Monday, June 29, 2009

Murky Iran

    An attempt to make the grim Republican Guards crest look inspiring.

Two weeks ago, it looked like street protests might bring down the Islamic Republic.  Then it looked like repression had worked and things would go back to "normal". 

Now it looks like neither is a likely outcome.  There are no other obvious alternatives, but the street protests have not brought down the government and the repression has not put the genie back in the bottle.  Instead, the botched stealing of the election has exposed deep political fault lines. 

The most serious of these seems to be over who is running the government.  There appear to be many in the establishment who worry that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, commonly called the Pasdaran) have functionally taken over the republic and that they will run it in a manner that favors the expansion of their power.  Or put another way, Iran may no longer be an Islamic Republic, but a military dictatorship masquerading as an Islamic government. 

There has been widespread anger at the way protesters have been handled.  Many conservatives, even conservative clergy, apparently feel that the election was obviously stolen and cracking heads is not the best way to deal with the problem.  What is clear is that the Iranian military and police had no appetite for killing protesters.  The repression has been carried out almost entirely by the Pasadaran, and especially by their brownshirts, the Basij. 

That casts the political upheaval in a new light.  The Pasadaran has become something like the SS in Germany.  Not, and I mean this most seriously, in any way like the criminals who made up the SS or the horrendous crimes they committed.  But in a structural sense.  The SS became the most powerful institution in the 3rd Reich.  It was a party institution, not governmental, answerable only to the leader of the Nazi Party.  They had their own army, their own industrial operations and controlled all policing, security and intelligence apparatus. They were also widely appointed to bureaucratic positions in government.  Likewise, the IRG has their own army, their own industrial and commercial operations and control the Republic's nuclear weapons.  After the 2005 election, many Pasadaran were appointed to beurocratic positions in the government.  Also like the SS, they are theoretically controlled by the Supreme Leader.  But, Khameni's disastrous speech on Friday, June 19 has many wondering if he controls the Pasadaran or they control him. 

Ahmadinejad is an IRGC man and it is widely thought that the Pasadaran skillfully stole a close election in 2005 to put him in power.  However, the scale and blatancy of manipulation in the recent election is something else entirely.  It violates the deal between the regime and the populace.  People can do pretty much whatever they want in private, but must observe Islamic principals in public.  The government demands a minimal level of compliance, but does not insist on belief.  One aspect of this deal is that Presidential and Parliamentary elections are supposed to be free and fair.  Neither institution has much power in the Islamic Republic, and the mullahs won't let anyone they don't like run for office.  Positions taken by the President or Parliament can be overruled by the clergy, but they can't be ignored.  This providing an outlet for the otherwise powerless population.  The arrangement was effective and durable.  But the Pasadaran just broke the deal. 

As a result, everything may be in play.  There are lots of powerful people and political blocks in Iran.  If enough of those players get scared by the Pasadaran, real change may be in the air.  However, the best case scenario may be a return to a  more liberalized version of the status quo.  The worst case scenario would be a civil war with the Pasadaran on one side and the regular military on the other.  Despite fear mongering, nuclear weapons would not be an issue.  Nobody is going to nuke anyone else.  Remember what we learned in the Cold War, you can't actually use them, you can only threaten to use them.  Also, there is no outside country with an ability to intervene in a meaningful way.  This is an Iranian problem and will be solved one way or another, by the Iranians.