Iran’s Revolutionary Guard: A military organization with its own business empire

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard: A military organization with its own business empire

Foto: REUTERS

Deadly Stalemate A Look at Iran’s Protest Movement Four Months On

Iran’s rulers have been brutal in their response to ongoing protests in the country. Now, fewer and fewer people are taking to the streets. But for how long will the regime retain the upper hand?

A man kneels at a grave surrounded by mourners. Someone hands him a photo, which he holds up in the air, kissing it with a pained look on his face. The small crowd around him shouts lamentations as a man plucks the strings of a lute. The video is said to show the grieving father of Mohammad Mahdi Karami, a 22-year-old karate master who was hanged by the regime on January 7.

DER SPIEGEL 4/2023

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 4/2023 (January 21st, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The Iranian regime has responded mercilessly to the protests that have flared up across the country since last autumn. Tehran has thus far executed four people in connection with the revolt, and at least 23 more prisoners are facing death, according to Amnesty International. A search for information about those on death row leads to the biographies  of talented young people who, if they lived somewhere else, would have a world of opportunity in front of them.


Iran’s Leaders Exposed

The death sentence against physician Hamid Ghareh-Hassanlou, on the other hand, was overturned on January 7 – allegedly because of procedural errors. According to witness accounts, Hassanlou had been traveling in a car and had stopped to help an injured militant with the regime’s Basij militia. He was then later sentenced to death for the murder of that same man.

All of the death sentences against demonstrators have been handed down without even a hint of due process, with some resting on confessions extracted under torture. Some verdicts have been changed just as arbitrarily. Iran's regime-loyal judiciary grants both death and resurrection. Their motto seems to be: Be afraid and you may hope.

Trials where the rule of law doesn’t apply: Mohammad Mahdi Karami in court before he was hanged.

Trials where the rule of law doesn’t apply: Mohammad Mahdi Karami in court before he was hanged.

Foto: Amir Abbas Ghasemi / dpa

The death of the young Kurdish woman Jina Mahsa Amini  ignited the protest movement in mid-September. But the regime is striking back and killing a growing number of people. Prisoners are being executed and more than 500 people are reported to have died in the protests. But four months after the beginning of the protest movement, all these deaths have not thus far lead to the entire country rising up against the regime.

Even before the recent executions of those sentenced to death for "corruption on earth" and other grotesque charges, fewer and fewer people had been openly opposing the regime's escalating brutality.

Footage of demonstrators continues to come out of the Sistan and Beluchistan province in the southeast to this day. But in Tehran and elsewhere in the country's heartland, the regime has, it seems, regained control of the streets.


Has Fear Prevailed?

There can be no talk of a victory for the regime, says Mohammad Reza Nikfar. The dissident, who once earned his doctorate in Cologne with a thesis on the philosopher Martin Heidegger and is now the editor-in-chief of the Amsterdam-based exile radio station Zamaneh, believes "a stalemate" has ensued. He says both sides – the regime and the protesters – have achieved something, but neither has won.

"The regime has maintained its cohesion."

Mohammad Reza Nikfar, philosopher and dissident

It’s a sober view of reality, a stocktaking after four months of street protests, hopes and the regime's increasingly brutal violence. "What has the regime achieved? It has maintained control over Iran and quashed the mass protests for the time being," Nikfar says. "It locked up the people who could have been leaders in the insurgency early on. This was so coordinated that the lists probably existed beforehand. Also: The regime has maintained its cohesion. We still don't see a split."

On the other hand, Nikfar says, the protesters have also achieved a number of decisive victories that will prevent a return to the status quo. "They have exposed the rulers for what they are, liars and murderers, in front of the whole world. They have shown unity that didn't exist before, they have shaped an entirely new image of women, and they have formed a partnership with the minorities in Kurdistan and Baluchistan. And they know what they want: A secular state, not more reformers within the clerical system. Moreover, they have created symbols, slogans and songs that give strength to the movement even beyond the current phase of fear."


Loyalists Shouldn’t Be Underestimated

That may be less than demonstrators had initially hoped for, he says, but it is still quite significant. The editorial staff at Radio Zamaneh receives a continuous flow of information from their contacts in Iran. An investigative team checks the authenticity of the images and vets statements from several different sources about the same events. Nikfar says they have a pretty detailed overview of what's going on.

In foreign coverage of the uprising, loyalists to the system have mostly remained under-reported. But they still exist, otherwise the Islamic Republic probably wouldn't still be around. The Revolutionary Guards and their plainclothes Basij henchmen continue to shoot people; the torturers, intelligence lackeys, militiamen and police continue to arrest and maltreat real or perceived opponents. There are reports of individual security personnel refusing to fire on civilians, but thus far, there have been no reports of entire units laying down their arms, refusing to obey orders or defecting.

Nikfar warns that the regime loyalists shouldn't be underestimated – neither their number nor their perseverance. "They enjoy their status, and they also consider themselves to be God's servants," he says.

Added to this is the unique constitution of Iran: After coming to power in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini not only abolished the institutions of the old state – he also created a parallel apparatus of his own armed forces, a judiciary whose chief is appointed by the revolutionary leader and councils that can arbitrarily exclude people from all elected offices. Above all, the Sepah-e Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guards, are both a complete military in their own right – with an air force, navy and intelligence service – and a gigantic economic empire. Its personnel, military and civilian, have important reasons to remain loyal.


An Unforgiving Tone

Even after coups, state apparatuses aren't generally abolished. The successors, after all, want to continue governing. But the Pasdaran and other organizations are Khomeini's creations, entities established for the sole purpose of maintaining the dictatorship's power. If they were to fall, more than a few generals would have to fear for their jobs and their lives. The Pasadaran could be disbanded entirely and corporate holdings of its officers expropriated. That creates loyalty.

Especially given that the Pasdaran acted as a murdering, torturing spearhead in defense of the regime and are now even more hated by the opposition.

The opposition rapper Toomaj Salehi, who has become a voice of the protest movement, prophesied in one of his last music videos before his arrest: "I saw a cage in the coffee cup of the government." He further rapped: "I saw a queue, Revolutionary Guards and mullahs, people in suits and ties who embezzled funds or profited from rents, lobbyists abroad, journalists and reporters, the government artist, all of whom were on trial."

Salehi, too, is now facing the death penalty. With his desire to bring everyone to trial, even those who themselves have no blood on their hands, he is speaking from the heart of many. The anger against the regime is too great, and the suffering of the victims has gone on for too long. Indeed, the calls aren't just limited to legal action, angry discussions among the opposition sometimes include demands to "line them up against the wall." But not everyone is comfortable with such calls. "All they want is to dance on the corpses of their oppressors," criticizes a woman from Tehran who rejects the regime but is also skeptical of the protest movement.

The unforgiving tone, the anger of the protesters is understandable, says Iranian sociology professor Mohammad Ali Kadivar, who teaches at Boston College and recently published a book on democracy movements and upheavals. "But it's not promising. The protest movement is up against a very powerful opponent," he says. The opposition, he says, needs allies within the power apparatus. He says there are many opportunists in the regime who only participate to enrich themselves. They could also change sides depending on which way the wind is blowing, he says. But: "If you only threaten them, they will stick with the regime all the more."


Too Poor to Strike

The Iranian sociologist Hamidreza Jalaipour estimates that only around 15 percent of the population were among the committed demonstrators, with around the same share supporting the regime. He says that a silent majority opposes the regime but doesn't dare take to the streets. Even the general strikes that have been announced on several occasions have not spread nationwide as the protesters had hoped. This has less to do with political positions than the financial situations in which many people find themselves. "Too poor to strike," a headline in Britain’s Economist read in December. The percentage of Iranians who are forced to get by on the equivalent of less than three euros a day has doubled in recent years to 31 percent. Many simply cannot afford to go on strike. It's a vicious circle: The economic crisis caused by the regime is, for the moment, also preserving the system.

"The protest movement has become a disruptive factor. But to succeed, it will have to bring the economy to a halt."

Mohammad Ali Kadivar, sociologist

The problem could be softened if the movement were better organized, with collections of money for striking workers, for example. Suggestions of this kind are now circulating, as are demands that the financially secure diaspora could help raise money. That idea, though, is complicated by foreign sanctions that exclude Iranian banks from the international financial system.

Sociologist Kadivar notes: "The protest movement has become a disruptive factor. But to succeed, it will have to bring the economy to a halt while presenting a viable alternative to the regime." To win over the people, he says, the opposition would have to organize itself better and also lay out clear plans for the future. Many people are dissatisfied, says Kadivar, but they are also uncertain about the alternative.

Backing from abroad: a demonstration in support of the opposition in France

Backing from abroad: a demonstration in support of the opposition in France

Foto: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP

There have been attempts at organization, but they are in their infancy and not very visible because of the mass repression. The German-Iranian political scientist Ali Fathollah-Nejad believes that organization and networking is taking place within Iranian professional associations. He points to the fact that in early December, 30 youth groups joined together to form the umbrella organization United Youth of Iran. In a manifesto, they called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and the formation of a secular and inclusive democratic government. But they too, don't seem to have escaped repression. On Tuesday, a news agency close to the regime reported that a leader of the youth organization had been arrested.


Dissidents Close Ranks

On New Year's Eve, leading members of the Iranian diaspora came together for the first time, at the request of this youth organization, to form a coalition. Several well-known dissidents announced that with "organization and solidarity, 2023 will be the year of victory for the Iranian people." They include Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, women's rights activist Masih Alinejad and former Crown Prince Reza Pahlevi, who fled into exile after his father was overthrown in 1979, which is why he is not completely uncontroversial. Nevertheless, he does enjoy some popularity.

With the exception of the Kurdish politician Abdullah Mohtadi, none of the coalition members has an established party behind them. But the merger could at least mark the beginning of a coordinated opposition in exile.

Even if millions do not take to the streets in Iran for the time being, the root causes of the protests remain. The chasm between the regime and the population is huge, and the rulers’ ideology has been exposed as hypocrisy. Parts of Iran's middle class have slipped into poverty, while the children of the powerful reside in mansions and take luxury vacations abroad.

The "Islamic Revolution" as the foundation of the regime has eroded. Even Khomeini's dogma of supporting the oppressed, of standing by persecuted Muslims, rings hollow in the face of his successor's policies. Iran's leaders today supply drones for Russia's war of conquest against Ukraine and remain silent about China's oppression of Muslim Uighurs. At the same time, the Iranian population has become more secular, and the number of theology students has shrunk.


Will Regime Sacrifice Headscarves to Maintain Submission?

The headscarf has until now been the symbol of the regime's ideology. Today, discarding it is a powerful act of disobedience. Just by refusing to wear headscarves, women are putting their rejection of the Islamic Republic on display. They are demonstrating every day that the emperor has no clothes.

A symbol of revolt: women without headscarves in Tehran

A symbol of revolt: women without headscarves in Tehran

Foto: Vahid Salemi / dpa

Women in Tehran and other cities have reported in recent weeks that they are no longer being stopped when they go out in public without a headscarf. Perhaps that will change under Iran's new police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, who was appointed to his position by Khamenei in early January. Like his predecessor, he is the subject of international sanctions for his role in the deadly repression of protests, but he is also considered a hardliner when it comes to the dress code. During his time as Tehran's police chief, Radan ordered the arrest in 2007 of young men with "unusual" hairstyles and cracked down on women who didn't comply rigorously enough with the veiling requirement.

But there are calls from elements within the regime, including from circles close to the Revolutionary Guard, for the relaxing of the dress code. Perhaps the headscarf, that symbolic gesture of submission, will ultimately be sacrificed by the regime in order to maintain real submission. The Sepah-e Pasdaran is already the decisive power factor in the Iranian structure, the leaders of which are primarily interested in maintaining their power and profits. Philosopher Nikfar suspects that in the medium term, a Pasdaran-led military dictatorship could emerge that might then push the mullahs aside in order to secure its legitimacy. That would be, in Nikfar's words, "reform and oppression at the same time."

For the time being, the mullahs and the Pasdaran still appear to be moving in lockstep. But at some point in the not too distant future, an event will occur that could disrupt that unity: the death of Revolutionary Leader Ali Khamenei, 83. There is currently no undisputed successor. Ultimately, the succession debate could break open the conflict between those who rely on an iron grip and those who want to regain legitimacy.

Then the cards would indeed be reshuffled.

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