It was only last October that then vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden told a Seattle fundraising crowd in October 2008 that the next president would face a “major international crisis” within six months of taking office. He said, “Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy…And he’s gonna need help…we’re gonna need you to use your influence, your influence within the community, to stand with him. Because it’s not gonna be apparent initially, it’s not gonna be apparent that we’re right.” Prophetic words.
While world attention has been riveted on massive street protests that erupted in the wake of June presidential elections in Iran, word is leaking out of North Korea about the possibly critical condition of Kim Jong-Il’s health, reportedly due to pancreatic cancer. These developments raise questions of stability and succession in two of the world’s most dangerous regimes, the one already a nuclear power and the other on the verge.
In both Iran and North Korea, early regime reactions indicate that military and security forces in each country are stepping up to take on even more dominant roles in preserving those regimes.What’s more, those militaries are working together in sync to challenge the U.S. and international system’s ability to hold them in check.
Top leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) spoke out publicly in early July to announce a takeover of national security and “a revival of the revolution,” according to Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC. The streets of Iran’s big cities were flooded with security forces, including swarms of baton-wielding Bassij thugs on motorcycles, who clubbed, gassed, knifed, and shot unarmed demonstrators. The Bassij is a subordinate division of the IRGC that functions as a backup militia to quell civil disturbances. Critics decried a coup d’état by elite Guards loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The IRGC takeover of Iran is less a coup d’état than a calculated campaign that has been in progress at least since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the presidency in 2005. Created in 1979 during the earliest days of Khomeini’s revolution, the IRGC has always had just one mission, as indicated by its full name in Farsi: Sepāh-e Pāsdārān-e Inqelāb-e Islāmi (Army of the Guardians of the Revolution). The IRGC defends the revolution and thereby the mullahs’ regime that is Khomeini’s legacy.
Over the years and especially since former IRGC commander Ahmadinejad became president, its power has grown steadily. The IRGC is in charge of all of Iran’s WMD programs, including its nuclear weapons program. It commands the development of Iran’s ballistic missile program and heads the bilateral cooperative missile program with North Korea. Through its Qods Force, the IRGC manages Iran’s liaison relationships with terror organizations such as Al-Qa’eda, Hamas, and Hizballah as well as with the Taliban, regional organized crime syndicates, and the opium trade out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It boasts a broad representation in the institutions of Iran’s democratic façade, such as the Majles (Parliament). The IRGC also owns massive segments of the Iranian economy including banks, construction and mining companies, oil and gas properties, and petrochemical plants.
The IRGC’s economic grab is bringing it into direct conflict with the established financial interests of some of the revolution’s founding clerics. Over the centuries, Iran’s mullahs have amassed enormous familial wealth that is partly the inheritance of a long-entrenched Shi’ite theological establishment. Key regime clerics such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Khamenei have also raked in hundreds of millions in ill-gotten gains since the revolution, much of it reportedly socked away in foreign bank accounts. Now these erstwhile comrades-in-arms are squabbling openly over the diminishing spoils of a thoroughly corrupted and mismanaged economy.
The Rafsanjani clan cynically chose to back populist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, whose loss to Ahmadinejad (by fraud or otherwise) predictably brought into the streets the only power in Iran that can stand against the guns of the regime: the population of Iran in its millions. And the regime fought back with the IRGC.
In North Korea, too, the military has always dominated and is every bit as determined to defend its privileged position as the IRGC in Iran. For over sixty years, however, the Kim dynasty has ruled the country with an iron fist and even after it became known as a nuclear power in the early 1990s. North Korea, however brutally dysfunctional, remained stable. Now, however, things seem to be moving in a less certain direction.
In the wake of a reported stroke last year and gathering speculation about life-threatening cancer, Kim Jong-Il has appeared but rarely in public and was looking gaunt and sickly in his most recent appearance earlier this month. Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean dictator’s youngest son, reportedly has been groomed for succession, but at 26, is hardly ready to step into the leadership of a militarized terror state in a society that typically pays deference only to age and power. In addition, there is a brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, who could ensure internal destabilization with a power grab of his own.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula and throughout the nearby region have been running high in recent months due to North Korea’s increasingly belligerent tone and its steady succession of nuclear and missile tests. The 2007 Israeli strike on a nuclear reactor in Syria being built with North Korean assistance and the more recent half-hearted shadowing by a U.S. destroyer of a North Korean freighter thought to be carrying prohibited cargo have been the only tangible responses.
Analysts cite an exceptionally weak U.S. track record led by Ambassador Christopher Hill during the George W. Bush administration and a continuing policy of lame ‘expressions of concern’ from the Obama administration for doing little to discourage an already hyper-aggressive regime now possibly on the brink of a succession struggle. The April 2009 announcement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the U.S. would cut the missile defense budget by $1.4 billion was met the very same day (April 6) by a North Korean launch of a multi-stage missile that delivered its payload some 2,390 miles away in the Pacific Ocean, and quickly followed by an Iranian test-firing of a solid-fuelled ballistic missile with a 1,200 mile range (on May 20) and a North Korean explosive nuclear weapons test (May 25).
The Iranian and North Korean regimes are the two surviving members of President Bush’s “axis of evil”. Today the criminal leaderships of both are facing internal crises that their powerful militaries are using to expand their grip on both domestic and foreign policy. Not only have the Iranian people declared their alienation from their leaders, but the theological legitimacy of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and even the very institution of Velayat-e Faqih are under assault: Qom’s Association of Religious Scholars issued a call for new elections, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri has declared the mullahs’ regime illegitimate, and Rafsanjani sermons amount to a frank challenge to the regime.
With open fitna in the ranks of the clergy, the IRGC is the last defense of a disintegrating dictatorship. Its ideological zealotry and direct control of the regime’s most lethal weapons make its role in directing Iran’s foreign policy a matter of critical concern for U.S. national security. The same is true for North Korea: if the million-strong People’s Army, in control of intercontinental ballistic missiles and a tested nuclear weapons capability, should step into a succession fight following the demise of Kim Jong-Il, the rogue defiance of the international system seen to date would be merely prelude to the chaos that could follow. This is no longer just an axis of evil: it is an axis of instability, slipping toward loss of control, and fixed on blaming the U.S. for everything.
Joe Biden’s “major international crisis” is nearly upon us. Is the U.S. prepared to show itself the powerful, decisive leader of the free world the oppressed people of Iran and North Korea hope it is and American citizens depend on it to be? The Obama administration has given no indication to date that it is willing to reconsider its decision to stand down against the Axis of Evil and the War on Terror. By the time events in Iran and North Korea cause those regimes to implode, the consequences for an enfeebled U.S. and the free world may be catastrophic.