The Mafia State

Iran is already a military dictatorship. But the Revolutionary Guard is not a junta. It is a business conglomerate with guns.

The recent statement by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, that Iran was moving toward a military dictatorship has once again drawn attention to the growing power of the Revolutionary Guards within the Iranian political economy. It makes for excellent shorthand-a sound-bite to grab the headlines-but, as suggested in my recent article for the January/February National Interest, begs further explanation and clarification. For many Iranians, the Islamic Republic is not moving towards military dictatorship, but is effectively already there. Indeed the belief in  Iran that periods of pluralism (chaos) is always replaced by autocracy is widespread, and does regrettably enjoy a solid historical pedigree.

The "creeping coup" of the Revolutionary Guards began some time ago and has perhaps only become explicit in the crisis which has gripped the country since the disputed election. As some have argued, the domestic crisis-and its continuation-has greatly benefited the Guards who have been able to stress their importance as the defenders of the hard-line establishment. But perhaps a more important qualification is what is meant by "military dictatorship," a phrase which evokes the juntas of Latin America. That this provides a familiar analogy explains in part why it has been used, but the danger is that it may encourage further false extrapolations and off-kilter analysis.

In the first place, as an institution the Revolutionary Guards are more divided in their political loyalties than is generally accepted. They remain after all an organization which depends on conscription, and the ideological core of the body is somewhat smaller than the official strength. This core is undoubtedly ideologically committed, but it is not politically autonomous and needs allies. These allies in the hard-line establishment, principally the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been key to the rise of the Guards by providing them with increasingly lucrative business opportunities. Such material temptations have had the effect of turning this revolutionary "peoples' army" into a wealthy conglomerate whose tastes and methods could not be less military. Far better to argue that Iran is being taken over by a business conglomerate with guns in alliance with an authoritarian interpretation of Islam. The religious part of the equation, is, in more ways than one, fundamental to the success of the entire enterprise because it provides the aura of authority. As such, Ayatollah Khamenei is not dispensable, not yet in any case.

In dissecting Secretary Clinton's argument, we may of course have missed the mischief at its heart. Khamenei's sensitivity about his position and power is well known, a characteristic common to those with a deep sense of insecurity. One of the explanations given for his relentless opposition to Mousavi and his supporters is that they threatened to limit his powers. Jealous of these, he has reacted accordingly. But what if the real threat to your power comes not from your enemies, but from your friends? Time perhaps for Khamenei to cast a wary eye over his shoulder?


Ali Ansari is the director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews.