Is Iran's regime ruled by its Praetorian Guard?

Posted in Iran | 15-Jul-05 | Author: Patrick Clawson| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Outgoing President Mohammad Khatami

After his unexpected victory in the 1997 Iranian presidential election, Mohammad Khatami surprised analysts by concentrating as much on foreign policy initiatives, especially the "dialogue of civilizations," as on the domestic policy front. The initiatives did much to shape perceptions of the new president, both at home and abroad. They had little practical effect, however, given that the key decision-making authority on foreign and defense policy lies with the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, not with the Iranian president.

The initiatives raised Khatami's profile and, had the president been a man with a stronger backbone, could have enabled him to insist on greater power relative to the shadowy revolutionary bodies that effectively control Iran. It will be interesting to see if President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad takes this same route after his unexpected victory in the 2005 presidential election. Will he use foreign policy pronouncements as a way to define his image and to stake out a claim for a more powerful presidency?

Like Khatami, Ahmadinejad enters the presidency better known for his domestic policy activities than for his involvement in foreign policy. But in fact, while he may be new to international diplomacy, Ahmadinejad has been active in foreign policy of a sort. He acknowledges having been a leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps' Special Forces involved in operations across the border in Iraq's Kurdish region. He also seems to have been active in terror against Kurdish dissidents. The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) alleges he was "directly involved in the murder of Dr. Abdel-Rahman Ghassemlou," the KDPI secretary general killed in Vienna in 1989 in an operation the Austrian authorities say was conducted by the Iranian government. The KDPI says that "aside from being responsible for the coordination between the assassins group and the so-called negotiators [who lured Ghassemlou to the meeting by offering talks with Tehran, Ahmadinejad] was ... also in charge of arms supply required for the groups."

So, whatever the accuracy of charges that he was involved in the interrogation of the American Embassy hostages, Ahmadinejad has a shady background.

However, his terror activities took place years ago; what has he said more recently about foreign policy? So far, Ahmadinejad seems to prefer the traditional Middle Eastern style of sending different messages to different audiences. When he met with the foreign and local press after his election, his words were sweetness and light, meriting headlines about his moderation. But one of the few other times he has spoken since the election was at a memorial service for hardliners killed in the early days of the revolution, at which he said: "The Islamic Revolution of [2005] will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world ... The era of oppression, hegemonic regimes, tyranny, and injustice has reached its end. The wave of the Islamic Revolution will soon reach the entire world." That is a pretty expansive agenda.

As such rhetoric indicates, Ahmadinejad is convinced that Iran's revolution is on the march, fueled by oil riches, unimpeded by an America mired in Iraq, and victorious over the reformers at home. This viewpoint is not just a personal idiosyncrasy, but also the product of a powerful current of which Ahmadinejad is only the public face: that is the current of the increasing power of the Revolutionary Guards, in whose special forces Ahmadinejad served for years. It was the Guards and their close allies in the Basij paramilitaries who were accused of election fraud by the (Khatami-controlled) Interior Ministry and by the losing candidates in the recent presidential elections.

The Ahmadinejad phenomenon looks and smells like the story of Russian President Vladimir Putin: a previously obscure figure from the security services rises to power, determined to reassert the old authoritarian ways. Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, writing in the magazine Survival in summer 2005, are right on the money when they warn: "The scope of the Guard's influence in the political, economic, and foreign policy arenas is such that it is fair to speculate as to whether the clerical leadership is not fast becoming a captive of its Praetorian Guard."

Ahmadinejad may well test the West's resolve regarding Iran's nuclear program and support for terrorism, including the Al-Qaeda figures Iran acknowledges are on its soil (claiming they are in detention) and the support Iran proudly announces it offers to those killing Israeli civilians. The signs so far are that the West may stand firm. As was agreed months ago, the next step in the nuclear negotiations will be a European proposal to Iran. For once, European diplomats are not floating trial balloons about rationales for giving in to Iran's demands. Instead, they are discussing how to solidify international support for pressing Iran in the event the talks collapse. Admittedly, they focus on how to get resolutions of diplomatic disapproval rather than more vigorous punitive measures, but at least that is a start.

Meanwhile, Washington has already begun to take stronger action. The June 29 declaration by U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, declaring the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) a company engaged in weapons proliferation, authorizes the American government to take action against any bank dealing with AEOI. While Washington may apply this power selectively so as to avoid disputes about extra-territorial sanctions, the Treasury's designation is a good way to remind Iran that the U.S. government has sticks it has not yet applied.

Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has written several books on Iran, including (with Michael Rubin) "Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos" (Palgrave-Macmillan, forthcoming). This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.