Coup-d'État? The Iranian Election in Five Acts
by REZA VALIZADEH in Paris
27 May 2010 20:02
Act Two: Islamic DistillationsThe Basij didn't get a single shot off. Yes, it was equipped with all sorts of military paraphernalia. It received special military training too. But it never pulled the trigger, ever; the Guards neither. This, despite what the "man in the shadows" had commanded: "Start the fight before they do" -- in the more familiar American idiom, "Take the fight to the enemy."
Nobody pulled a gun. But the years of the 9th government of the Islamic Republic of Iran were replete with exchanges of accusations and threats with the United States and Israel. No war, but the constant talk of it allowed the Basij and the Guards to be turned into heavily militarized organizations. They expanded swiftly even as their gun barrels remained cold -- though election protesters claim that they came ablaze in the days after the June 2009 polling. They claim that the Basij fired, and the Guards too. That is something beyond this discussion.
The focus here is the covert arming and expansion of the Basij and the Guards. Only with such knowledge we can see their roles in the election and its aftermath. Act One of this history mentioned the build-up of the Basij in passing. In this part, I offer a detailed account of the evolution that took place among the Basij and other military and security organizations after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. While perhaps not a direct route to our goal of finding the "magic ballot boxes," it is a necessary diversion.
A Commanding Presence
Ahmadinejad's opponents believe that he first gained the presidency by supporting, interfering with, and manipulating the Basij, and eventually, the Guards. The 9th government sped the Basij's evolutionary course, changed its cultural, social, and political missions, and turned it into a military machine. It broke with history and prioritized the strengthening and expansion of the Basij's Al Zahra and Ashura military units, initially as a defensive measure in the face of external threats.
By some accounts, Major General Yahya Rahim Saffavi, the Basij commander at the time, did not agree with the changes, but reluctantly agreed to them on the basis of Western threats. Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Aziz Jafari, in charge of training, expanding, and equipping Basij units, ultimately became the central figure.
Rumors of war with the West, even nuclear attacks, spread daily. The military preparations seemed completely natural. The Al Zahra and Ashura units received semimobile and heavy weapons after September 2005.
On September 11, 2006, a significant development took place. Rahim Saffavi was removed from command of the Guards, and Aziz Jafari, just promoted to major general, was installed in his place. Many in the Guards believe that Rahim Saffavi was ousted against his wishes, but the regime-controlled media simply attributed his replacement to the expiration of his ten-year term.
Aziz Jafari took the Guards' helm while keeping command of the Basij. For the first time since the 1979 Revolution, a single person was in charge of both military organizations. The Basij was strengthened with 600 new Iman Hossein units within the year. By 2008, the budget for the Basij had doubled. In 2009, an additional $45 million credit was extended to it by the presidential office of Strategic Planning and Control.
In less than a year, in July 2008, General Aziz Jafari restructured the Guards to create 31 provincial divisions. One division per province, except Tehran, which had two -- one for the province, called Sepah-e Seyyed-Olshohada (Martyrs' Martyr Division), and one specifically for Metropolitan Tehran, the Sepah-e Mohammad, Rasoul-ol Allah (Mohammad, the Messenger's Division). Each division was assigned a holy cleric as a representative of the Supreme Leader, with ranking equal to that division's commander.Another fighting force was also devised, the Sepah-e Sieberi (Cyber Army). According to its founders, this unit monitors the net for suspicious acts and confronts "cyber agitators" and espionage threats.
The July 2008 changes extended to the Basij. Hojatoleslam Hossein Taeb (pictured in turban) was picked by General Aziz Jafari to be Basij commander, although he had been fired from his post as deputy to the minister of intelligence, Ali Fallahian, because of his extremism and violent behavior.
The Russian Security-Intelligence Doctrine
Steadily, the Basij's mission of safeguarding against potential external threats grew to include internal insurgencies. Groups from the Basiji were hand-picked to receive special training for handling street riots. From these, an even more select group received special security training.
General Seyyed Reza Hosseini, a former commander of the Committee for Protection of the Regime, left Iran a few years back. (1) He now goes by his birth name, Mohammad Reza Madhi. He says, "A group of fourteen security and intelligence commanders were selected to receive intensive security training. The trainers were top Russian experts. Later on, a handful from this group played important roles in the electoral coup and the suppression that followed: Mohammad Ali Aziz Jafari, commander of the Guards, and Hossein Taeb, commander of the Basij, were two prominent members of this latter group."
During the year before the most recent presidential election, the Basij conducted several street maneuvers, under rubrics such as "Devotees of Guardianship," practicing responses to various attacks and street riots and training in first aid operations. These exercises were carried out to measure the fighting capabilities and coordination of the Basij's military units. They were instigated by the student riots of July 9, 1999, when dormitories were attacked by plainclothes security agents and the Basij. From then on, in times of crisis, all police stations in the city have been placed under the purview of local Basij Resistance Units. The Army too, carried out maneuvers in Tehran, called "Security and Tranquility," with the aim of enhancing civilian security awareness, protection of vital sites, and civil defense.
The Basij, which was once known as Basij-e Mostazafan, literally the Assembly of the Oppressed, before Ayatollah Khomeini's death, was renamed the Basij Resistance Force and steadily became more militarized each day. Meanwhile, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps became more involved in economic affairs.
During this time, Ahmadinejad beat the drum of nuclear face-off and confrontation with Israel. Discussion of a possible U.S. or Israeli attack filled the media, while the U.N. Security Council passed sanction resolutions on a regular basis. Of course, the sanctions led to the departure of foreign companies, strengthening the Guards by giving them the opportunity to take over petroleum and other profitable projects. As the Guards' reach expanded, with transit pipelines and ports falling under their control, its new business operations became a dilemma for the rest of the world. Foreign powers needed the energy, but the Guards controlled the spigot.
The government used "security concerns" to justify not opening projects to bidding. More sanctions helped the financial cartel of the Guards thrive more. The projects awarded to Khatam, the Guards' contracting subsidiary, grew from $7 billion to $20 billion once Aziz Jafari took command.
Yet, the man on the fifth floor of Reformist headquarters, mentioned in Act One, was only concerned with oil income being distributed to the poor and provincial families as part of presidential trips. He considered it one of the three factors that could cost Reformists the election. He had only recognized one side of the coin.
A Prescription for More Boots
Military and security forces in Iran include more than the Guards and the Basij. What was going on with the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Ministry of Intelligence, and the police forces?
The traditionally organized military services didn't go through major changes, with one exception: The Guards, with the support of the Supreme Leader's office, took over the Military Intelligence Protection Organization. That gave it control and use of the armed forces for special situations, leading to several confrontations between high- and middle-ranking commanders by mid-2008. The Ministry of Intelligence, which had little affinity with the 9th government, was left virtually unaltered.
On the other hand, the federal police -- formally, the Might of Discipline -- experienced changes starting from the top. General Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam became the new field marshal. He has been accused of receiving nepotistic favors from his brother-in-law, Ahmadinejad. Before this latest appointment, he was deputy commander of the Basij Resistance Force, and in cooperation with the rest of the Basij, played a central role in Ahmadinejad's victory in the 2005 presidential campaign.
General Ahmad Reza Raddan of the Guards was appointed head of the Greater Tehran police force. He formerly served in the provincial police forces of Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchesten, where he is remembered for his exceptional brutality.
The four years of Ahmadinejad's first term also brought the Civil Security Enhancements projects, framed as tackling hoodlums and hooligans, enforcement of Islamic garb, inspection of women's boutiques and men's barbers, photo studios, singles' houses, and confiscation of satellite dishes. Special units organized displays of those arrested in southern Tehran. They were paraded in different neighborhoods, had ablution pots hung around their necks, were beaten, dragged down the streets, stomped on. The regime's media outlets proudly broadcast these scenes.
In parallel, guidance patrols confronted and often arrested people on the slightest pretenses: if a woman's overall uniform was a bit tight, head cover had slipped back a bit, length of sleeve too short, or pants legs too flared. By the end, even the height of boot cuffs was being measured.
Doctrinal Capital of the 9th Government
Was there a single source for the shift toward confrontation? Was it due only to the predilections of Ahmadinejad and his military cronies, those who had declared that "our problem is not youth's hair" and "citizens are free to dress as they wish"?
Where did these confrontational ideas come from? Inside or outside Iran? The office of the Supreme Leader? Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi? A club of political heavyweights like Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, and Gholam-Hossein Elham? In fact, we must look to a source that is comparatively obscure, to many entirely unknown. It is called the Doctrinal Analysis Center -- Security without Borders. (2) It is a place that, by a couple of degrees of separation, connects us to the "man in the shadows."Founded in 2001 by Dr. Hassan Abbasi, (3) it is known as the "slogan foundry" of the fundamentalists and the 9th government. Its Reality Think Tank and Cultural Enhancement Think Tank specialize in coining slogans and other forms of political language. It distills domestic and imported concepts -- such as velvet revolution, soft overthrow, and resilient confrontation -- into labels for use against opponents.
Dr. Hassan Abbasi, its director, is a Tehran-born university professor, 44 years old. He received his Ph.D. in Great Britain in national security and strategic science. He has published 31 books on strategic studies.
The Center's website is innocuous and incomplete, as if still under construction. There are no links for its staff, mission, or goals. In short, its Internet presence does nothing to suggest the true extent of its influence on policy.
The Center was born from one word: strategy. A private think tank, its mission is to develop the Islamic Republic's doctrine for countering internal and foreign threats in the coming century -- in effect, a strategic expansion plan for Iran.
Why is such a think tank necessary when there is a constitutional system that enables such planning to be conducted within the government? Although the Center is not forthcoming, one figure close to it explains, "A nation's legal system is not conducive to decision making in face of all problems." Those in power are interested in doctrinal research carried out within "pre-legal", "infra-legal" and "exo-legal" frameworks.
According to a brief entry in the Farsi Wikipedia, the Center declares that it has three primary goals:
1- Examining the veracity of historical theories in three realms: Iranian (national history of Iran), Islamic (general religious history and the history of Shiism), and international (histories of peoples and nations).
2- Extrapolating the lessons of history over the next 25-, 50-, 75-, and 100-year periods.
3- Defining Security without Borders: How to understand globalism -- culturally, politically, economically, militarily, and socially -- in a context of "truth" and "falsehood." (2.2)
The "Long Arm" Doctrine
Ehsan Soltani, a former intelligence officer at The Guards, who left Iran like his one-time commander, General Reza Hosseini, says that those who run the Center work, or have worked, at either or both the Intelligence Ministry and the Guards. They hire some of the most promising university students for special projects. As any think tank might, they then sell their research products to the government.
Another of its notable theoreticians is Hassan Rahim-poor-as-ghandi, a member of the Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution during President Mohammad Khatami's first term. He has published four theological volumes and more than ten political-religious articles. He and Abbasi support Ahmadinejad in all of their speeches and call the Reformists "minions of foreign powers."
Soltani says that the Islamic Republic's belligerent policies, foreign and domestic, are conceived at the Center. One doctrine in particular, named "Long Arm," calls for Iran to maintain a "first strike," offensive, and aggressive political posture toward the West, rather than a defensive or reactive one.
"Long Arm" has been distilled into slogans with which Ahmadinejad has become closely associated, such as Holocaust denial and the eradication of Israel. The doctrine has also manifested in practical support for the Qods Army in Yemen, the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the administration of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
The similarities between Abbasi's theories of soft rule and asymmetrical initiatives and the physical plans for asymmetrical formations and guerrilla warfare in the Islamic Republic's military organizations are not coincidental.
Civil Security Enhancement and police confrontations of citizens are internal by-products of the same distillation. In essence, this is a doctrine that favors "prevention instead of cure." To avoid facing cultural, political, and other types of aggression, they have to be prevented. There is no other option on this path but to choose proactive, offensive, and aggressive postures.
This doctrine's source is based not in practical considerations or even political inclinations, but in religious tenets. Every theory, every foreign or domestic policy that the Center conceives is mined from the Qu'ran, the Nahj'olbalaq-e (a collection of sermons, letters, pronouncements, and myths about Ali, the first Shia Imam), or other Islamic tomes.
Not all the mining efforts are carried out within the Center's confines. There are two primary sources for the doctrines' religious bona fides. The first is the Mahdaviat Research Center, (4) also known as the Bright Future Organization, in Alley No. 25, off Qom's Saffayieh Avenue. Ehsan Soltani is one of many who accuse it of close association with hojatieh, or messianic groups.
The second can also be found in Qom. It is from here that the "man in the shadows" expounded, "Jihad is a door to heaven which God opens to select followers. Jihad is their Godly pious robes, righteous armors, and invincible shields.... Be aware, you're called to fight this tribe, day and night, hidden or exposed, before they get to fight you.... The almighty is witness that no nation has been attacked at home unless by its weakness. But you passed on the responsibility for jihad to others and have not risen in camaraderie, so the enemy has been able to attack you from all directions and taken your towns. The army of this man from the Ghamed tribe could enter Al Anbar, execute Hessan-son of Hessan-e Bekri, and kill all your border patrols. I have heard that many of them had attacked Muslim women and children, looted their jewelry, but not one them was injured and not a single one of them killed."
This amalgam of sermon 27 of the Nahj'olbalaq-e with miscellaneous verses from five chapters of the Qu'ran shapes the religious inspiration of the "Long Arm" doctrine, which has been so pivotal in the development of the bellicose policies of the 9th government.
1- Under the name Seyyed Reza Hosseini, Mohammad Reza Madhi held key intelligence and security positions in Iran. He commanded various Guard units during the Iran-Iraq war. With the Guards' Investigations unit, his mission was to uncover bureaucratic abuses in the intelligence office. He was a counsel to the minister of intelligence in 1991. By private mandate, he was assigned to the investigative experts group at the Supreme Leader's office the same year. In 1992, he was assigned a special joint Committee of Intelligence Ministry and Guards' Intelligence Unit, tasked with the review critical cases to help coordinate the nation's various security and intelligence organizations. He was selected by the Assembly of Experts as a special counsel to its investigations and inspections committee. He is known for his myriads of special assignments with the Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence, such as investigation of internal malfeasance at Guards' Preservation unit. He suggested the creation of an organization to investigate and address the regime's vulnerabilities. Ayatollah Khamenei subsequently approved the creation of such a body, named Bureau 313.
According to Madhi, his mandate covered 38 national cases, one of which was the Chain Murders of the 1990s. He became entangled with the Intelligence unit of the Ministry of Justice while investigating corruption at the ministry and was detained for 45 days. He believes his investigative efforts led Ellias Mohammadi, head of the ministry's Intelligence office, to attempt to frame him. Eventually these machinations, along with health problems due to chemical injuries he sustained during the war with Iraq, caused him to leave the country. The following links, in Farsi, provide more on Madhi and his experiences.
2- The first link connects to the Doctrinal Analysis Center's Reality Think Tank and Security without Borders website. The second link is the Farsi Wikipedia entry that describes the Center's goals.
3- The following links offer a glimpse of Dr. Abbasi's thoughts and rhetorical techniques. Also in Farsi, they are mostly lectures given at schools and addresses to the Guards and the Basij.
4- Links to site related to Mahdaviat Research Center:
This series by Iranian journalist Reza Valizadeh is a joint project between Tehran Bureau and Tehran Review. To read this article in Farsi, please click here.
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