One Year On: The View from Washington
by PETER PIATETSKY in Washington, D.C.
10 Jun 2010 19:59
A Year Later, Iran More Authoritarian and Divided.
Some of America's top Iran scholars marked the upcoming anniversary of Iran's contested election by discussing the growing role of the Revolutionary Guards and the importance of economics and the Iranian diaspora, as an audience that included government officials and Iran policy analysts such as Barbara Slavin and Robin Wright probed the panelists for predictions and munched on baklava.
Asked for his forecast of the year ahead, Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council for three presidents, said that "no one knows" and cautioned that although the Green Movement wants change, Mousavi and Karroubi want deliberate reform, not an abolition of the Islamic Republic. With the government opposing even incremental changes, "this could be a very long process" he said, comparing the security apparatus in Iran to that of Stalin's Soviet Union, which kept the lid on dissent for decades.
In a sad reflection on the state of affairs in Iran today, Sick's comment was not the only Stalin comparison. Referencing George Kennan's analysis of the Soviet Union, Karim Sadjadpour, another panelist and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the ascendancy of the Revolutionary Guards is a situation where "the security forces that were established to protect the state have now subsumed the state." Sadjadpour was at odds with Sick and another panelist, Abbas Milani of Stanford, over who was in charge: Sadjadpour believes it is Khamenei while Milani and Sick say the Guards hold more power. All three did agree that in the last year the Revolutionary Guards increased their power and began using it more openly.
Milani claimed that the Revolutionary Guards now control 60 percent of the Iranian economy through businesses that range from oil and gas to construction and even have contracts in Venezuela and Africa. Ironically, U.S. pressure is pushing more and more no-bid contracts to the Guards, as shown last week when Iran's Pars Oil and Gas Company awarded a large contract to a Guards affiliated company after two western companies pulled out of bidding due to U.S. pressure. Sick added his own criticism of sanctions: "When we started sanctions against Iran back in the mid-1990s, Iran didn't have a single centrifuge," but today, "Iran has 9,000 centrifuges and is producing low-enriched uranium."
The panelists also discussed the Green Movement's recent failure to mobilize and their internal divisions. Borrowing a turn of phrase from Sarah Palin, Sadjadpour said that "Mousavi and Karroubi need to do a better job of reaching out to 'Ali the Plumber' in Tehran and to make it clear to working-class Iranians why they would be better off in a Green Iran." The divisions are not only economic, but also ideological, Sadjadpour added, as Mousavi and Karroubi "still continue to revere Khomeini as this infallible icon" but for "the younger generation of Iranians, and certainly the Iranian diaspora, Khomeini is the problem, not the solution."
Turning to the topic of the Iranian diaspora, especially in the United States, the panelists pointed out its successes and wealth, controlling "$700 billion in assets" according to Milani's estimates. More importantly, they see the diaspora uniting in the face of a common threat, a remarkable phenomenon as it is compromised of groups ranging from royalists to the supporters of Mojaheddin-e-Khalq. Sadjadpour said that he had never seen the "gap between political activists in Iran and those in the diaspora" as narrow as it is today and that he and others are reaching out to people who they would have avoided a year ago.
As the opposition and diaspora unite, so does the regime, but the panelists agreed that the Islamic Republic's core is comprised of a small group of hardliners with no legitimacy surrounded by sycophants and opportunists, held together by fear and greased by corruption. Speaking of the attendance at Ahmadinejad's recent speeches, Sick pointed out that stadiums are empty and the audience is not afraid to show its boredom: "If these are the people who he has bought, he didn't get a very good bargain." Milani pointed to ideological bankruptcy of what was once the country's most ideological institution, the Basij: "These were the people who would walk over minefields. Now, by every indication, it has become inundated by opportunists who are there to get a job, to get their daughters into university easier, to get a contract, to get free medical" care. But according to Sick, this increasingly small group of people, led by the Revolutionary Guards, who increasingly control the economy, foreign policy and even ideology, is "almost certain to split at some point [...] organizations that are that big tend to break up into pieces."
While the panelists predicted that this break up is far off, they pointed to two factors that could quickly change the situation: Milani said that if anything becomes a "trigger point, it would be the economy," and Sick said that age would play a large factor in the coming years. "Khamenei is not getting any younger and he's had his health problems, so what if, in the next decade, or even the next year, he dies?" Sick suggested that this could lead to the "Revolutionary Guards emerging openly" to "provide a leader."
The atmosphere was friendly and the audience, perhaps more than in any other D.C. policy circle, was full of friendships and connections that go back years. Milani, who during the Shah's reign shared a cell block with Hashemi Rafsanjani at Evin prison, added a lighter moment to the discussion when he told the audience that Rafsanjani was "a very bad volleyball player."
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