Beware the Iranian Military

In an interview June 20, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates noted that Iran’s government has been transitioning over the past 18 months into a military dictatorship. It is a transition that has occurred as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has gained power in Tehran under the sponsorship of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

This transition has been in motion for more than 18 months. After taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad, a former IRGC officer, gradually began bringing in many retired IRGC officers to take control of various sectors of the economy. State construction and oil contracts were reserved for IRGC-controlled companies.

IRGC has also gained control of the news media, radio and television networks. The organization plays an active role in state security and intelligence services. When Iranian voters took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election in 2009, it was the IRGC who played a very effective role in brutally putting down those protests. 

In the interview Gates stated, “What we’ve seen is a change in the nature of the regime in Tehran… You have a much narrower-based government in Tehran now. Many of the religious figures are being set aside.” 

While the IRGC reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Gates observed the religious leader “is leaning on a smaller and smaller group of advisers.”
I agree with Mr. Gates’ comments above, but not with what he said next.

The secretary believes Iran’s militarization, coupled with the new economic sanctions, “has real potential” in getting the country to comply with international controls on its nuclear program. “I think you have a reasonable chance of getting the Iranian regime to come to their senses and realize their security is probably more endangered by going forward than by stopping it,” he said.

One need only look to a similar shift in governmental power in a country assisting Iran in achieving its nuclear armament goals to understand the danger in believing greater military control translates into a more rational approach in curtailing a rogue state’s nuclear ambitions.

The late North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1994. He did so by maintaining an equal balance between the country’s two main power bases—the military and the party. He recognized an important principle: Any imbalance in power threatens a dictatorship. Kim Il Sung effectively maintained equality between these two entities for more than a half century of rule.

However, when Kim Il Sung died, his son, Kim Jong Il, replaced him as dictator—resulting in a dramatic shift in the power base propping the dictatorship up.  Disregarding his father’s caveat about maintaining balance, the son embarked upon a “military first” policy by which the party lost, and the military gained, significant ground. As a direct result of this power shift in favor of the military, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program made its greatest advances. Accordingly, North Korea today represents a danger to the world community. Emboldened by greater domestic control and a nuclear arsenal, North Korea’s military has cast off all bonds of reason, leaving it free to act irresponsibly as evidenced in March by its unprovoked torpedo attack and sinking of a South Korean destroyer.

In Iran, responsibility for its nuclear and missile programs fell to the IRGC. Thus, ultimate responsibility would appear to be in the hands of the IRGC commander, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari. But, it now seems, teams within both Iran’s political infrastructure and the IRGC have been organized to make development of the two programs more competitive. IRGC remains the driving force behind the nuclear program. And it looks as if it will have a nuclear warhead fielded at least six months before the Sajjil-2 missile designed to carry it is.

IRGC cliques—known as “nuclear warlords”—reportedly have been established to move development of the nuclear program along more rapidly. But splinter research and development groups have evolved within both programs, making it much more difficult for outside observers to get a clear picture of what progress is being made. However, what is certain is that once the missile and its nuclear payload are joined together, it will be IRGC’s hand on the launch button. 

When a rogue state allows its military to become the dominant power, a real danger exists that one of its members may seek total control. It is unlikely that will happen in North Korea where the people have been indoctrinated for decades in the belief total control is a birthright of the Kim family. Accordingly, the family will continue to rule; but, with its dominant position now established, the military will continue to wield major influence.
Because the Kims and the military are driven by a desire to control—and not die—it is unlikely Pyongyang will use a nuclear weapon, risking retaliation in kind. However, so armed, it will continue to cause trouble without concern for accountability and to serve as a conduit for marketing nuclear technology to other rogue states, such as Iran.

Meanwhile, in Tehran, where the IRGC footprint is firmly implanted within government and industry, the situation is different. Although Iran allegedly is a theocracy in which Ayatollah Khamenei maintains decision-making authority with the IRGC reporting directly to him, one still cannot ignore the fact the IRGC came to power through the efforts of a former member—President Ahmadinejad.

Where then lies the loyalty of the IRGC—with Khamenei or Ahmadinejad? If the latter, unlike Pyongyang’s Kim who desires control without risking death, Ahmadinejad is willing to risk death by virtue of his apocalyptical obsession doing so will pave the way for the twelfth Imam’s return—a precursor to the world’s submission to Islam. The question arises, should Khamenei decide not to launch a nuclear strike but Ahmadinejad favors the opposite, to whom would the IRGC be responsive?

With an IRGC military force comprised of religious fanatics willing to die for Islam, with an IRGC hand on a trigger that could start a nuclear war, with IRGC loyalties torn between either a mad cleric or obsessed president, we should take no comfort knowing the IRGC is now in the driver’s seat concerning whether to continue Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.