As Iran's Islamic revolution turns 30, some experts on Iranian affairs contend that the country's clerics are losing control over the government. The new and rising center of authority in Tehran is the Revolutionary Guards.
One Iranian affairs expert, Ali Alfoneh, believes that like the Shah who left Iran in 1979, the current leadership of the Islamic Republic "aims at modernizing Iran, but does not provide political freedom to the modernized society." As a result, Iran now has "a very large middle class, which is urban, which is well-educated, which is well-informed, and which also demands political rights."
Unlike the shah, Alfoneh stressed, the incumbent government has an instrument at its disposal -- the Revolutionary Guards -- that it has deployed to make sure that public dissatisfaction does not evolve into a protest movement. In addition, the passage of time has worked to the leadership's advantage: the struggles of the past three decades have greatly diminished the popular will to resist. Instead, popular apathy prevails, with most Iranians simply yearning for economic stability.
According to Alfoneh the rising influence of the Revolutionary Guards is cause for concern. "It is always dangerous to involve the armed forces in politics because you can't force them out again. The day you invite officers and former officers, when you politicize them, you involve them in politics of Iran, they might take power out of your hands," said Alfoneh.
Alfoneh made these observations at a January 30 conference hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). AEI has been a major font of neo-conservative ideology in the United States.
From Alfoneh's perspective, the leaders of Iran's armed forces are already "cleansing the entire system of the Islamic Republic of the clergymen." His analysis, for example, shows "a huge jump" since 1979 in the number of former officers who become members of parliament. Alfoneh added that approximately half of the members of President Ahmadinejad's government have ties to the Revolutionary Guards. "In every single post, former officers replacing the clergymen," he said.
And at the provincial level, Alfoneh finds that the general governors come from three categories: "former officers in the Revolutionary Guards, personal friends of Mr. Ahmadinejad from the time he was himself a general governor, and the third group, which is quite telling -- they're former prison wardens."
Alfoneh, a visiting research fellow at AEI, anticipates that the Islamic Republic will continue to transform "from a theocracy, governed [and] ruled by the clergy and guarded by the Revolutionary Guards," into "a system which is both ruled and guarded by former officers of the Revolutionary Guards."
Arash Sigarchi, former editor of Gilan Emrooz, the major newspaper of Gilan province, and founder of the blog Kanjarda al Tajab, or The Window of Anguish, speculated that, "if you at this very moment ask Mr. Ahmadinejad or [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khomeini to which direction Islamic Republic is going, I am very sure that they have no idea."
In reviewing the last three decades, Sigarchi, who came to the United States in 2007 after his latest release from prison, described a continual shrinking of the political freedoms enjoyed by Iranians, especially regarding freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but also concerning free and fair elections. Sigarchi believes incumbent authorities remain firmly in control in Tehran. "They [Iran's leaders] use every method in order to preserve their power -- any method -- like mass killings in the 1980s, imprisonment and torture in the 1990s, and a militarist atmosphere in the current era."
Alex Vatanka, who edits several journals belonging to the Jane's Group and who is an expert on Iranian affairs, reviewed the results of his recent two-month research trip to Iran's neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Compared to the situation at the beginning of this decade, Vatanka argued that Iran had achieved certain near-term geopolitical successes in Afghanistan and Iraq while making some progress in breaking out of its regional isolation. He also concluded that Tehran's regional policies are driven much more by Iranian nationalism than by a distinct Islamist ideology. "Iranian nationalism is a real serious powerful force and cannot be underestimated in any way or shape," Vatanka said.
Despite President Ahmadinejad's often confrontational rhetoric, Vatanka suggested that political leaders in Tehran tend to "seek to avoid military confrontation." Iranian authorities are primarily interested in establishing "economic spheres of influence" in neighboring states and in "keeping options open," Vatanka added.
Vatanka stressed that there were still several centers of power in Tehran, and that observers should not "allow Ahmadinejad to run away with the headlines, and assume that is how Iran is ruled."
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.