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The Regime's Shadow Warriors: Revolutionary Guards Keep Stranglehold on Iran

By and Erich Follath

Iran's Revolutionary Guards, also known as the Pasdaran, are the regime's most important source of support. The powerful militia organization puts down street protests, spies on opposition members and controls the nuclear program. They are also the target of planned new United Nations sanctions.

Can 44 Nobel Prize winners be wrong?

The group of Nobel laureates, which included such luminaries as Nobel Peace laureates Betty Williams and Jody Williams, the writer Wole Soyinka and the economist James Heckman, as well as many leading figures from the fields of medicine, chemistry and physics, made a dramatic appeal in a full-page ad published in the International Herald Tribune on Feb. 9. "Dear President Obama, President Sarkozy, President Medvedev, Prime Minister Brown and Chancellor Merkel," it began. "How long can we stand idly by and watch this scandal in Iran unfold?"

In their appeal, the 44 laureates called upon the world leaders to finally respond to the atrocities of the Iranian regime, with its "irresponsible and senseless nuclear ambitions," with sharper sanctions, and to throw their full support behind Iranian opposition protesters. "They deserve nothing less," the open letter ends. The ad was paid for by the human rights foundation of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.

Photo Gallery

8  Photos
Photo Gallery: Targeting the Revolutionary Guards

Various politicians promptly responded, each in his own way, to the unusual appeal. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the only option left was to apply pressure on Iran, while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said: "Because negotiations are impossible, only sanctions remain." Israeli politicians and the influential US Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, support a military solution. It appears that the nuclear conflict with Tehran has been escalated to a new level.

Cat and Mouse

It was preceded by a roller-coaster week that began with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's surprising indication of a willingness to compromise. But then Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki set new preconditions for a deal and strengthened the impression, at the Munich Security Conference, that Iran was back to playing cat-and-mouse with the West and planned to push forward with its suspected military nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad broke off all negotiation efforts until further notice. He instructed his scientists to ramp up a portion of the production designed for 3.5-percent uranium enrichment, allegedly to produce isotopes for medical purposes. Although 90-percent enriched uranium is needed for a functioning nuclear weapon, the production of 20-percent enriched uranium that has now been approved "brings Tehran an important step closer to weapons-grade fissile material," says US nuclear expert David Albright, noting that the Iranian scientists now have "only a tenth of the way" to go to make a bomb.

Can sanctions deter the Iranian agitators from building the bomb, or will the world have to live with Iran as a nuclear power? The rulers in Tehran have already survived three rounds of UN sanctions without any apparent effect, which raises the question of what "smart" sanctions must look like to sharply penalize the representatives of the government while harming the Iranian people as little as possible.

Under the chairmanship of France, the UN Security Council will begin negotiations on the issue next week, and it is expected to approve sanctions before the end of March. The prospects of getting Moscow on board appear to be good, but whether the People's Republic of China, which has signed billions of dollars' worth of natural resource deals with Tehran, will play along is questionable.

The Extended Arm of the Regime

The only thing that is clear is the target of the sanctions, which are intended to strike primarily at an organization that is both powerful and clouded in secrecy: the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami, or Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, which has defended the theocracy against its enemies -- including its domestic opponents -- for the past 30 years. Like an octopus, the Pasdaran, also know as the Revolutionary Guards, has its arms extended into all of Iran's key power centers. It controls important economic sectors, including the nuclear industry, and it is more effective than the regular army. Wherever it goes, it acts as the extended arm of the regime.

The elite militia force demonstrated its clout once again on Thursday of last week, when it relentlessly hunted down opposition members who were using the show of government propaganda surrounding the 31st anniversary of the revolution to stage protests against the regime. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi was attacked. When it comes to the legacy of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Pasdaran knows no mercy.

It was Khomeini himself, the man who brought down the shah, who ordered the establishment of the Revolutionary Guards on May 5, 1979. With this "people's army," Khomeini wanted to create a counterweight to the military, which had been built up by Shah Mohammad Reza. Unlike the soldiers, who tended to be secular, the Revolutionary Guards were all religious zealots and sworn supporters of their leader.

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Ahmadinejad Warns Against Sanctions
On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that any countries placing sanctions on Iran would regret doing so. "If anyone does anything against Iran, then our response won't be the same as in the past," Ahmadinejad told a televised press conference. "No, we will definitely react and make them regretful." However he added that talks about a proposed exchange of nuclear fuel were still under way and that the issue "was not closed" yet.
Graphic: Structure of the Pasdaran Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Structure of the Pasdaran



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