Raja Kamal and Karim Pakravan

Going rogue - the militarization of Iran

By Raja Kamal and Karim Pakravan
December 27, 2009

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ONCE AGAIN, Iran is front and center in the international arena. The Ahmadinejad administration continues to push the envelope, forcing an international reaction that may include a military attack. Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to consolidate his power, emerging as the most powerful president since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

The escalation of tensions between Iran and the international community over Iran’s nuclear program is but another manifestation of the de facto militarization of the Islamic regime. This trend became apparent with the brutal suppression of the popular protests following the fraudulent presidential election in June.

The suppression was designed to quell once and for all the vast democracy movement and instead establish a military regime. Ahmadinejad and his military allies have established their supremacy at the expense of the religious elites, overshadowing the Supreme Leader Khameni and the various religious-dominated governing councils.

While the secret police and militias were always a key pillar of the regime, they were subordinated to religious leaders, reporting directly to the supreme leader. However, things changed with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005. Deprived of political power - which is vested in the supreme leader - Ahmadinejad used his administrative powers to staff the central and provincial governments, as well as key economic and educational positions with loyalists.

He also paid special attention to key police groups, replacing top commanders and diverting economic resources to his loyal followers - among others, the Khatam-al-Nabeein Company, which was awarded its first multibillion-dollar contract to develop an oil field. Over the next few years, the security forces extended their control over the military, the media, and all aspects of Iran’s economy.

The militarization of the Islamic regime has also extended to the country’s foreign policy. The increasingly confrontational stance taken by Iran on its nuclear program reflects the security forces’ interests in keeping Iran isolated and defiant - a normalization of relations with the West, in particular the United States, is seen as a lethal threat to the survival of the regime and their powerful role.

The Middle East will be the first to suffer from this aggressive foreign policy as the regime capitalizes on the regional power vacuum and the absence of dominant Arab patriotism. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was not only another blow to Arab nationalism, but also created an opportunity for Iran to extend its influence beyond its borders. Political change in Iraq gave rise to the Shi’ite dominance that seems today in complete harmony with Iranian leadership. And that initial opportunity for influence has grown to undeniable clout, dramatically and unintentionally expanded with the reshaping of the Iraqi government.

These changes have also made it possible for Iran to expand its role in the region. It now is able to exercise strategic political leverage over Arab countries with sizable Shi’ite populations.

For example, the Shi’ites of Lebanon have emerged defiant and empowered with Iranian help. The balance of power has shifted in favor of Iran and its role as a powerbroker. And with a nuclear development program capable of producing weapons, there is increasing potential for Iran to further threaten regional stability.

Shi’ites in the Arab world - traditionally treated as second-class citizens by the dominant Sunni rulers - now look at Iran for moral and political authority. To many Arab Sh’iites, Tehran is as important to them as the Vatican is to the Catholics.

Ahmadinejad is shrewdly capitalizing on these religious sentiments. One could argue that the real winner of the 2003 Iraq War is Iran. Indeed, it has seemed to garner a bloodless victory, capitalizing on religion and acting as the true defender of the Shi’ites. Religious Shi’ite identity spread and penetrated Arab political borders. It was much more powerful than any political border can withstand. The dynamics are changing quickly in Iran’s favor.

Meanwhile, the regime is weathering the world’s sanctions, although the Iranian people continue to suffer politically and economically, with totally marginalized human rights. Indiscriminate new sanctions would only add to their hardship and strengthen the regime.

A new dual track approach to Iran is needed, focusing on both human rights and directed sanctions to the military and political leaders. Maybe this will eventually capture Ahmadinejad’s attention and begin the long road to restoring regional balance of power.

Raja Kamal is senior associate dean at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. Karim Pakravan is visiting associate professor of finance at De Paul University.

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