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Revolutionary Guards

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Neda Soltan: Anger and Fear

23 June 2009

Neda Soltan: Anger and Fear

By Gwynne Dyer

The grisly video of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan dying in a Tehran street, shot down by a government thug, has already been seen by millions of Iranians. If the protesters against the alleged rigging of the recent election needed a dramatic image of martyrdom — and such images have a special resonance in Iran — they now have one. But things are not quite so simple.

Her death, all the more affecting because she was not actually a protester but just trapped in the midst of the demo, has enraged many people, but it has also frightened them. She was only one of ten people killed on Saturday, 21 June, in Tehran by the police and the Basiji (the volunteer militia that normally serves as the regime’s “morality police”) but hers is the death that you can actually watch.

It was very fast, very ugly, and clearly quite arbitrary. If this is what happens to innocent bystanders, are you sure you want to go out and demonstrate again tomorrow?

The conventional wisdom says that in Iran such deaths only fuel popular anger and make the demos grow bigger, and that is certainly what happened during the struggle to overthrow the Shah of Iran thirty years ago. But there were only hundreds of demonstrators, not hundreds of thousands, on the streets of Tehran in the days after Neda’s death.

The regime has now nailed its colours to the mast: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that he will back President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s disputed election victory come what may. There will not be a compromise in which the elections are re-run, maybe with a different outcome that makes Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition leader, the new president, but leaves Ali Khamenei and the basic principles of the “Islamic revolution” in place.

The regime’s heavy artillery, a parallel army called the Revolutionary Guards, has now been deployed on the streets, and its website makes it clear that it is willing to kill demonstrators: “The Guards will firmly confront in a revolutionary way rioters and those who violate the law.” In Iran, the phrase “in a revolutionary way” instantly recalls the tens of thousands of alleged enemies of the new regime who were killed in mass hangings in 1989.

It is the regime that has deliberately raised the stakes, from a mere dispute about the outcome of an election to an existential struggle for the regime’s survival. It is a gamble, of course, for there are many young Iranians who would be willing to fight it out on that ground — but their leaders are not.

All three presidential candidates who believe they were cheated in the election are stalwart supporters of the Islamic regime. How could they be otherwise, when all presidential candidates are vetted by the Guardian Council for their revolutionary and Islamic dedication? Mousavi was prime minister during the war with Iraq in 1980-88. Mohsen Rezaie is a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Even Mehdi Karroubi, the most liberal of the candidates, is a cleric who has served the revolution faithfully, if critically.

If it comes down to the survival of the Islamic revolutionary dispensation that they have devoted their lives to building, Mousavi, Rezaie and Karroubi are all ultimately on the same side of the barricades as Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. That is precisely what it’s coming down to, by the bold or desperate decision (take your pick) of Ali Khamenei. As he intends, it leaves the young people in the streets (60 percent of Iranians are under 30) without leaders.

You could hear the anguish in Mousavi’s open letter to the Guardian Council, which is supposedly investigating the election of 12 June: “We are not against the Islamic system and its laws but against lies and deviations, and just want to reform it.” And he told his followers:

“Protesting against lies and fraud is your right, (but) in your protests continue to show restraint.” Nor did he tell them when they should next come out on the street to protest.

As more information becomes available, it looks likelier and likelier that there was massive rigging of the polls. Mehdi Karroubi, for example, got 55.5 percent of the votes in his home province of Lorestan in the last presidential election in 2005. This time, according to the official figures, he got only 4.6 percent, with most of the remainder shifting to Ahmadinejad. That is not remotely credible, nor could it have happened by accident.

It now seems likely that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad knew in advance that the latter’s re-election bid was doomed, and rigged the election to “save the Islamic regime,” or at least their version of it. Nothing could have been clumsier or more drastic than the intervention that they made, but it may have served its purpose, at least in the short run.

The protesters know they have been cheated, but without leaders or organisation they may not be able to continue. We will know if it’s really over on 31 July, forty days after the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan.

In the Shia tradition, that’s when the forty days of mourning end. During the revolt against the Shah, that was when the masses came out into the streets again to remember their martyrs. The game is still afoot, but the young, predictably, have been betrayed yet again by their elders.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“You could…accident”)

Iran: How To Start a War

26 March 2007

Iran: How To Start a War

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t want to second-guess the British after the fact,” said US Navy Lieutenant-Commander Erik Horner, “but our rules of engagement allow a little more latitude. Our boarding team’s training is a little bit more towards self-preservation.” Does that mean that one of his American boarding teams would have opened fire if it had been them in the two inflatable boats that were surrounded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard fast patrol boats off the coast of Iraq last Friday? “Agreed. Yes.”

Just as well that it was a British boarding team, then. The fifteen British sailors and marines who were captured and taken to Tehran for “questioning” last week are undoubtedly having an unpleasant time, but they are alive, and Britain is only involved in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it had been one of Eriik Horner’s boarding teams, they would all be dead, and the United States and Iran would now be at war.

Lt-Cdr Horner is the executive officer of the USS Underwood, the American frigate that works together with HMS Cornwall, the British ship that the captive boarding party came from. Interviewed after the incident by Terri Judd of “The Independent,” the only British print journalist on HMS Cornwall, he was obviously struggling to be polite about the gutless Brits, but he wasn’t having much success.

“The US Navy rules of engagement say we have not only a right to self-defence but also an obligation to self-defence,” Horner explained. “(The British) had every right in my mind and every justification to defend themselves rather than allow themselves to be taken. Our reaction was, Why didn’t your guys defend themselves?'”

So there they are, eight sailors and seven marines in two rubber boats, with personal weapons and no protection whatever, sitting about a foot (300 cm) above the water, surrounded by six or seven Iranian attack boats with mounted machine guns. “Defend yourself” by opening fire, and after a single long burst from half a dozen heavy machine-guns there will be fourteen dead young men and one dead young woman in two rapidly sinking inflatables, and your country will be at war. Seems a bit pointless, really.

It’s a cultural thing, at bottom. Britain has a long history of fighting wars and taking casualties, but the combat doctrines are less hairy-chested. British rules of engagement “are very much de-escalatory, because we don’t want wars starting,” explained Admiral Sir Alan West, former First Sea Lord. “Rather than roaring into action and sinking everything in sight we try to step back, and that, of course, is why our chaps were…able to be captured and taken away.”

That emollient British approach is probably why the Iranian Revolutionary Guard chose to grab British troops rather than Americans. It was obviously a snatch operation: the Iranians would not normally have half a dozen attack boats ready to go even if some “coalition” boat checking Iraq-bound ships for contraband did stray across the invisible dividing line into Iranian waters (which the British insist they didn’t).

But it was not necessarily an operation ordered from the top of Iran’s government. In fact, there is no single source of authority in Iran’s curious system of “multiple governments,” as one observer labelled the impenetrably complex division of responsibilities and powers between elected civilians and unelected mullahs. The Revolutionary Guards (who are quite different from the regular armed forces) enjoy considerable autonomy within this system.

According to the US authorities in Iraq, the five Iranian diplomats arrested by US troops in a raid in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan last January were actually Revolutionary Guards, and it would seem that their colleagues want them back. Kidnapping American troops as hostages for an exchange could cause a war, so they decided to grab some Brits instead. And it will probably work, after a certain delay.

In this episode, the American reputation for belligerence served US troops well, diverting Iranian attention to the British instead. In the larger scheme of things, it is a bit more problematic.

A quite similar snatch operation against the equally belligerent Israelis last July led to a month-long Israeli aerial bombardment of Lebanon and a retaliatory hail of Hezbollah rockets on northern Israeli cities. Well over a thousand people were dead by the end, although nothing was settled.

Any day now, a minor clash along Iraq’s land or sea frontier with Iran could kill some American troops and give President Bush an excuse to attack Iran, if he wants one — and he certainly seems to. If the Revolutionary Guards had got it wrong last Friday and attacked an American boarding party by mistake, he would have his excuse now, and bombs might already be falling on Iran. All the pieces are in place, and the war could start at any time.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“But it wasnot…system”; and “A quite…settled”)