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Is Iran a Military Dictatorship?

A picture made available by the official website of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shows him touring "Jamran," Iran's first domestically built warship, during its unveiling ceremony at an undisclosed location in southern Iran on 19 February

“Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship,” warned U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking last week (16 February) in Doha, Qatar. Clinton raised new concerns about the power of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the growing military elite that now controls Iran’s nuclear program.

Growing Power of Revolutionary Guard Corps

London-based Iranian journalist Ali Reza Nourizadeh agrees with Secretary Clinton’s concern about Iran’s emerging power structure. Nourizadeh, who directs the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, says since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, Iran has been moving steadily toward a military dictatorship.

“Half the ministers were either directly coming from the Revolutionary Guard or they had some connection with the Revolutionary Guard’s intelligence unit,” Nourizadeh said. He estimates that 90 members of the Iranian Parliament are generals, colonels, or former generals in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. “In the political arena, most of the big jobs are held by Revolutionary Guards,” he added. “They are everywhere, and they have financial support from the government.”

Doubts about Iranian Military Dictatorship on “Arab Street”

But Arab journalist Nadia Bilbassy said that view is not widely held in the Arab world. The senior news correspondent with the Middle East Broadcasting Center noted that, while Arab leaders are alarmed by Iran’s nuclear program and the growing power of the Revolutionary Guard, most people in the Arab world do not view Iran as a military dictatorship.

“There is a ‘disconnect’ between the government and the people,” Bilbassy explained. She rates President Ahmadinejad’s popularity on the Arab Street as “medium to high.” “People see Iran as a country that supports movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, which are seen as indigenous movements fighting the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories and in southern Lebanon,” Bilbassy noted, “but in general I think they don’t look at it as a military dictatorship.”

Historical Factors in Growing Influence of the Guard

However, Nourizadeh warns that the history of the Revolutionary Guard’s activities in the region is itself a cause for suspicion. “We should not forget that the Revolutionary Guard – at least for the past 25 years – was responsible for training certain groups in Arab countries. Look at Yemen!” he urged. “Hundreds of Yemeni Shi’a received their training from the Revolutionary Guard,” Nourizadeh said. Furthermore, in Lebanon, Hezbollah is the main supplier of weapons, Nourizadeh noted. “And look at Palestine! The Revolutionary Guard trained Hamas.” In Iraq also, the Guard trained hundreds of fighters, he said. “In Afghanistan, even now it is obvious that the Revolutionary Guard has some links to al-Qaida and some al-Qaida leaders are living in Iran,” according to Nourizadeh.

Iranian Nuclear Program

As Secretary of State Clinton noted, the Revolutionary Guard has become the keeper of Iran’s nuclear program. And according to Bilbassy, that makes its nuclear program a serious threat to its Arab neighbors, especially the Gulf states. “I think privately everybody is worried about Iran’s capability of developing nuclear weapons, and nobody believes its intention is to have them for peaceful purposes,” Bilbassy said. According to her, “Everybody knows that Iran is seeking a role of leadership in the region.” Nuclear weapons represent what she calls the “ultimate power.”

However, the nature of the current nuclear threat from Iran has not yet been determined, Bilbassy said. “Many experts, including a U.N. report that was leaked to the press, said that Iran’s capability is very much exaggerated,” she notes. On the other end of the spectrum, Israel argues that Iran’s nuclear program represents an existential threat. “But the bottom line,” Bilbassy said, “is that nobody knows because there is no intelligence on the ground.”

Iranian Political Opposition Movement

Assuming that Iran does intend to develop nuclear weapons, Nourizadeh asks, how then should the West deal with Tehran? He suggests that one of the most effective ways might be to encourage Iran’s internal opposition. “I think morally supporting the Green Movement would be very effective, and it would help bring about rapid changes in Iran.”

But Bilbassy strongly disagrees. “It would be the kiss of death for them, and it would give a pretext for the government in Iran to point to interference by the Western powers, particularly the United States and Britain,” she argues.

Military Strike vs. Diplomatic Negotiations

Both Bilbassy and Nourizadeh recommend against the use of a military strike against suspected nuclear targets in Iran. Nourizadeh said he thinks the military option would be “counter-effective” for the United States, for Iran’s neighbors, and for the Iranian people. Bilbassy suggests that a military strike could be catastrophic for Iran’s Arab neighbors. “They will shy away from any possibility of a military strike against Iran because that would unleash unpredictable consequences that would set the whole region on fire, and everybody knows that,” Bilbassy said. She notes that the situation poses a serious dilemma for the West. “What do they do?” she asks. “The military option is not really an option, and negotiations are not going anywhere.”

Both Bilbassy and Nourizadeh agree that the most effective way to influence Iran’s leadership is through the use of targeted economic sanctions. To do that, they recommend non-stop lobbying for China’s support in the U.N. Security Council. Thus far, however, Beijing has resisted more stringent sanctions against Iran and is continuing to urge further negotiations to resolve the international standoff.

Meanwhile, Secretary Clinton says she hopes to see a U.N. resolution on new sanctions against Iran in the next 30 to 60 days. She told U.S. lawmakers this week (24 February) that the United States has gained greater international support for sanctions because of the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to engage Iran.