Tehran's Last Chance: Israel, Iran and the Battle for the Bomb
Part 3: Iran's Collective Inferiority Complex
Particularly in his second term, which he owes to a decree by the revolutionary leader following the widespread protests over his reelection in 2009, Ahmadinejad has repeatedly refused to take Khamenei's suggestions into account when filling government posts.
The power struggle between the revolutionary leader and the president is now being fought openly, but its outcome remains uncertain. Ahmadinejad's current term officially ends in the summer of 2013. At this point, no one knows which side the majority of the newly elected parliament will take. The representatives of the people could topple or support the president.
In addition to an exaggerated self-confidence based on the country's earlier history as a major power, the Persian soul is burdened by a sort of collective inferiority complex stemming from the proud nation's inability to regain its former greatness.
This feeling is also fueled by Shia, the denomination of Islam to which almost all Iranians adhere. Of the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide, no more than 15 percent are followers of Shiat Ali, the party of Imam Ali, who the Shiites recognize as the only true successor of the Prophet Mohammed. It is a faith that has been marked by betrayal and martyrdom ever since Imam Ali was assassinated in 661 A.D. and, a short time later, his son, the third imam Hussein, was killed in a battle near Karbala in present-day Iraq.
Shia Islam is also shaped by an immense expectation of salvation centered on the return of the 12th imam. The Shiites believe that this Mahdi, or guided one, will rid the world of all evil. No small number of believers are deeply convinced that his return is imminent, and that chaos and decline will only accelerate salvation by the Mahdi. The Iranian president, of all people, is an especially enthusiastic supporter of the Mahdi cult. The clerical establishment is sharply critical of many of his supporters, which it sees as sectarians.
Thirst for Worldly Power
Within the first years following Khomeini's seizure of power in 1979, it was already clear how dangerous it was to underestimate the mullahs' thirst for worldly power. Iran fanatically defended what has been the only attack to date on the country's borders in the history of the Islamic Republic. Believing he could easily annex an oil-rich province, Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein attacked the theocracy in September 1980. Although the West, most of all the United States, armed the Iraqi dictator for his war against the hated mullahs, Saddam failed to subjugate the Iranians. After eight years of war and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire.
During that war, two organizations established their legendary reputation as the pillars of the Iranian regime, organizations that even today would be willing to make great sacrifices in defending Iran against attacks: the voluntary militia of the Basij, or "Mobilization of the Oppressed," and the units of the Pasdaran, or "Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution." These two groups demonstrated just how much they support the leadership in 2009, during the so-called Green Revolution. When millions of Iranians, led by cleric Mahdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had led the country as prime minister through the turmoil of the Iraq war, took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad's manipulated reelection, they were brutally attacked by Basij and Pasdaran troops. The reform movement hasn't recovered from the wave of repression to this day.
But while the Basij deteriorated into a group of thugs long ago, the Pasdaran are still widely respected. And even though the Revolutionary Guards, with 125,000 men, make up only about a third of the Iranian armed forces, they are the backbone of the leadership -- in every respect. Their commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, 54, is considered one of the most powerful men in the country. In addition to the Pasdaran, he commands 300,000 reservists and the Basij, which has an estimated troop strength of at least 100,000 men. In times of crisis, the Basij can mobilize up to a million activists.
Some even believe that Jafari is more influential than the president. Both Khamenei and Ahmadinejad need the Guards and, for this reason, court their favor. Khamenei's advantage is that he is entitled to appoint the Pasdaran commander, and he chose Jafari for the position in 2007. Ahmadinejad, who once served in the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, notorious for its foreign missions, also does everything in his power to secure the support of the Revolutionary Guard commander.
Core of the Regime
Jafari embodies a rare blend of the aesthete, revolutionary and businessman, steeled in the resistance against the former shah. As a young architecture student, he demonstrated against the ailing monarchy in 1978. He was arrested several times and tortured by the Shah's secret police, the SAVAK. After the shah was overthrown, Jafari was one of the students who stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. Because of the courage he exhibited during the Iraq war and his logistical abilities, he quickly advanced to the rank of commander.
The Pasdaran is also the economic core of the regime, with Jafari controlling an enormous business empire. The Revolutionary Guards have been as relentless in taking control of their country's economy as they were in striking back at Iraqi troops during the war.
About one in three delegates to the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, is aligned with the Pasdaran. The current speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, was also a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guards, as was his successor as nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. It makes sense that both men come from the Pasdaran, because Iran's nuclear projects are an important focus for the organization.
Companies owned by the Pasdaran build the hidden tunnels, such as those for the planned Fordo enrichment facility near Qom, the stronghold of Shiite religious scholarship. The Pasdaran's scientists are involved in enriching uranium, their elite troops protect the nuclear facilities and their leaders sharply warn the United States and its ally, Israel, against attempting to attack. "If their fighter jets manage to evade the Iranian air defense system," the head of the Pasdaran air force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, recently said, commenting on the threat of an Israeli attack, "our surface-to-surface missiles will destroy their bases before they land." Naturally, the head of the alleged secret nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, is also a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guards.
But not all possible targets whose coordinates the Israeli strategists have on their radar are remote bunker systems like the Fordo enrichment plant. The birthplace of the Iranian nuclear program is in the middle of the capital.
The Tehran research reactor is located in the northern section of the city of 13 million, where the Alborz Mountains seem almost close enough to touch and the air is relatively clean compared to the smog in the valley below. The nuclear complex, which the United States built in the 1960s, is surrounded by tall apartment buildings, shopping centers, restaurants and kindergartens. There are no signs to indicate that this is where the Iranian nuclear authority is headquartered. Fereydoon Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, presides over this small, isolated world, with its own mosque, cafeterias, administrative buildings and research complexes. The professor was appointed to the position after surviving an attempted assassination.
The scientist who accompanied SPIEGEL journalists on a tour of the facility last year insisted that nothing untoward is happening in the laboratories. "My work is intended to save lives, not destroy them," he said. Then he glanced over at the mosque and added: "May God protect us."
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