New York Times editor Bill Keller speculated that the Green Revolution in Iran would cement the position of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Others saw another confrontation in which the clerical party had triumphed over reformers. Both of these analyses now seem wide of the mark. The latest developments in Iran provide more evidence that a steadily emerging military dictatorship is supplanting the remaining vestiges of the fragile clerical-democratic order established under the Islamic Republic’s constitution. The guiding hand behind each of these events is the same: elite commanders in the Revolutionary Guard are asserting themselves by stifling dissent, persecuting those who raise objections, and pushing ahead with an aggressive policy in pursuit of nuclear arms. Three developments in the last few days merit closer attention.
• Reuters reports that an Iranian court has seized Shirin Ebadi’s Nobel Peace Prize award money. “The revolutionary court has suspended all my personal accounts, my pension, my husband’s personal accounts and even his pension pay,” Ebadi told the news agency on Saturday. “They have told banks they cannot pay out any money to us. My husband had a safety box … which contained my Nobel Prize, Legion d’Honneur and other prizes I have won. The revolutionary court has blocked that … and we have no access to it.”
• The AP reports that “The Iranian government approved a plan Sunday to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, a dramatic expansion in defiance of U.N. demands it halt the program. The decision comes only two days after the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency censured Iran, demanding it immediately stop building a newly revealed enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom and freeze all uranium enrichment activities.” Juan Cole explains these developments against the backdrop of the earlier commitment by the Iranian government to accept limitations:
A desire on the part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commanders to retain the soft deterrence of a rapid breakout capability probably explains Iran’s waffling on the deal tentatively adopted at Geneva on October 1. That agreement would have had Iran send 2600 pounds of its 3200 pounds of low enriched uranium (enriched to less than 5 percent) to Russia for processing, so that it could be used in Iran’s small medical research reactor, and used to produce medical isotopes. In this way, the LEU, the seed stock for any potential bomb, would get used up. It would have taken Iran a couple of years to replace that LEU, reassuring Western hawks in the meantime that Iran’s weapons-making capability had been temporarily blunted. But when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative brought this deal back to Tehran, I believe that the IRGC commanders vetoed it because they want to retain a rapid break out potential and did not want the LEU seed stock to be lost.
• Military prosecutors announced further espionage charges against Columbia University sociologist Kian Tajbakhsh. He was released in 2007, as Iranian President Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia, and then rearrested earlier this year.
Although it has drawn little attention, the case of Kian Tajbakhsh is particularly revealing of the new power dynamic. Aaron Rhodes of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran was quick to note just where the latest attacks on Tajbakhsh originate: “It appears the Revolutionary Guards are seeking to justify their severe repression since the June elections by ratcheting up baseless espionage charges against Tajbakhsh in order to demonstrate foreign involvement and make him a scapegoat,” Rhodes says. Tajbakhsh is an American citizen, likely seized and charged as part of a game of leverage with the U.S. Government, like Ali Shakeri, Haleh Esfandiari, and Nazi Azima, as well as Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal—three hikers who accidentally strayed across the Iranian frontier from Iraqi Kurdistan in July. It makes little sense to view any of these cases as criminal prosecutions. Rather, each is a pawn the Iranian military wants to use in its efforts to join the nuclear club.
Last week, Tajbakhsh was presented with new charges by the Third Branch of the Security Court, a new and explicitly political court created and controlled by the Revolutionary Guards to prosecute dissidents. The charges focus on claims that he subscribed to the Gulf 2000 listserve and occasionally posted comments there. The Gulf 2000 listserve was set up by Gary Sick, a Columbia University scholar and former National Security Council officer, and includes most of the leading Middle East academics in the United States, as well as a number of diplomats and journalists. The charges suppose that listserve–filled with some of the harshest critics of the Bush Administration’s Iran policies–is a sort of espionage organization, because it includes regular discussion and analysis of Iran. According to Rhodes, high-ranking Revolutionary Guards commanders initiated the new charges against Tajbakhsh. He is currently held in solitary confinement in Evin prison and denied release on bail.
These three developments all reveal the decisive hand of senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guard, taking steps that actually seem (particularly in the case of uranium enrichment) designed to embarrass the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. In Iran, it increasingly appears that the era of rule by the mullahs has given way to a period of praetorian politics moving steadily towards military government.