ayatollahs – the moral authority of the Islamic Republic – opposed Revolutionary Leader Khameinei.
Supreme Ayatollah Montazeri himself called the Regime “neither Republican nor Islamic.” It is obvious that the government clerics are less interested in religious beliefs or morals than they are in money and power. With millions of protesters filling the streets, government cleric Khameinei tore the crevice between the ruling Clergy elite wide open by ordering to brutally persecute the population. Most clerics can no longer silently observe that in the name of Islam opponents are being tortured, raped, and murdered.
It is evident that the movement unites not only followers of Mousavi, who by the criteria of the theocracy might be called moderately conservative, but is a platform for all those that participated in the social movements of past years or sympathize with their demands: students; the women’s movement that calls for equal rights, an end to stoning and moral terror; the urban youth, and discontented workers.
Immediately after the announcement of the official results of the presidential election, a nationwide storm of protest broke loose. The rulers panicked and broke their own rules. Even before the closing of the polling stations, supreme leader Ayatollah Khameinei announced the victory of President Ahmadinejad. The electoral fraud could hardly be more obvious.
Khameinei’s premature move constituted a flagrant breach with the traditions of the Islamic Republic. So far, there had been a sort of fragile balance between a strong theocratic element – namely the divinely chosen Supreme Leader as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and the security organs who exercised a strong influence on the institutions of the Islamic Republic – and a rather weak republican element which mainly consisted in the right of the people to decide between candidates that had previously been handpicked by the regime.
In past elections, the Supreme Leader had merely approved the results after they had been announced by the government, thereby maintaining the impression that the theocratic part of the system acknowledged the republican element. However, this fiction was shattered when Khameinei declared that he wanted Ahmadinejad to win.
Nevertheless, the electoral fraud provided the opposition with a focus, expressing their discontent first in the question “where did my vote go?” and furthermore in the demand “down with the dictatorship”. And while protests flared up, all institutions of the Islamic Republic were torn by a power struggle within the establishment.

The Guardians of the Revolution assume the power

Iran is presently facing the second phase of the coup d’état that had begun with Ahmadinejad’s first accession to the office of president in 2005. Not only Ahmadinejad’s liberal opponents are being weeded out from the political institutions, but also conservative antagonists of Ahmadinejad and Khameinei, for example, the Minister of Information and his second-in-commands. Former President Khatami cautiously coined the expression of a “velvet putsch”.
As stated earlier, in Ahmadinejad’s new cabinet, the Clergy has been further deprived of its power. Almost all Ministers are either members of the Guardians of the Revolution or once were civilian members of the Basiig-Militia. Secret Service Minister Haidar Moslehi for example, a follower of the Guardians of the Revolution, was Khameinei’s former representative at the Guardians. Ahmad Vahidi, the same man who is being sought by Interpol for his involvement in an attack against the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 that cost 85 lives, was appointed by Ahmadinejad as Defence Minister. In 1994 he was Supreme Commander of the “Sepah-e Quds”, the “Jerusalem Army”, an elite squad inside the guardians of the revolution that was charged with secret operations outside of Iran.
Vahidi’s predecessor, Mohammad Nadjar is now the head of the Interior Ministry. Both of them used to be Generals of the Guardians of the Revolution. Newly appointed Oil Minister Mir-Kazemi is close to the Guardians, too. All in all, the Guardians occupy the key Ministries of Ahmadinejad’s new government, completing his silent putsch. Furthermore, the Guardians have been a state within a state since Rafsanjani’s presidency over 20 years ago. Today they control up to a third of the country’s economy. For example, the enterprise by the name “Khatam-Al-Arabia” grew into one of the leading economical powers of the country. “The Seal of the Prophet” is this economical wing of the Guardians called. Today their current order volume lies at about 15 billion US-Dollars. The Guardians own and operate harbours, dams, and subways. Furthermore, they built and control Tehran’s international airport. And not all their activities are legal. Alireza Ashgari, a renegade former Officer of the Guardians, called them a “mafia-like organization”. Their control of secret harbours, airports, and fictitious firms, allows them to conduct large-scale smuggling operations. The Generals of the Revolutionary Army dominate the black market, drug dealing, and prostitution. 12 billion US-Dollars a year come alone from smuggling cigarettes and alcohol, but drug trade is even more profitable. Each year more than 3.500 tons of Afghan Opium is being smuggled to Europe via Iran, further filling the pockets of the Guardians.
And there is more: the Guardians of the Revolution command Iran’s nuclear forces and play a decisive role in the country’s nuclear program. This was confirmed when Shahram Amiri, a high-ranking officer of the Guardians who directed the secret uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, revealed the nuclear project to the Americans and turned the secret plans over to them during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in the middle of this year. During the recent nuclear talks between the USA and Iran in Geneva, Iranian negotiator Jalili had to admit to the existence of the plant when US Undersecretary of State Burns presented him with the plans. International experts even suppose that the Guardians might already be in the possession of construction plans for a nuclear bomb. Half a million Islamic radicals – Guardians of the Revolution and Basiig-Militia – with access to nuclear facilities and maybe even plans for the second “Islamic bomb” after Pakistan – this is a terrifying outlook if there ever was one.

The instrument to secure the system is their Secret Service

The founding of the Guardians’ very own secret service dates from the time when Khameinei was appointed Supreme Leader of the revolution after Khomeini’s death in 1989. Unlike the founder of the Islamic Republic, Khameinei was everything but charismatic and lacked religious authority even among the Clergy. To secure his position, he was in dire need of a powerful ally and a reliable source of information. The Guardians provided him with both. By using the deceiving name of “Information Bureau of the Leader”, he founded a very effective Intelligence Service inside the ranks of the Guardians. It has since evolved into a valuable and much feared Secret Service that entertains a strong rivalry with the official Secret Service which is called Ministry of Information.
This also explains the otherwise confusing fact that officials from the Ministry of Information supported Mir Hossein Mousavi in the recent election and provided him and Karubi with highly explosive information about the machinations of Khameinei, Ahmadinejad, and the Guardians. According to them, the Guardians have gone from a Revolutionary Army to a profoundly corrupt mafia monopolizing the petroleum trade, plundering the national wealth, and striving for money and power. Consequently, a few days after the elections, the Minister of Information and his closest staff members were dismissed.
What we see today in Iran is not only the preliminary endpoint of Ahmadinejad’s silent coup d’état that has been going on since 2005, but also the result of the Guardians ascent to the power of a state within a state.


In June 2009 a revolutionary situation arose similar to the one which swept away the regime of the Shah in February 1979. The Tehran Theocracy decided to keep the regime alive by force of arms and massive repression. They secured their power through the means of sheer terror, the persecution of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, torture, rape, and murder of hundreds in secret prisons of the Guardians, and in the well known prison Kahrisak which was closed by Khameinei once it was evident what crimes against the movement were committed there. The mass manifestations of the population show that the sovereign people opposed the reign of the bayonets. «From now on we have a government whose legitimacy is not accepted by the majority of the people, including myself... It is our historical duty to continue our protest in order to reconquer the people’s legitimate rights», Mousavi declared in July 2009.
The coup regime face a difficult situation: the leaders of the opposition belong to the same establishment as the clerics do. On the other hand, the reformers do not only enjoy the support of the people, but are also backed by the theocratic camp. Mousavi claims to be at home in both camps. On the occasion of the June 19th Friday prayer, even Khameinei had to declare that the conflict was a “family matter”. But when appeasements and threats were of no avail, he ordered the assault against the marchers on the streets. By the end of July, the Friday imams, among them Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, demanded that blasphemers and heretics be put to death. The ongoing manifestations and the wide spectrum of the oppositional movement clearly show that the leaders of the reformist movement – Mousavi, Karubi and Khatami – have lost control of the masses. They see themselves as Khomeini’s heirs and admonish their followers to act according to the ideas of the founder of the state. To the majority of the opposition, Khomeini’s legacy is irrelevant, and they remember only too well that Mousavi was Khomeini’s Prime Minister when repression was strongest. In 1988, during Mussawi’s time as Prime Minister, Khomeini the Revolutionary Leader, installed inquisition tribunals that sentenced several thousand secular opponents to death by execution.
Consequently, people have lost their trust in the system. They are tired of the daily lies and moral sermons of the Religious Establishment. What they really want is a political system that is secular, free, and democratic. While Mir Hossein Mousavi, a man coming from the system, is not a real solution for millions of protesting young people, the “green movement” that he initiated still offers a platform for demands that go way beyond his reformist program. The opposition movement is getting more and more radical, putting Mousavi and Karubi in an ambiguous position. They are losing their leading role but on the other hand, cannot turn their backs on the movement. Mousavi and Karubi would be running the risk of being arrested and vanish in the torture chambers of the Regime themselves, if isolated. Meanwhile, the movement will leave its leaders behind if they prove unable to keep up with it.
The question now is if and how the Islamic Republic will be able to overcome this deep economical and political crisis. In former years the regime could divide the opposition by directing its repression at chosen groups like ethnic minorities, workers of certain industries, teachers, women or students. But today’s opposition is a movement of millions of people that cannot be explained away by putting the blame on a scapegoat.
This coup d’état Regime is likely to face the same situation as the Shah did thirty years ago. Then, parts of the Imperial Army refused to fire at their fellow countrymen and joined the revolutionary side, hence, playing an important role in the victory of the revolution. In today’s reigns of the Guardians and the basidji-militia, many would choose the people over the regime when the time comes.
In Iran, the protests have lead to big changes, enhancing political awareness. The Regime has won a battle, but it has by far not won the war yet. In the medium and long term, the Regime will be unable to block the revolutionary process. The ruling elite would be well advised to remember what Talleyrand, Napoleon’s Foreign Minister and later his rival, told the emperor 200 years ago: «Sire, you can do a lot of things with a bayonet, but you cannot sit on it».

[1] In Persian, Bazaar's traders [editor's note].
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