NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY
Video Part 2: Ali Alfoneh
One year has passed since the fraudulent Iranian presidential election of June 2009. For some background on Iranian politics and insight into what has happened in Tehran during the past 12 months, Near East Report sat down with Ali Alfoneh, a resident fellow and expert on Iran at the American Enterprise Institute.
The following is part two of a two-part video interview. Click here to view part one of the interview.
Near East Report (NER): Who is really in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran today?
Ali Alfoneh: For the past 31 years, the Islamic Republic has based its authority and power upon a fundamental alliance between the revolutionary Shia clergy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. And there has been a very clear division of labor between the two institutions.
The revolutionary clergy has been ruling Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been protecting the regime against external foreign enemies and internal enemies. In other words, it has been protecting the ideological nature of the regime.
But now we are increasingly witnessing a situation where the Revolutionary Guards both rules the country and protects the regime against external and internal enemies. In other words, the clergy is on its way out and the Revolutionary Guards members—former officers of this elite military unit—are infiltrating every single institution of power in Iran. If you look at the presidency, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a former officer. He is the first former officer to become president.
If you look at the cabinet of Mr. Ahmadinejad, 13 out of 21 cabinet ministers are former officers of the Revolutionary Guards. And if you look at the parliament, the same thing. More than half of the parliament is composed by former officers of the Revolutionary Guards.
Now, do they follow the orders of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei? I'm not so sure. Ayatollah Khamenei has himself encouraged the Revolutionary Guards to become politicians; go into politics, into business and even into religious affairs. But when any civilian leadership invites the armed military to engage in non-military affairs, in the end you become a hostage in the hands of your own praetorian guard.
And therefore, I also believe that Ayatollah Khamenei in reality no longer is the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, but is a hostage in the hands of his own military institution, the Revolutionary Guards.
NER: What is daily life like for the average person living under Iranian authority?
Alfoneh: Life in a non-democratic society is difficult for every member of that society, because you need to show ideological conformity with the regime, which also means that you have to be a professional liar. You have to lie to your own parents, to your employer, to your friends because you never know who is going to report you to the regime.
This is the mechanism of fear that the Islamic Republic uses in order to impose control on the Iranian society. And therefore, our society becomes a society of liars. And that is something that is because of the mechanisms of dictatorship. BACK TO TOP
NER: Are the leaders of the Islamic Revolution losing their grip on power?
Alfoneh: They are no longer the moral authority that they were before the revolution of 1979. That is also true of those thousands of members of the Revolutionary Guards who believe that the regime has deceived them, and the regime is only a kleptocracy, which is taking the money of Iran and sending it to foreign bank accounts. And one day—one beautiful day—I'm convinced those members of the Revolutionary Guards will no longer follow orders of shooting at their own family members.
People go into the streets, demonstrating against the regime and demanding political rights. They are the family members of the people in the Revolutionary Guards. We are all a big family. It's only 70 million man-country. We are no more than 70 million.
NER: Is there any evidence that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps may be eroding from within?
Alfoneh: We see tendencies toward erosion in the Basij militia, which is the youth section of the Revolutionary Guards. The Basij militia was ideally created in order to secure order at the neighborhood level.
But also, the student Basij militia has to create order at universities. The clerical Basij had to create order at theological seminaries. And then, for each category of the Iranian population, you have one Basij group.
But what we have seen is that the Basij was forced to take members and transport them from one city to other cities in order to suppress people. At the same neighborhood, you could not have Basij members beating up their members just because of their political opinion.
There is a degree of decency among the Iranian population. It is difficult for them to beat their own neighbors only because of political reasons. That is very, very difficult. And that, I think, is a very good sign that there is so much humanity and humane-ness even among the members of the Basij militia.
And those members of the Basij militia, some of them at some point will become members of the Revolutionary Guards. And even they will find out that those people that they are suppressing, they are their own family members. In that sense of the word, I really must say that I am very optimistic. Not in the short term, but in the mid and longer term. These kinds of dictatorial regimes cannot survive for long.
NER: Does the regime in Tehran feel threatened?
Alfoneh: The Iranian leadership is extremely threatened not by foreign enemies, but by the Iranian people. They believe that the greatest threat to the survival of the regime does not emanate from the United States of America or Israel; they only use America and Israel as excuses to suppress internal opposition.
It is no accident that every single time a political activist is arrested, that they confess being Israeli or American agents. This is not accidental.
The Islamic Republic systematically uses the existence of so-called foreign enemies—these mythical enemies, unreal enemies—to suppress internal opposition. And therefore, this also tells me that the regime, in reality, feels threatened by the modernized population.
NER: Is the fall of the Iranian regime inevitable?
Alfoneh: In all revolutions, you see several tendencies leading to breakup of regimes—regardless if you look at the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution or the Iranian Revolution of '79.
One is those changes in society which are not accommodated by the regime itself. So the regime changes society, but does not make political institutions through which the middle class can express its will. And therefore, there is mismatch between society and state.
Also, at some point even the ruling elites lose their faith in their own superiority and they no longer believe that it is worth fighting and defending that regime. And many of them, by the way, have foreign passports. They have residencies outside Iran. They are ready to leave the country at some point. Just like the regime of the Shah was back in 1979. They did not pick up a fight against the opposition.
Now, I believe that in the course of the next 10 to 15 years, the Islamic Republic may experience what the regime of the Shah experienced with an ever more active opposition inside Iran challenging the authority of the regime; and also communicating very, very intelligently with the rank-and-file members of the instruments of suppression, especially of the Revolutionary Guards; convincing them that the opposition is not the enemy of Iran. The enemy of Iran is dictatorship.
And that is the tactic that the opposition is using, and using their own family members, who are members of the Revolutionary Guards, to change the way of thinking within the Revolutionary Guards. This process is a slow one. It takes a long time, 10 to 15 years, before it can reach any victory. But it is very efficient. And we know that dictatorships do not last forever. Even the dictatorship of the Soviet Union fell apart at some point. Why not the dictatorship of the Revolutionary Guards? BACK TO TOP