The Rise of the Iranian Dictatorship

Tehran is increasingly relying on its military to control its citizens. Looking at the new leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, that trend seems certain to hasten.


Since the June 12 Iranian presidential election stirred massive anti-regime demonstrations, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his inner circle of hard-liners have used the armed forces — particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — to suppress dissent. Western observers have commented on the country’s slide toward military dictatorship. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, devoted his Sunday news show to it this past week. But what was once a theory now seems commonly acceptable fact, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s latest appointments to the IRGC demonstrate.

The secretive paramilitary group became a dominant institution in Iran — socially, politically, militarily, and economically — during Ahmadinejad’s first term. He appointed IRGC members to positions as ambassadors, mayors, cabinet ministers, and high-ranking officials at state-run economic institutions. The IRGC returned the favor during the electoral campaign. Before the election, the chief of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, encouraged the guards to "participate" — a not-so-subtle directive to do whatever necessary to guarantee Ahmadinejad’s re-election. They did so, both by intimidating opposition members and even, some in Iran allege, single-handedly rigging the vote.

Khamenei’s new appointments to the IRGC leadership give hard-liners unprecedented power. The appointees also include some of the most feared and brutal men in Iran — implying the IRGC will become an even stronger anti-democratic tool in the state’s hands and making any mediating dissent from its ranks far more unlikely.

Consider the appointees. The new commander of the Basij, a paramilitary group under the IRGC’s control, is Mohammad Reza Naghdi.

Back in 1993, Khamenei appointed Naghdi as deputy director of intelligence of the Quds Force, a branch of the IRGC responsible for international operations. Naghdi and his team allegedly committed numerous acts of torture and abuse. After the courts charged a high-ranking member of the Ministry of Intelligence with murdering secular intellectuals, Naghdi and his team formed a "parallel intelligence force" to avoid such scrutiny. This allowed Naghdi and his cronies to work outside the control of then-President Mohammad Khatami, who had vowed to cleanse the ministry. They continued their brutal practices, despite his attempts at reform.

Naghdi later became the head of the intelligence bureau of Tehran’s police force and played a role in the imprisonment of former Tehran Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi and high-ranking city officials in 1997 and 1998. During their trials for crimes related to corruption (widely viewed as a state ploy to discredit reformers), Naghdi and his underlings reportedly tortured inmates — primarily high-ranking members of the opposition party of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Naghdi was also a key player in organizing and financing Ansar Hezbollah, a militia that orchestrated the 1999 attack on student dormitories at Tehran University. The incident came during a broader government crackdown on university students; Ansar members broke in during the middle of the night and threw one student out of a window to his death. Khamenei’s choice of appointing such a figure in charge of the Basij, which is extremely active on college campuses, is designed to instill fear into university students, who are among the most active dissidents in Iran. They comprised a large portion of this summer’s demonstrators.

Another key appointment is that of Hassan Taeb to head the IRGC’s intelligence bureau. Taeb is a former commander of the Basij and one of the main officials responsible for cracking down on the post-election demonstrators. An undetermined number of Iranians — but dozens at least — were killed on the streets or in prison during the protests. In addition, opposition figures, particularly presidential contender Mehdi Karroubi, have charged the intelligence force with sanctioning the rape and torture of demonstrators who are serving time.

Khamenei’s appointments come amid a fierce debate inside Iran. Even conservatives are unnerved by the militarization of the state. They argue that the military’s intervention in Iranian politics is against the revolutionary ideals of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic in 1979. Khomeini established the IRGC to defend the revolution from internal threats after the fall of the shah. In 1988, he established the Basij forces on university campuses across Iran to ensure that students, long known for political dissent, would remain loyal to the republic.

Now, Khamenei has given the militias under his control unprecedented power. This will surely lead to a more restrictive society at the precise moment a broad-based opposition movement seemed to promise real change for the first time since the 1979 revolution.

Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive

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