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Is Iran following Egypt's path?

By Omid Tofighian and Naser Ghobadzadeh - posted Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Following the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions there have been many forecasts about the destiny of countries involved in the recent tumultuous events in the Middle East. In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, billionaire financer George Soros predicted that the Islamic Republic of Iran would not last a year. Soros is in fact echoing other media soothsayers, predominantly American elites and politicians. For many in Washington the overthrow of Iran's hard-line government would be seen as a consolation midst uprisings that are ousting important pro-American leaders. However, particularly in the case of Soros, their hopes for regime change in Iran has transformed into a revelation of the future. For Soros it seems that if popular protests can achieve their ends in Tunisia and Egypt then the same strategy will work in Iran – possibly another case of analyzing the Middle East using essentially one basic formula.

But far-seeing inspiration is not limited to those who see the demise of the Iranian regime. It seems that the destiny of the Islamic Republic has been revealed to Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett from Foreign Policy who, in response to the likes of Soros, are certain that Iran is moving from regional provocateur to a regional patriarch and a significant global player. According to Mann Leverett Iran's pro-democracy movement is misrepresentative of the majority of Iranians and the regime's popularity is as strong across the Arab world as it is at home – factors that support their divination that the Islamic Republic will continue to reign successfully for a long time.

Examples of false prophets? Or should we consider their accounts as oracular? Readers and analysts will draw their own conclusions based on their access to evidence and the extent of their consideration of specialized studies. However, any attempt to draw conclusions mainly based on the experiences of the other countries will not be free of error. Thus, essential differences which may have a determinant impact on events ought to be taken into consideration.


One central and underappreciated point that requires serious consideration is the tripartite power dynamics that exists within Iran's political, economic, cultural and social structures. Apart from the well recognized Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guard (RG) occupies a significant and indispensible position in Iran's current political mosaic. Surprisingly, much of the relevant international literature overlooks the crucial role of the RG. Its complex enigmatic internal structure and its far-reaching engagement in multifarious sectors have enabled the RG to conceal its centrality in Iran's fluctuating political process. Any serious political analysis of Iran's status and influence in the Middle East and its internal dynamics must consider the extent to which the RG has established a comprehensive foundation on which to dictate a hard-line cultural, religious and social program.

One of the clearest examples of its success nationally, regionally and internationally is the RG's ability to function as a multinational cartel. Important research has verified that it is a pivotal force in areas ranging from the black market to oil and gas. The manipulation of free trade programs combined with Iran's attractive resource opportunities for international private business ventures has strengthened the RG and provided them with a form of legitimacy within international markets. Loop holes in multinational trade and business have allowed them to strategically avoid international sanctions and covertly assert their authority and control domestically and regionally.

Nationally, the RG is the unrivaled cartel which controls the most significant sectors of the country's economy. Without exception the most important large scale lucrative projects in the country have been undertaken by the RG for the many years. From the oil and gas industry to dam, airport and road construction projects, the RG has aspired to monopolize the central elements of the economy and infrastructure. On one occasion, RG occupied Imam Khomeini airport in 2004 when its inauguration was planned. The RG's fighter planes did not let the first plane land in the airport because it was opposed to the fact that a Turkish company had won the bid for managing the airport. The RG, committed to securing full ownership for itself, was prepared to use its network of control to discourage the Turkish company and influence a transfer of the contract. Today, due to the tenuous link with the current government, the RG wins all big bids in the country. The latest example is the bid for a Telecommunication Company which was sold to the RG even though there were many debates about genuineness of the biding process.

This economic capability led to gradual strengthening of the RG's position in the political arena. Ahmadinejad's presidency in 2005 might be well described as a result of the RG's unchallengeable power within the country. It can be also seen as the point of coalition between the aforementioned tripartite powers. The political/religious authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei is combined with military and economic capabilities of the RG via Ahmadinejad's presidency. This is why Iran's situation is more complicated than Egypt or Tunisia. This interlink also explains the impervious nature of the rulers in Iran and their success in retaining power even after the 2009 political instabilities.

While the army's neutrality played the most essential role in Mobark's incapability to break up demonstrations, ruling clergy in Iran enjoy full support of the RG. As a parallel army, the RG nullifies any possible role for the country's official army. As a part of its mandate, the RG is theoretically and practically allowed to prepare for and deal with internal conflicts. The RG includes uniformed forces in order to deal with internal political dissidence and upheaval but it also consists of the Basij militia, an informal body of the RG which equips the ruling clergy of Iran with unique resources and potential to fight its opposition in the name of the people.

In sum, this complex situation, in terms of the army's position, is a considerably important factor when determining the differences between Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. It reveals the importance of taking into consideration the internal complexities of the aforementioned tripartite power dynamics. The failure of analyses to recognize these peculiarities and the generalization or conflation of the situation of distinct Middle Eastern countries is careless.

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About the Authors

Iranian born Omid Tofighian is qualified in philosophy and religious studies and teaches at the University of Sydney and UWS Bankstown.

Naser Ghobadzadeh worked as editor-in-chief of foreign policy service of Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA). He has also published a book about value changes in Iran and its impact on political climate. He is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and I.R., University of Sydney.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Omid Tofighian
All articles by Naser Ghobadzadeh

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