The “Supreme Guide,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has held conclaves with the military chiefs three times in less than a month, during which time signs of the military’s ascendency within the regime’s power structures have multiplied.
One such sign was Khamenei’s decision to ask the newly appointed Chief of Staff Mohammed Hussein Baqeri to take over the key issues of cooperation with Russia and Turkey over Syria, while excluding President Hassan Rouhani and his administration. Baqeri has also launched an ambitious project to create a de facto military alliance with Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan, with Russia as an outside supporter, in direct contradiction of Rouhani’s repeatedly asserted desire for a deal with Western powers.
Another sign was Khamenei’s decision to write a personal letter to Qassem Soleimani, the man in charge of “exporting the revolution” through his Quds Corps and the various branches of Hezbollah under his command in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
In his letter, Khamenei credits Soleimani with having “destroyed” Daesh, and gives him a new mission: To pursue an even more aggressive strategy to extend the “recent victories” to the rest of the region. Once again, Khamenei’s instructions make a nonsense of Rouhani’s repeated claims that Iran is seeking an end to tensions with neighboring nations.
As if humiliating Iran’s official government on issues of foreign policy were not enough, Khamenei has also asked the military to take over the task of providing relief and, later, reconstruction in the five provinces affected by the recent deadly earthquake.
The implicit message — hammered home by Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammed Ali Aziz Jaafari — is that, when it comes to dealing with a major emergency, Iran’s civilian authorities are worse than useless.
Iran today is more vulnerable than at any time since the 1940s. Khamenei expects the military to fill all the gaps created by decades of political and economic failure.
To emphasize the military’s rising profile in Tehran’s power structures, Khamenei has ordered a whopping 14 percent increase in defense and security budgets, with a substantial rise in expenditure on the development — with help from North Korea — of a new generation of missiles. Here, too, the “Supreme Guide” rides roughshod over the official government’s policy of trying to persuade the EU, and hopefully even the US, that Iran has decelerated its missile projects as a goodwill gesture toward the P5+1 group which drafted the so-called nuclear deal.
Meeting 52 top military commanders, including Baqeri, in Tehran last Sunday, Khamenei declared the armed forces to be at the forefront of what he termed “the victories of the revolution on all fronts.” He also decreed that the military should have the first right of refusal in recruiting “personnel of the highest quality.”
Khamenei’s growing reliance on the military may be tactically astute. His regime has lost much of its popular base and, in the face of rising social and economic tension across the nation, is often on the defensive when it comes to domestic issues. The old narrative of the revolution as a Robin Hood exercise to rob the rich and give to the poor has been exposed as a sham.
Official data clearly shows that, under the mullahs, the rich have become richer and the poor poorer. Rampant corruption, often highlighted by state-controlled media, adds to the popular sentiment that the authorities are intent on robbing the nation on a massive scale.
In the past few weeks alone, at least 12 senior officials accused of embezzlement on an astronomical scale have fled the country.
Rising unemployment and inflation and the plummeting value of the national currency punch further holes in the narrative of revolutionary success.
And so the regime is developing a new narrative, based on the claim that the terrorism that is rampant in so many parts of the world, and most notably in the Middle East, is also threatening Iran and that only the military and security elite can protect the nation against it.
“We are fighting away from our borders so that we don’t have to fight in our cities,” Hossein Salami, Jaafari’s No. 2, has said.
However, at least in the medium- and long-terms, such a narrative is unlikely to produce the desired effects. In any properly organized and governed country the armed forces are not on the front line of the nation’s fight for security, let alone survival.
The front lines usually consists of a nation’s diplomacy, economic power, social cohesion and cultural appeal. In other words, military forces do not operate in a vacuum, but in a broader context of socio-political reality. In that context, Iran today is more vulnerable than at any time since the 1940s. Khamenei expects the military to fill all the gaps created by decades of political and economic failure; and that is simply too much to ask.
Khamenei may also be wrong on another score. In any country, the various institutions of state evolve at roughly the same level. You cannot have an excellent military and a third-rate civil service, judiciary and economy. Systems that focus solely on military excellence never achieve anything beyond transient success.
One example is Sparta, which had the ancient world’s highest-rated military but disappeared from history, whereas Athens, with its ramshackle citizen armies, survived the Persian, the Macedonian, the Roman and the Byzantine empires. Another example is Napoleon Bonaparte, whose military machine set the whole of Europe ablaze but who ended his life in humiliation and death in exile.
And who could fail to be awed by Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union in 1941? Yet the end result was Berlin, the Nazi capital, transformed into the biggest heap of ruins in history.
In Iran’s case, Khamenei is playing, even overplaying, the military card for political reasons at a time when Iran faces no serious military threat to its national security and integrity.
Beating the drums of war may sound exciting for a while, but in time its hollowness is bound to become clear.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.