Iranian military fracturing?

December 13, 2009

A dictator’s worst nightmare: the military turns against him.

Writing at Pajamas Media, Leiden University law professor Afshin Ellian has seen signs that the Iranian regular military, as opposed to the Revolutionary Guard, has placed the theocratic-fascist regime in Tehran on notice not to initiate a bloody repression of the Iranian people, or face revolt:

On December 10, a statement signed by a number of officers and commanders of the Iranian army was released. The regular army of Iran had not been involved in the suppression of the population. The statement was signed by:

  • Pilots and personnel of the aviation division of the regular army (Havanirooz)
  • Commanders and personnel of the 31th artillery division of Isfahan of the regular army
  • Pilots and airmen of the regular army
  • Teachers of the Shaid Satari University of the regular air force
  • Officers and staff of the logistics training unit the regular army
  • Professors and lecturers of the Imam Ali University for officers of the regular army
  • Officers, staff, and commanders of the chief of staff of the regular army

Professor Ellian then quotes the message itself:

“Therefore, we warn the [Revolutionary] Guards who have betrayed the martyrs (from the war between Iran and Iraq) and who decided to attack the lives, the property and the honor of the citizens. We seriously warn them that if they do not leave their chosen path, they will be confronted with our tough response. The military is a haven for the nation. And we will defend the peace-loving Iranian nation against any aggression.”

This may explain why the regime crackdown against demonstrators protesting the fraudulent elections last June, while brutal, was not the massacre many (including me) expected: the mullahs can’t trust the regular military, which sees itself as the guardian of the nation, not the regime. The defection of Air Force officers was one of the key moments leading to the fall of the Shah in 1978-79.

This is a common feature of dictatorships: hated by the people, a brutal ruler stays in power by keeping the armed forces happy. But, regular militaries aren’t necessarily loyal to the current regime, seeing themselves as defenders of the nation as a whole. Many Latin American constitutions spell out just such a role for their armed forces, which have often taken that as their justification for launching a coup. In response to this threat, some regimes create elite forces meant more to keep the regular military in line and for use against civilians when the Army can’t be trusted, than defend against an external threat. Indeed, the Romans gave us the name for just such a force, Praetorian Guard, troops raised specifically to provide a guard loyal to the Emperor. The Nazis had the SS and SA, the Soviets had the KGB and Interior Ministry troops, and Saddam Hussein had the Republican and Special Republican Guards. Such elite forces tend to be resented by regular militaries, who see them as rivals for resources and their existence as an insult.

If Ellian’s information is correct, then the mullahocracy is in deep peril, and its survival rests on a fragile base. The demonstrators in Iran haven’t given up; indeed, the cries of “Death to the dictator” are heard nightly from Tehran rooftops. If the military won’t defend the regime nor stand by while it uses other means to defend itself, then the mullahs’ time may be coming faster than we think.

This would be a perfect moment for the Obama Administration to provide moral and propaganda support to the pro-democracy forces in Iran. They blew it last June; let’s hope they get it right this time.