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The Other Side of the Militarization of Iran's Regime

by ELLIOT HEN-TOV and NATHAN GONZALEZ

22 Dec 2010 02:3416 Comments
4043438875_f41308ea01_m.jpg[ analysis ] This week, Iran implemented an overhaul of its national subsidy system, in effect cutting billions of dollars worth of subsidies for daily consumer use, especially fuel and electricity. Though cushioned by transfer payments to low-income households, it is akin to a major austerity move. While the economic impact is clear, many outsiders remain baffled how a regime ridden with internal factionalism (and widespread unpopularity) can manage such radical reforms. The past few weeks have seen rumors of a looming impeachment trial of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, followed by his humiliating dismissal of Foreign Minister Mottaki. These are hardly the signs of calm leadership steering through an economic crisis.

But narratives grabbed from the headlines can be misleading, and longer-term developments in Tehran point in a surprising direction. Today, the Islamic Republic is set to become more politically stable, and may even offer the chance for improved U.S.-Iranian relations under what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called an emerging "military dictatorship."

Although this development was well under way at from at least the mid-1990s, the 2009 post-election fiasco was the ultimate coming-out party of the security apparatus, notably the Revolutionary Guards. Observers have termed it a 'praetorian takeover,' borrowing the name from ancient Rome's Praetorian Guard, the feared imperial bodyguard of the Caesar who used their proximity to power to eventually become kingmakers themselves.

In the early 1960s, political scientist David Rapoport pioneered the study of praetorianism, examining the core features of newly militarized regimes, mainly in Latin America and the Middle East. He found that praetorian states grew weak for three reasons. First, a state with poisoned civil-military relations leads to a breakdown of mutual trust, making the country prone to military intervention. Second, the threat of martial takeover ignites a cycle of corruption, as the military extracts more and more "bribes" to remain in the barracks. And third, this culture of corruption gradually diminishes war-fighting capabilities, in turn alienating members of the military as well as the general public, who reject military rule as illegitimate.

Looking at Iran as a praetorian state, however, yields a very different conclusion. Praetorian Iran appears to have overcome these three obstacles, at least for the foreseeable future. On civil-military relations, the Islamic Republic's unique hybrid system of elected republican elements, combined with appointed theocratic leaders, allowed for a triangular relationship; with an alliance of the clerical elite and the Revolutionary Guards emerging to counter the elected reformists-figures such as reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and presidential candidate and Green Movement figure Mir Hossein Mousavi. This clergy-military alliance still remains in the aftermath of the June 2009 elections: the clergy needs the muscle of the Guards, and the praetorians need the legitimacy that comes with clerical rule. But the balance of power is shifting, and the Guards are becoming the stronger partner.

In terms of cycles of bribery, the Revolutionary Guards in Iran have actually become an independent economic player in their own right, distinguishing themselves from traditional praetorian entities. The Guards run a vast industrial complex, as well as illicit smuggling cartels, and thus do not need to please any other interest group.

Finally, while the Guards have moved into other arenas as large commercial players, they have also raised their level of professionalism as a military force in charge of domestic security, asymmetric warfare, the country's sophisticated ballistic missile arsenal, and a presumed nuclear weapons program. While praetorian militaries eventually lose the capacity to effectively fight interstate wars, Iran only seems to be getting stronger in this arena.

None of this suggests, however, that a praetorian takeover is complete. Having relied on the Guards to crush the reformist threat, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is still an independent force within Iran. He played a role, for example, in torpedoing the October 2009 agreement for a nuclear fuel swap that Ahmadinejad had championed. The ultimate test of the Guards' power, then, will come after Khamenei's death, when the praetorians will be in place to crown the clerical Caesar of their choosing.

Meanwhile, the economy remains a potential Achilles' heel for the emerging military establishment. In the past, the Guards have benefited from Iran's international isolation as the gatekeepers to an increasingly closed economy, but the recent wave of sanctions also has the short-term effect of triggering factional tensions both within the Guards corps, as well as with other regime figures. The latest sanctions, particularly by the EU and the United States, have undermined economic stability by further reducing foreign investment, limiting access to the global banking system, and raising transaction costs for Iranian businesses.

Together, these pressures have made the recent subsidy reforms a top priority, as the state needs to adjust expenditures to a declining revenue base. But politically, the subsidy reforms on their own are not necessarily bad for the Guards. The replacement of broad subsidies with targeted cash transfers is another tool to control the economy and channel wealth to preferred constituencies. Nonetheless, Iran's praetorians ultimately cannot afford wholesale economic failure, and the subsidy reforms may pose a major challenge on their road to consolidating power.

So what does this all mean for America? Unfortunately, many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment continue to bank their hopes on the victory of the reformist opposition -- an unlikely prospect in the near term. Despite the tragic repression of pro-democracy groups, the militarization of Iran may provide an opening for the United States. After all, internal fights in Iran tend to radicalize the regime, and the more stable the country is, the easier it will be to deal with Tehran.

The Revolutionary Guards may achieve what has until now remained an elusive feat in Iran: a monopoly of political power. A strong, consolidated praetorian state may become a more predictable actor. It will no longer feel the need to pander to extreme anti-American ideology to placate domestic factions and it could be more responsive to engagement or coercive initiatives. While this would come at the expense of human rights and freedom inside Iran, it may portend a better future for Iran's relations with the international community.

Elliot Hen-Tov is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University's Department of Near Eastern Studies and a Truman National Security Fellow. Nathan Gonzalez is the author of 'Engaging Iran' (Praeger, 2007) and a Truman National Security Fellow. For more on Iran's post-praetorianism, see "The Militarization of Post-Khomeini Iran: Praetorianism 2.0." The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2011. This article was originally published on ForeignPolicy.com.

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16 Comments

A question to the authors:

--"A strong, consolidated praetorian state may become a more predictable actor (...) While this would come at the expense of human rights and freedom inside Iran, it may portend a better future for Iran's relations with the international community."

Is this an analysis or a wish?

@shariatmadari / December 22, 2010 3:34 AM

This is what happened in CHINA and now they wish it would happen to Iran. The modern version of the Filthy Capitalist Totalitaria: COMMUNIST China!

Islamist Regime is cutting Iranians ENTITLEMENTS and having IRGC take ownership of national industries. All in preparation to SELL OFF to multinationals, in the guise of FOREIGN investments.

Important to note that REFORMISTS are neither the opposition to the Islamist Regime nor opposed to the sell-off. They are the COMPETITION. Their solution is more of the Russian style Filthy Capitalism. That is Rafsanjani MOB Rule. An economic MAFIA sharing the ownership of national industries with foreign multinational corporations.

Iranians are opposed to the Islamist Regime and WHEN they get rid of this regime, they shall re-nationalize national industries and natural resources.

Maziar Irani / December 22, 2010 4:20 AM

"A strong, consolidated praetorian state may become a more predictable actor (...) While this would come at the expense of human rights and freedom inside Iran, it may portend a better future for Iran's relations with the international community."

Ah, just like North Korea.... NOT!

Anthony / December 22, 2010 4:52 AM

The argument presented is absurd. If were true then the international community(whoever they may be) would benefit from more military dictatorships or maybe a universal one. Stability is an illusion and security is never a final state. The sands are evershifting.
More N.Koreas leading to a more peaceful world? I doubt it. Its based on the model of the Chinese relationship with the US, that of a military dictatorship(in essence) and a militiarized democracy which still leaves out the majority of countries which has been a recent but brief success.
There is nothing natural about dictatorships, they lead to war & instability as the US found out in WW2. In fact, they are unnatural which is the main reason the Soviet Union foundered and why China will have to change or suffer a similiar fate. Security comes from doing just that safeguarding the peoples lives.Human Rights and Freedom a threat to secrity? Preposterous.

pirooz / December 22, 2010 5:28 AM

This is actually one of the worst articles I've ever read on the subject. It isn't worth my time to rebut.

Pirouz / December 22, 2010 7:39 AM

To the degree that key IRG leaders are in sync with Ahmadinejad's beliefs in the imminent return of the hidden imam, much of this article's analysis is negated.

If these fanatics (and their counterparts among Christians and Jews) view the other side as the impediments to the return of their Messiah(s), they will take any action necessary to meet their (un)holly obligations.

The only solution is a strong int'l support for Iranians' non-violent pursuit of their human rights, their democratic system, and their economic success.

Bahman_Azad / December 22, 2010 8:09 AM

Interesting argument -- though i think you underestimate Iran's youth (green) movement. Although they may be less unified or organized than need be, they are still very strong, very smart and determined to 'take back' their country. and they will, i believe, sooner than later.

Shazi / December 22, 2010 10:54 AM

Just a note for that the authors know: In Rome the transition was (and think of Iran) from MONARCHY to REPUBLIC to EMPIRE. Do we really need to help create a monster, a monolithic Iran so we can have a 'partner' in arms negotiations?

Hate to say that your objectivity reminds of those scientists who built the first bomb, "the sweet pursuit of scientism" as John Dewy called it.

Should the authors be reminded of lot the Romans under Praetorians, or it matters fir naught? How crass, and yes, dogmatic!

Ali Javan / December 23, 2010 2:37 AM

Pirouz,

What rank do you hold in the IRGC?

Roberto / December 23, 2010 4:15 AM

re Pirouz
What rank do you hold in the IRGC?
Kh---ye mal

Anonymous / December 23, 2010 5:42 AM

My guess is he(Pirouz) is in the tactical battle reserve group and if you even knew the slightest thing about the IRGC (you obviously don't and are clueless about one of the worlds most lethal asymetrical fighting forces)you would know that it has no ranks ,only officers and enlisted men. The former are all Brigadier-Generals and the latter are all privates.

pirooz / December 23, 2010 5:44 AM

First they say Iran is should get rid of subsides. Second , when they do, they come up with delusional ideas to bombast those same proposal.

Anonymous / December 23, 2010 11:04 PM

Both the IMF and the World Bank have recommended Iran for years to take these actions. The US government repeatedly had said Iran's economic problems are of their doing because the subsidies prevent market forces to grow the economy, and reduce investment in the oil sector as there is no profit in selling oil when the price is fixed and subsidized below the market value. Additionally, everyone has agreed that dirt cheap gas has caused soaring domestic consumption, reducing Iran's ability to export the oil at much higher prices.

Now that they have taken action since these reforms were recommended more than 10 years ago to Rafsanjani and Khatami, both of whom did not have the political groins to bring them to the table, they have found a new way to criticize Iran. Now, it's for doing the reforms, but they window dress it with military dictatorship. Let us not forget this is the same line advanced by the State Department, even the article eludes to it.

"Praetorian Guard?" Yes, that's one way to choose to see things. But another, and more realistic way, is that they realize this might cause public outrage and have deployed Police and Security services in advance. Unfortunately, if one Iranian policeman hits a single individual it is interpreted as "Praetorian Guards" ruling the streets. Absurd!! Never mind that thousands of people are being beaten in Greece, England, Spain, France, and Ireland. Never mind that those governments are not popular. Never mind Italian PM nearly lost his majority and had to get a confidence vote just lack week. No talk of the "Praetorian Guards" in Europe where people were ripped off by the very banks that have been bailed out by tax payers money. And it is the tax payer who is losing its pension fund, and education costs are going up, there in Europe. Yet, it is assumed by the authors that the only reason this government is capable of doing so in Iran is that Guards are supporting it. The assumption is that it is not popular at all. An assumption. Yet the same unpopular governments in Europe are doing far worse.

At least Iran did not rob its people of their homes and used tax money to reward the banks. Iran is not cutting education, housing, transportation. Is there any comparison of what European government have done to their people, and what Iran is doing. In fact cutting subsidies, will allow profit to follow into the oil sector as the State is selling off its assets to private sector. The State's main goal to cut subsidies in Iran, unlike Europe, is to increase pension funds and expand public benefit. Is there any room in the minds of these professors to tell the truth, rather than look for yet another unsubstantiated rational to bash Iran?

Anonymous / December 24, 2010 11:33 AM

anonymous

OK, A lot of rampbling there. But one takes the cake:
re "...Never mind Italian PM nearly lost his majority and had to get a confidence vote just lack week...."

Great idea. let's have a national 'vote of confidence' on Ahmadinejad.

I suppose based on your bleak view of Europe and US, and rosy future of Iran, we are about to see a huge wave of migration of Europeans and Americans to Islamic republic of Iran!

Ahvaz / December 26, 2010 6:34 AM

Ahvaz

That's funny. Now, when you decide to get serious and decide not to attack just for the sake of attacking, then and only then, you will finally choose to address the point that I was making, which is there are worse things happening in Europe but they are not depicted in such paranoid way. No, Iran is not better than Europe, but it is fair to recognize Iran is not cutting subsidies because it needs to pay off the taxpayer money they used to bail out the banks. There is a clear distinction. You don't have to be a IR supporter to appreciate that.
Thanks.

Anonymous / December 29, 2010 11:58 AM


"A strong, consolidated praetorian state may become a more predictable actor. It will no longer feel the need to pander to extreme anti-American ideology to placate domestic factions and ...."

go straight for revenge, against the backers of Saddam, on behalf of their fallen brothers and fathers in the 8 year war. Or they may just opt to go through Baghdad to Jerusalem again...

Or....

Elliot, please read a little about Nader Shah to learn about Iran's recent history, and what it's anchor points are.

Amir Khosrow Sheibany / January 5, 2011 4:10 AM