News Analysis: Sailor crisis underlines divisions in Iran

Posted in Iran | 04-Apr-07 | Author: Michael Slackman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Some of the British sailors and marines being held by Iran, in an image shown on British television and apparently from the semiofficial Fars news agency in Iran. The date of the image was not known.

CAIRO: As Britain and Iran appear to be moving toward a diplomatic solution to the detention of 15 British sailors and marines by the Iranians, the broader struggle in Iran appears to be as heated as ever, pitting radicals aligned with the president against more pragmatic officials concerned about Iran's growing international isolation.

The case of the seized Britons has highlighted the see-saw nature of Iranian politics. The sailors' initial capture underscored the rising dominance of those aligned with the president, specifically the Revolutionary Guard. More recently, as the crisis appeared to be undermining Iran's position globally, relative moderation began to emerge though Iran has not publicly backed down on its position.

"The British government has begun its diplomatic negotiations with Iran's Foreign Ministry in a bid to resolve the issue of British sailors and marines," Ali Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told state television Tuesday. "If these talks go ahead on a logical path, they can change the ongoing conditions and put an end to the dispute."

In the end, it may be a matter of style, more than substance, as all sides support Iran's drive for nuclear technology, and all sides harbor deep distrust of Britain. But in a system that is often as politically pragmatic as it is ideological, results count most, and so the see-saw generally tips toward the side that appears to be bringing the system its greatest benefits.

When the system, headed by the supreme leader, felt that its confidence-building approach to its nuclear program was not winning concessions from Europe, Iran became confrontational and started its enrichment program. When it appeared that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's direct challenges to the West were not prompting retaliation, his support was high. And when the president's constant caustic remarks appeared to be undermining support for Iran's nuclear program, the supreme leader pressed the president to stay out of the nuclear file.

That emphasis on results may well explain the lowering of voices coming from Tehran.

"Confronting an aggressor is of course a necessity and national glory," wrote Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president under the reform-minded president, Muhammad Khatami in his blog "But it will be more in Iran's interest than Britain's if this crisis is over by diplomatic means as soon as possible."

It is only in the last few days that critics of the president have felt confident enough to speak out, no matter how tempered the criticism.

"What they are doing with the sailors will not benefit Iran and it will even worsen the international conditions for the Islamic Republic," said Mohammad-Reza Jalaipour, a sociologist and former government official.

While the divide over the handling the sailor crisis is often defined as hard-liners versus moderates, it is, as most political struggles in Iran are concerned, not so clear cut. Political analysts in Iran have noted, for example, that President Ahmadinejad has not had the support of so-called hard-liners in Parliament since shortly after his election in 2005. The Parliament initially challenged the president on his selection of ministers, and has repeatedly criticized his budget.

It appears more a conflict driven by so-called hard-liners within the Revolutionary Guard who are aligned with the president and who have seen their political and economic influence grow since his election. But analysts caution that not even the guard is considered monolithic and that within that force there may well be splinters over the course this crisis has taken.

The president moved to create a new political class when he took office, relying mostly on former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, analysts in Iran said. The profile of those he turned to was similar to the presidents own.

They were men whose views were shaped during their service in the guard during the eight year Iran-Iraq war, who hewed very closely to the ideological ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and who were determined to roll back the modest social and political reforms of Khatami, which they saw as a dilution of the revolution.

"They have a political and security role, huge financial resources and assets that are not listed in the country's budget, and manage the country's nuclear program," said Mehdi Chehadea, a professor of political sciences at the Lebanese University who often writes on Iranian affairs. "These elements combined helped these ultra-conservatives emerge as today's main power in Iran."

During his time in office, the president has traveled around the country, ordering up local construction jobs and then giving the work to the engineering branch of the guard. Experts in Iran said that the guard could not handle all the work and would then subcontract the projects out, taking a percentage for simply passing the job off.

Shortly after the 15 sailors were seized in what Iran says was its territorial waters, and what Britain says was Iraqi waters, it quickly became clear it was the Revolutionary Guard that was in command.

Foreign Ministry officials said privately in Tehran that they were not consulted and at one point had no idea even where the sailors were being detained.

The guard, unlike the army, has a primarily ideological mandate as the guardian of the revolution.

It was created by Khomeini shortly after the revolution in 1979 to serve as the ideological muscle behind a system looking to secure itself while unsure of the loyalty of the police and military.

That initial mandate has for decades allowed the guard to operate free from most political oversight and to evolve as one of the most independent centers of power loyal only to the supreme leader, Khameini.

The guard established its own weapons procurement system, its own army, air force and navy and in 2000 was estimated to have a force of about 120,000 troops divided into about 15 divisions working in 11 security regions around the country. It also sees its mandate to include exporting its revolutionary ideas and helped build Hezbollah, the Shiite militia in southern Lebanon.

"Clearly the IRGC is among the most autonomous power centers in Iran and it has resisted subordination to any civilian authority, from the president executive to the clerical control apparatus embodied in the supreme leader's representatives," wrote Wilfried Buchta in her detailed analysis of Iranian governance called "Who Rules Iran? The structure of power in the Islamic Republic," published in 2000.

When Ahmadinejad was first elected, Iranian political analysts said that his victory did not represent the rise of hard-liners as much as it did the militarization of the system of governance. There is no evidence, to date, if the president, or the supreme leader, knew about the seizure of the sailors in advance.

But since it occurred, it has been used to rally Ahmadinejad's base of support at a time when his support seemed to be fraying. The president, who was elected on a platform of economic populism promising a redistribution of the state's vast oil wealth, has been sharply criticized for failing to deliver on his economic promises.

"This militarist wing is mainly run by IRGC commanders," said Saeed Madani, a researcher in Tehran, referring to the guard. "These militarists are taking advantage of this incident to make a crisis out of it in an attempt to guarantee their own survival because their influence on domestic and foreign affairs of the country is linked to critical conditions."