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Fissures in the Revolutionary Guards' Officer Corps?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

01 Mar 2011 01:29Comments
General-Firouzabadi-with-Jafari.jpgExamining the tensions both within the corps and between the Guards and the regular armed forces.

[ analysis ] The events since the June 12, 2009, presidential election in Iran have made it clear that the most important base of support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its intelligence apparatus. The IRGC also controls the Basij militia, which it has been using to crack down on peaceful demonstrations. When huge protests broke out after the 2009 election, the Guards tried to quell them with brute force applied by Basijis, its own intelligence unit, and plainclothes officers. The last group belongs to a special brigade under the command of the Guard intelligence directorate. Ever since Mohammad Khatami was elected president by a landslide in May 1997 and the depth of Iranians' dissatisfaction with the hardliners became clear, the plainclothes officers have essentially been turned into a machine for suppressing and oppressing the people.

But whereas the security/intelligence units of the IRGC succeeded in the past in quickly putting down demonstrations, they have not been so successful since the 2009 election. The reason is that, unlike what some Iranians -- both in the diaspora and in the regime -- liked to believe, the confrontation between the hardliners and the Green Movement is not a sprint, but a marathon. It is a war based not on shock and awe and quick results, but on attrition. Those who stand last will win the confrontation.

As the experience in many countries, including the 1979 Revolution in Iran, has demonstrated, the security/intelligence apparatus can hardly win a war of attrition. There are several reasons why this is so.

First, ever since the 2009 election, even the most minor issue has been viewed by the hardliners as a security problem. This has meant that the Guard high command has had to keep its personnel on high alert all the time, which is tiring and demoralizing.

Second, as the war of attrition continues, more violence is bound to happen that, on the one hand, radicalizes a certain portion of the protestors and, on the other hand, begins to create doubts in the minds of some of the security/intelligence personnel about the legitimacy of what they are doing to the people.

Third, as the February 14 marches indicated, in addition to Tehran, the demonstrations may now occur in other cities around the country. This means that each city needs its own security forces to be on alert, and the plainclothes security agents cannot be easily and quickly transferred from one city to another, and in particular to Tehran. Therefore, the question may no longer be how to control Tehran, rather how to control multiple cities.

One of the most interesting aspects of what is happening in Iran and the response of the security/intelligence apparatus is the fact that the regular army has been almost completely silent. In contrast to many of the hardline officers in the IRGC high command, who have been speaking regularly about the need for a harsh crackdown on the Green Movement and its leaders, very few generals in the regular army have spoken about the crisis that the nation faces.

One main exception has been the chief of staff of the armed forces, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi. He has frequently spoken against the Green Movement. Born in 1951 in Mashhad, he had no background as an officer either in the regular army or the IRGC before being made a general -- he was actually trained as a veterinarian. He was a member of the Basij however. During the war with Iraq, Firouzabadi worked at the Khatam ol-Anbiya headquarters, which was set up by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the basement of the Majles building (it was later moved). Firouzabadi was Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi's representative at the headquarters, in which role he worked with the armed forces. Back in June 1981, after President Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had transferred his authority as commander-in-chief of the armed forces to Rafsanjani. When the war ended in 1988, a council of professional military officers conferred the rank of major general on Firouzabadi. After Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was named Supreme Leader in 1989, he appointed Firouzabadi to his present position. The friendship between the two men goes back to the prerevolutionary era.

This, in fact, is in line with what has been happening in Iran more broadly since the end of the war. After the conflict, the army returned to its barracks and has essentially been silent over the past two decades. Some of the Guard officers raised their voices in 1999, after the uprising by students in the dormitories of the University of Tehran, which shook the foundations of the Islamic Republic. In response to the uprising, 24 top IRGC commanders, including then Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari -- now the top Guard commander and a major general -- wrote a letter to Khatami threatening that if he did not stop the pursuit of his reformist agenda, they would be forced to take strong action. It read, in part,

Your Excellency, Mr. Khatami, look at the international media and radio broadcasts. Does the sound of their merriment not reach your ear? Dear Mr. President, if you do not make a revolutionary decision today, and fail to fulfill your Islamic and national duty, tomorrow will be too late and the damage will be more irreversible than can be imagined.... With all due respect, we inform you that our patience is at an end, and we do not think it is possible to tolerate any more if [the issue is] not addressed.

There were credible reports at that time that, in reaction to that letter, another letter to Khatami was signed by a large number of army commanders and former Guard commanders, in which they expressed their support for him, although that letter was not widely circulated.

There is increasing evidence that cracks have begun to emerge in the security/intelligence apparatus, including fissures in the Guards' officer corps. The first signs actually emerged in June 2009. It took the IRGC more than a week to issue a statement declaring its position regarding the huge demonstrations on June 25. That was already a tantalizing indication that the Guard officers are not as united as many had assumed. Then, in July it was reported that a group of regular army officers were arrested when IRGC intelligence was alerted about their plan to attend former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's sermon during Friday Prayers at the University of Tehran on July 17. The officers had decided to attend the service in full military uniform as a symbol of their support for the people.

Then there is the case of Brigadier General Ali Fazli. Until fall 2009, he commanded the Sayyed ol-Shohada Corps, which is responsible for the security of Tehran province. Due to his bravery, Fazli, who lost his left eye in the Iran-Iraq War, was one of the most popular Guard commanders during the conflict. On June 21, 2009, the Guardian reported that he had been arrested. The report turned out to be incorrect, and Fazli did make some statements against the Green Movement. But as a former student of mine who served under him during his mandatory military service told me, "Fazli is very tough, but also very fair." A few days before 16 Azar (December 7), 2009, Iran's student day, Fazli said that the Guards would greet the students who planned to protest on that day with flowers. That apparently angered the hardliners, because he was quietly removed from his command position at the Sayyed ol-Shohada Corps and transferred to the Basij militia.

In winter 2010, another statement supposedly issued by some officers of the regular army was reported by several websites. The statement warned the IRGC about its harsh treatment of the people. Many wondered whether the statement was authentic. A friend with good sources in Iran told me that it appears that the statement was fabricated, not by the opposition, but by the hardliners themselves. According to him, the hardliners do not trust the regular army. They still remember the letter of support sent by army officers to Khatami in 1999, as well as the fact that when the clerics were trying to oust Bani Sadr, the Islamic Republic's first president, in 1981, many in the army had supported him. In addition, internal polls indicated that more than 70 percent of the armed forces supported Mousavi in the 2009 election (polls indicated similar backing for Khatami in 1997).

According to this analysis, the statement was thus meant to be used against the command structure of the army, as part of an effort that could lead to the replacement of its top commanders by Guard officers. If true, this is an indication of major friction between the two branches of the armed forces. Indeed, there have been rumors that Firouzabadi will soon retire and be replaced by Jafari.

Another interesting incident happened in December 2009. After the hardliners did not allow a memorial for Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri in Qom, Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, a supporter of the Green Movement, invited people to participate in a memorial in Zanjan, about 185 miles (300 kilometers) west of Tehran. The hardliners closed the mosque in an attempt to end the memorial. But the large crowd that had gathered held the ceremony out on the streets around the mosque. It was reported that a number of Guard and army commanders who were veterans of the war with Iraq participated in the memorial.

In March 2010, Mohammad Hossein Safar Harandi, a Guard officer, Jafari adviser, and former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, publicly acknowledged the existence of dissidents in the IRGC. Speaking to a group of Guard commanders in Qom, he spoke of "disobedience of some forces in the Sepah [IRGC]." Referring to the declarations made by Mousavi and Karroubi] calling for major reforms in the political system, he observed, "There are people who say that such statements are made by the people who were with the Imam [Khomeini], or are relatives of his, or were educated by him. How can they be viewed as seditionists?"

The most revealing evidence of fissures in the Guards' officer corps was provided by Jafari himself. In a press conference in July 2010, he acknowledged that there have been many cases of dissent against the harsh treatment of the people by Guard forces in the aftermath of the 2009 election. He said that the IRGC could convince the dissidents of the wisdom of its course of action through debates and reeducation. But there were then reports that at least 250 Guard officers were either forced to retire or simply expelled.

Not long afterward, cleric Ali Saeedi, Khamenei's representative to the IRGC, also indicated that there are dissidents in the corps. He said, "Our problem today is that some people are deceived by fake leaders. For example, they believe that a man [Mousavi] who had legitimacy in the past is still a leader."

Major General Ataollah Salehi, the commander of the regular army -- and the only senior officer who actually received his military training before the 1979 Revolution -- also provided evidence that Mousavi and Karroubi have considerable support within the regular army. He said that in his visits to military bases he had seen pictures of the leaders of the "sedition" (the name given to the Green Movement by Khamenei) in soldiers' rooms.

Last July, Khamenei abruptly removed the cleric Mahmoud Alavi, his representative to the regular armed forces and head of its ideological division, and appointed another cleric, Mohammad Ali Al-e Hashem, to the post. The ostensible reason was Alavi's election to the Assembly of Experts. However, the ayatollah's chief of staff, his son-in-law Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, criticized Alavi after he lost his post and said, "The army must try harder to gain the satisfaction of the Supreme Leader. The work that has been done by the ideological division of the army is valuable, but not enough."

(A week and half ago, the Telegraph of London reported that it has received a copy of a letter by some IRGC officers pledging that they would not open fire on demonstrators. The letter, reportedly addressed to Jafari, argued that it is against Islamic principles to use violence to quell dissent. While the Telegraph's Con Coughlin declares that the letter's "authentication has been verified to me by a trustworthy diplomatic source," Iran observer Scott Lucas has cast doubt on the report's validity. I too have concerns about Coughlin's reporting on Iran.)

Similar to what occurred in the immediate aftermath of the June 2009 election, for several days after the 25 Bahman/February 14 demonstrations, senior Guard commanders kept silent and did not comment on the developments. In fact, the day after the demonstrations, Minister of Defense Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi criticized the silence of the "vanguards of jihad and martyrdom about the actions of the leaders of sedition." Was the silence another indication of fissures in the ranks of the IRGC? We do not know for sure. But the fact that, after the silence, three hardline senior Guard officers suddenly began speaking against Mousavi and Karroubi is highly suggestive that such fissures do exist. The three are Brigadier General Hossein Salaami, deputy to General Jafari; Major General Yahya Rahimi Safavi, former top IRGC commander and current military advisor
to Ayatollah Khamenei, and Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, head of the IRGC political directorate.

That many in the rank and file of the IRGC and the regular armed forces may be opposed to what the hardliners are doing to the Iranian people is plausible and understandable. The rank and file of the military must wrestle with the same problems as the rest of the people, namely, high inflation, a stagnant economy, and severe social and political restrictions. In addition, their children go to the same schools and universities and are therefore subject to the same cultural influences as everyone else.

As I discussed in my articles about the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, it is crucial for the Green Movement to gain the support of the rank and file of the IRGC to the extent that they would be unwilling to open fire on peaceful, unarmed demonstrators.

Photo: Maj Gen. Firouzabadi (hennaed hair), Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and IRGC Chief Jafari at a joint conference in Oct. 2009.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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