Traditionally, the Iranian army is called “the big mute”, because it is the only component of the system not to participate in any public debate. Unlike its counterparts in many “developing nations” it has never tried to seize power or act as political puppeteer.
In 1905-06, the army refused to protect absolutism against the constitutional revolution.
In 1911, it remained on the sidelines as Cossacks hired by the pretender Muhammad-Ali Mirza fought a losing battle against revolutionary irregulars and tribal warriors defending the new democracy.
In 1925, the army did nothing to prevent a putsch that was to end the Qajar dynasty four years later.
In 1953, the army refused to help keep Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadeq in power by crushing his opponents.
In 1979, in the fight between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, the army declared “neutrality”, allowing the mullahs to seize power.
In recognition of that tradition, Khomeini created his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1979. He knew that the army would not kill people in support of any ruler while the IRGC would.
A test of that theory came last June when a disputed presidential election exposed the fragility of the Khomeinist regime. “Had we not been there, the regime would have been in danger,” says General Muhammad-Ali Jaafari, also known as “Aziz”, who commands the IRGC. “The events have created a new situation in which the IRGC plays the central role.”
The general’s analysis is not fanciful.
Had the IRGC not deployed massively in Tehran, nothing could have prevented millions of angry demonstrators from marching on centers of power to dislodge the “Supreme Guide”, the President and other grandees of the regime.
Mir-Hossein Mousavi the candidate who believes that he, and not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was the winner of the June election, describes the events as a “military coup”. However, the term “putsch” may be closer to the truth.
General “Aziz” and his force have not seized power officially. Nor have they abrogated the constitution.
What they want is a “Turkish” model in which the IRGC is acknowledged as the backbone of the regime with a veto over major decisions, a version of the “walayat al-faqih” (custodianship of the cleric) in which boots replace the mullah’s flip-flops.
The IRGC has moved fast to cash in on its claim of “saving the regime.” It has expanded its business empire by taking over the privatized national telecommunications company at a give-away price. It is in line to snatch some 300 other state-owned companies lined up for privatization at a total value of $15 billion. General “Aziz” has also started the biggest purge of the high and middle ranks of the force since 1990.
If rumors are right, even Major-General Hassan Firouzabadi, the Chief of Staff and a favorite of the “Supreme Guide”, would be booted into retirement.
There is one area where “Aziz” may have overreached: the military domain. He started by annexing the Basij paramilitary force and its massive budget. He then seized exclusive control of defense in the Persian Gulf, effectively annexing the regular navy and part of the regular air force based along the strategic waterway.
To make matters worse, the flamboyant general, who has called for Mousavi to be arrested, has made television appearances in which he belittled the role of the regular army in the 1980-88 war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Jaafari’s voracious appetite and controversial claims of heroism on behalf of the IRGC have angered the commanders of the regular army, the “big mute”, who have been forced to make public statements for the first time.
“Recently someone responsible for one of the organs of the state claimed that our regular army was unable to capture even one hill in the war against Iraq,” General Hussein Saadi, deputy commander of the regular armed forces, said in response to the IRGC commander. “This is the height of unfairness. Throughout the eight-year war, the heavy burden of responsibility was borne by the land forces of the regular army.”
General Saadi continued: “We must ask: who went to the war front in the first days, and offered the first martyrs? At that time, the IRGC did not yet have a single platoon; in fact it had not yet been properly formed. It was the land forces of the regular army that stood against the aggression of the Baathist regime which had invaded our country with 12 armored divisions and 45 ancillary units.”
An even angrier response to General Jaafari’s claims has come from General Hassan Shah-Safi, Commander of the regular air force. He, too, has broken “the big mute” tradition by denouncing the IRGC’s claims that it alone won the war against Saddam.
“How could anyone ignore the role of our heroic air force in crippling Saddam’s war machine?” Shah Safi demanded in a speech. “Was it not our regular air force that knocked out Saddam’s tanks, destroyed his oil pipelines, and wiped out his bases? Even today, it is our regular armed forces, especially our air force, that guarantee the safety of the regime and the revolution against external enemies.”
Shah Safi’s subtext is clear: while the IRGC is an instrument for internal repression, the regular armed forces ensure the nation’s security against foreign enemies.
The “big mute” is also beginning to complain about its treatment as Cinderella when it comes to resource allocations.
Deputy Chief of Staff General Gholam-Ali Rashid has evoked the regular army’s grievances over pay and conditions. The IRGC pays twice as much to its officers and NCOs than the regular army. The IRGC also gets the lion’s share in the defense budget and arms purchases.
“Double-standards have a negative effect on the morale of our forces,” Rashid said last month in a blunt tone unexpected from the “big mute”.
Unlike Jaafari and other IRGC chiefs who have sided with Ahmadinejad and became involved in a partisan political feud, the regular army’s commanders have said nothing about the election.
They have refused to endorse Ahmadinejad’s victory without a hint that they might have preferred Mousavi.
In that sense, they have remained faithful to the regular army’s tradition of political neutrality.
The fact that the “big mute” is beginning to speak out on any issue for the first time, may be a sign of the Khomeinist regime’s slow but steady deterioration.
It may also indicate that Jaafari and his IRGC cohorts may not find it easy to become puppet-masters behind Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.
One day, Khamenei may need the regular army to save him from the IRGC, the Frankenstein-style monster created by Khomeini.