Since the 13 Aban demonstrations nearly a month ago, the international nuclear debate has been ratcheted up, and the domestic scene of the Islamic Republic of Iran keeps lurching further into the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ blood-soaked hands. From Maziar Bahari’s article, written after his experiences of being arrested and interrogated in Evin Prison (for being on The Daily Show),
The Revolutionary Guards are a schizophrenic bunch, plagued by both deep insecurities and a superiority complex.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (henceforth referred to by its common Iranian appellation, Pasdaran) is ramping up its role in internal intelligence and security forces, including an internet unit to monitor the opposition online. Pasdaran Chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said, “Today is the era of soft warfare, and we must be able to carry out our duties in confronting soft threats. This requires organizational and structural changes, and the changes that have taken place in the past one and two years are in connection to this development.” This is all in conjunction with the diminution of the traditional Intelligence Ministry (VEVAK or MOIS), successor to SAVAK, and the alarming consolidation of power into its own ranks, a pattern begun when higher ranking individuals in VEVAK were moved and shielded from Majles investigations into the Serial Murders.
The Serial Murders were a decade ago. This is now. Ramin Pourandarjani was a doctor who had testified to a parliamentary hearing on his experiences while serving his postgraduate requirements as a physician at Kahrizak detention center in Tehran, the site of some of the most horrific rapes, tortures and deaths in the immediate aftermath of the post-election unrest. He was found dead on November 10th. Kahrizak had been shut down (temporarily) on orders of Khamene’i after it had become a total fiasco by August, but still Pourandarjani was arrested following his testimony and warned to keep quiet. There he had been witness to, among others, Mohsen Rouholamini, son of adviser to conservative pragmatist candidate Mohsen Reza’i, who officially died from a case of “meningitis” and not the repeated blows to the head witnessed in his testimony. In a similar response to Pourandarjani’s death, the government announced first that he had committed suicide, then apparently that he had succumbed to a heart attack — at the age of 26. Now I hear off the wires that it was a “delivery salad laced with an overdose of blood pressure medication.”
Once I would have called this sort of thing VEVAK, but the sloppiness of its rollout all bespeaks more the possibility of a transitioning IRGC counter-intelligence, or perhaps the opposite consideration, a VEVAK now partly out of the loop. That is pure conjecture from someone woefully unqualified to make such judgments though — call it me thinking out loud and fumbling for more info. Truth is, ham-handedness is one of the regime’s twistedly endearing qualities. The case of Ebrahim Mehtari, who was beaten, anally raped by a foreign object then dumped on the road in the night bound, did point the finger at Pasdars, though. He has just been reported as seeking asylum in America by Iranian state-run media Press TV as of December 1st. For more cases like this, see this page. Also of note, is the curious case of Ehsan Fattahian.
For those who say that putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed up for Federal Trial in a civilian court in New York City is “dangerous”, then at least consider the message it would send to the world, Iran in particular, of America standing firm in our founding principles, and not fudging them when it isn’t convenient. Further political detainees from June are being charged with everything from six years in prison, like Omid Lavasani, unaffiliated web designer for MirHosein.com, to a member of the Mousavi campaign, Alireza Aushouri, sentenced to 76 lashes for charges of “propaganda against the regime by participating in June 15 demonstrations, conspiracy against national security and disturbing public order,” according to Kambiz Nowroozi.
On the Rafsanjani front, he has been conspicuously absent from Tehran’s Friday sermon (khutba), most remarkably missing the Eid Qurban (‘Eid al-Adha) ceremony, or Festival of Sacrifice. He has said this is due to four conditions laid out in his last sermon on July 17th. He called for immediate release of political prisoners, aid for those injured, redress for Grand Ayatollahs and clerics insulted, and differing viewpoints allowed in state media. Needless to say, none have happened. I still don’t trust him though. As Kenneth Pollack put it in The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America,
[I]t would be dangerous to ascribe altruistic motives to a man so famous for his corruption, his political expediency, and his own willingness to condone violence and repression.
Not a decade ago this is the same figure who was on the exact opposite end of the fence (or pulpit, rhetorically) regarding the student protests of that brutal crackdown. Has he found his true moderate self? Perhaps the the pragmatist, through the eyes of his grown children (whom are children of exceeding privilege, make no doubt) realizes the Islamic Republic cannot survive on this self-destructive course any longer, as reflected by him saying: “If we separate people from the system, this will damage it.” But he’s also long been believed to covet the position Supreme Leader for himself, and motivated by better relations with the West, thus greater business opportunities. With a master political strategist and pillar of the IRI ruling élite, it may be a combination of all of these things. He’s not called the shark (kouseh, also meaning ‘beardless’) for nothing. On the other hand, he seems to be trying to frame this absence as his own decision. During the June protests, his former-lawmaker daughter, Faezah, was briefly detained. Alireza Nourizadeh, of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London contends, “They cannot wipe him out, but they are trying to quarantine him.” That he has no longer had his once-weekly meetings with Khamene’i since the initial unrest is another clue it may not have been entirely his decision to make.
Now, to pivot back to the third point of Rafsanjani’s demands. In light that only one Grand Ayatollah sent Ahmadinejad a congratulation letter, and recent squabbling between the clerical establishment and Khamene’i over the Eid-e Fetr date for the breaking of Ramadan (fasting is begun and broken at the sighting of new moons. What would seem to be straightforward is complicated by competing clerics and, in the case of Iran, its resentment with the Saudis for being the protectors of Islam’s holiest sites), the conservative Qom Seminary Scholars Association is rumored to be preparing a list of new Grand Ayatollahs sympathetic to hard-liner ideology and even hinting at demoting others (a dubious move of questionable validity within the Ulama). Not only this, but 6,000 new Basiji centers are to be set up in elementary schools, to re-instill “Revolutionary” values back into the youth. Mohammad-Saleh Jokar, head of this effort, said, “Students of this age are more open to influence than older students, and for this reason we want to promote and establish the ideas of the revolution and the Basij.” I am reminded of Shah Mohammad Reza’s own favoring of politically sympathetic ayatollahs to the ire of others (like Khomeini), and the White Revolution, when he instituted a “religion corps” to compliment his mission to spread literacy to villages and to spread his new state-sanction brand of Shi’ism. In addition to reinvigorated elementary school indoctrination, there will be (yet another) review and possible purging of any professors left who aren’t entirely rote and whom are quite likely somewhat knowledgeable and qualified in their field, to be replaced with political appointees passing the purity test (and already part of the reason for so many young Iranians with higher education not being able to find employment). For more on what this may look like, refer to Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Yes, this is all part of the Pasdaran’s new campaign, mentioned before, dubbed the “soft war”, where according to Brigadier General Muhammad Bagher-Zolghadr, “the enemy is everywhere” — you know, those sentient beings thinking for themselves and calling bullshit on your rigid, authoritarian and stifling vision of Islam; a skewed view of a mullahtocracy which is distributing free filtering software to citizens out of the kindness of their hearts to protect their impressionable minds from Western lies and decadence (I’m not kidding, I’m paraphrasing state-media propaganda which is that farcically funny).
Perhaps it is in this light that such a puerile act as the seizure of Human Right’s lawyer Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel Peace Prize medal (and Légion d’honneur) was taken from her bank’s safe deposit box. Iranian government spokesmen have denied the charge, but, the government’s line has also long been that it is a tool of the West supporting enemies of the Revolution. In any case, who are you more likely to believe? It would also seem a warning, along with assault on her husband, Javad Tavassolian, freezing his pension and bank account, and other threats to the rest of her family. A TIME article echoes my suspicions to their motives on this:
By censoring newspapers that once carried her articles, blocking news websites that reported on her work and creating a climate of intimidation in which Ebadi would scarcely risk making a public address in Iran, the government had succeeded in reducing her voice to a rare whisper most often heard from abroad.
Indeed, the hard-line government has succeeded largely in silencing Mousavi and Khatami, whom are IRI insiders themselves, let’s never forget. Their current demands of going back to the original draft of the Constitution are indeed dramatic, but they are not small ‘r’ revolutionary leaders (now when Rafsanjani suggested in 1989 that the Constitution had been written too quickly and was incomplete, that did take balls). Khatami already demonstrated a decade earlier he was unfit to mobilize his very healthy, broad movement against a beleaguered hard-line camp in retreat. He was subsequently ham-strung in his second term when they struck back with all the methods they had at their disposal. No, these two are figureheads handpicked by the conservative Guardian Council, vessels through which the movement legitimizes itself within the fickle labyrinth that is political dissent in the Islamic Republic. Karoubi remains the only one from the elections to be undaunted and cross traditional red lines. Him, and longtime thorn in Khamene’i’s side, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. Posting a collection of both their statements would be an entertaining post in itself.
Most recently, five British yachtsmen were sailing to Dubai on a Bahraini yacht in preparation for a race when en route they allegedly crossed into Iranian waters (which I always find suspect, since they not only take the name of the Persian Gulf very seriously, but sometimes literally in their minds!). Instead of being escorted back into international waters (indeed, I would appreciate a naval expert to fill me in on proper protocol), The Pasdaran Navy (whom I would describe as Basijis in speedboats) took them mainland for questioning. There were usual threats from the Foreign Ministry and implications they might be the newest diplomatic bargaining chips along with the three American hikers still detained. It was my initial reaction that this would fit into a long pattern of hard-line government behavior; considered especially in the wake of the IAEA’s censure over their Fordo site. But, another missed angle is the evidence of the implementation of the Pasdaran Navy’s new strategic restructuring, giving it preference over the conventional Iranian Navy in the gulf, in full display for us. However; pragmatists among the leadership apparently won out on the diplomatic course to take, and the sailors are being released. The Pasdaran issued this statement: “After carrying out an investigation and interrogation of the five British sailors, it became clear that their illegal entry was a mistake.” Oh, well, fair enough, you might argue. But, the day before, several radical voices were demanding the return for trial of Arash Hejazi, the man who had come to Neda Agha-Soltan’s side and tried to save her after she was shot, and whom is now back in England studying at Oxford after surreptitiously fleeing Iran, wisely. Women sympathetic to hard-liners were also preparing a demonstration outside the British Embassy in Tehran Wednesday, December 2nd. This could have become another international row like back in 2007 with the Royal Navy personnel. I wonder if they weren’t overzealous, got a call from command after returning to port, and issued that statement like a school child castigated and forced to say they’re sorry. Either that, or someone in the ruling circle impressed upon the Supreme Leader, that they may have really overstepped their bounds. The IRI being self-aware of its own tragic absurdity? I know, it does sound loopy, but it does occasionally happen. I also think reigniting tensions with Bahrain may have been a big factor.
Where this maturity still is not happening though is over the nuclear issue (which I might add, is also being transferred into the hands of the Pasdaran – see if you can spot the pattern). Now, it is not my intention to delve too deeply into that here. If you don’t know my position, it is the following. I do not trust the IRI. But the hysteria it induces in the West (Israel in particular) is not constructive either. And the double standards are not lost on the Iranian people. We, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are also the five leading nuclear armed states, with a combined total of warheads at around 23,000. Furthermore, we’ve turned a blind eye to non-NPT nations such as India, Pakistan, and yes, Israel. I’m sure they also took note of North Korea’s breakout, as well. However; my view, along with many others, including Juan Cole, is that they are seeking a Japan option. Whether unfair or not (and it was a fairly minor infraction, not to say the Iranians don’t drag their feet and play coy), they were censured. Part of me thinks this may have been partly to do with their cold feet on the originally proposed Russian deal (which as I said in my first article, is the victim of internal politics as much, if not more, than the international climate). For more on the complexities (which I’ll admit go over my head often), Sharmine Narwani wrote one of the better articles I’ve seen on the situation, at duh-duh-duh, The Huffington Post. It is the histrionic way in which Iran has reacted for a slap on the wrist, threatening to withdraw from the NPT, and build new enrichment facilities (which they don’t have the resources for), that is oh so, IRI. Take this quote from Ahmadinejad,
[Western countries] need us more than we need them. It is psychological warfare and isolating Iran is impossible. Any finger which is about to pull the trigger will be cut off.
And what always happens is that we in the West freak out over such outlandish delusions and they feel validated. My proper response to this acting out? A collective “bitch, please”. But the West is not much better. How many times have I heard the old poorly translated Khomeini line about ” the Zionist regime vanishing from the page of history” conflated with Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denier conference? They are a lot of things, but they are not nihilists. The next line I always hear is, oh, but they could pass it off to Lebanese Hezbollah or HAMAS. Okay, and that changes the scenario how, exactly? As if it won’t possibly kill a lot of Palestinians, or as if we wouldn’t figure out it came from them. Since the Iran-Iraq War, Iran also has had chemical and biological stores and weapon capability, yet has never used them or passed them on to its proxies. As to the common refrain that the US is moving in to invade Iran. Not gonna happen. Pick up a topographical map of Iran sometime. Look up their population. I don’t even need to address the counterproductive affect it would have in unifying the country. And a strike? I remain unconvinced Israel even has the technology, whether with Jericho II payload and accuracy or F-15I’s to perform sustained strikes of numerous heavily fortified targets. Plus, as Gary Sick has observed,
When Israel keeps talking practically every day of attacking Iran, to me, that is the best evidence that they are not going to do it. If you look back at almost all the raids and operations they have carried out whether in was in Entebbe, in Syria or in 1982, on Iraq’s nuclear facilities, all of those took place without absolutely any previous warning. It was maintained as a great state secret.
My main problem with the hue and cry over the nuclear issue and saber rattling is that it overshadows the human rights issue. In Maziar Bahari’s article cited at the top of this page, he pointed out something very interesting, which I had been at a loss to contextualize in my last piece:
The rumor du jour in Iran is that Obama and the Guards are reaching a deal to normalize relations, in exchange for which America will ignore human rights abuses in Iran. Hence, the opposition movement’s slogan “Obama, either with them or with us.”
And you know what? We kind of do have a deal with them and firebrands like Ahmadinejad (or the ‘Persian Palin’, as I like to call him). Every time they crack down on opposition voices, all they have to do is shout a nuclear threat and — ooh, shiny ball — yes it’s that easy. We’re totally trained. Ask yourself a question. What domestically do you think they’d rather the focus from the international community be about?
In closing, I’d like to confess that Iranian politics still bewilders me, and I am still struggling with the Kabuki theater and Byzantine structure of it all. Robin Zaehner, an intelligence officer (and brilliant linguist and religious scholar still noted for his work in the field of Zoroastrianism) was stationed in Tehran during the efforts to undermine and overthrow Mossadegh. It was reported that he would tell newcomers when they asked about Iranian politics to read Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass. Nice to see some things don’t change. This is one of those characteristics I attribute to a very deeply ingrained culture. One in which every person is a political party unto themselves, and in which words can often have double, if not more meanings.
* A note, Student Day, 16 Azar, December 7th is coming up, and more demonstrations are expected. Preemptive arrests have already been made. In the meantime, enjoy a gallery of what the Green Movement has done to Iranian bank notes.