The growing dispute between revolution and state in Iran

The growing dispute between revolution and state in Iran

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Coordinating Deputy of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army, and former commander of the navy, Habibollah Sayyari. (Reuters)

On more than one occasion, I have mentioned the deep rifts between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the regular army in Iran. These differences are as old as the regime itself and their root causes are Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. Both these leaders supported one of them and stigmatized the other as a traitor. In addition, they generously showered one of them with gifts and denied the other, even though the regular army is older and has more experience than the IRGC.

The primary reason behind Khomeini establishing the IRGC was his distrust of the regular army, because he feared that the existing military establishment was loyal to the former regime. As a result of this, he worked to marginalize the army. Despite the passage of several generations, this view of the army still prevails among Tehran’s leadership.

It is common knowledge that, although the army has approximately three times more personnel than the IRGC, its budget is only a third of that of the IRGC. It appears as if Khamenei, the supreme leader of the armed forces, has handed the IRGC control of the army’s budget.

It is also widely known that the IRGC has been financially helped by the Iranian leadership to become a state within a state, being awarded investment and commercial contracts worth tens of billions of dollars. In addition, the IRGC’s tax-exempt status and other privileges have led to its affiliated economic enterprises out-competing and wiping out independent traders in Iran’s traditional bazaar.

The IRNA, an Iranian state-run news agency, last week posted online a televised interview with Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, the former chief of the Iranian navy and current coordinating deputy of the Iranian army. The revealing interview was quickly taken down again, without any reason being given or any announcement of its deletion. Despite this, nearly 13 minutes of the interview was saved and widely circulated.

The interview provides critical insights into how Iranian media bodies (Seda va Sima), whose heads are appointed by Khamenei himself, and the state-run cinema industry cover issues related to the regular army. The interview indicated that the Iranian army is regularly subjected to slander, malicious gossip and backbiting by its IRGC peers. It is depicted as an entity lacking the adequate experience or courage to protect the country. It is regularly defamed in the Iranian media and via cinematic content produced by regime-affiliated bodies.

In one part of the interview, Sayyari says: “If you want to write down my statements, please do. The problem lies in you and those who preceded you. You didn’t care for the army.” He added: “Some come to us and say, ‘Where are your pictures from while you were engaged in so-and-so military operations?’ But, in the army, no one can enter the command office while carrying a camera. What should we do? These are the instructions of the army. Surely they have interests lying in this. Surely there are pictures of the army. Look at the other branches in the popular forces — the Basij and the IRGC. Each of these groups has a photographer accompanying them wherever they go.”

Commenting on the IRGC-controlled state media bodies shaping a negative picture of the army and the supreme leader’s glorification of the IRGC, Sayyari said: “As to the production of documentaries to let coming generations benefit from such experiences, this is a good thing. But we don’t think that any move or action taken by the army should be covered by the media.” He continued: “Is the work done by armies around the world covered by the media? This does not happen because the army only performs its duties. There is no reason to cover every single act it does. Are we a company manufacturing branded items for us to promote our work or a firm producing construction materials?” Here, Sayyari appears to explicitly criticize the IRGC, whose leaders are always keen to appear in the media. These remarks also indicate Sayyari’s professionalism and his grasp of the role, nature, and missions of armies around the world.

Answering the interviewer’s point that some reports and military experts have stated publicly that Iran’s army has done nothing or offers nothing, Sayyari said: “In any operation, you cannot prove that the army did not perform its duty or that its artillery, air defense or air force were unprepared. As to the naval forces, these are all from the army. The IRGC’s naval force was formed in 1986. Before this time, all the naval forces were affiliated with the army.”

He went on to say: “When you establish a new organization, can you train and educate many people within six months and easily equip them with apparatuses such as ships and speedboats? Therefore, can we say that the army did not exist? You produce a film in which you display that a person kills an entire army using a gun in 24 hours. Therefore, he kills 12 armies in 12 days. But the truth is anyone who goes to war knows that things are not that easy.” Here, Sayyari again criticized the IRGC’s policy of glorifying its role via state-run media bodies or by producing self-promoting and self-funded movies and documentaries.

As news of Sayyari’s interview spread, many Iranians reacted with strong agreement, reiterating the widespread belief that Iran’s leadership is engaged in a systematic policy of marginalizing the army.

The professionalism of the regular army has been lauded by observers, as well as its mission and lack of involvement in politics. In addition, it is believed to have an efficient administrative system and, unlike the IRGC, it is not tainted with corruption scandals. Also, many of those who commented on the interview emphasized that the army is the last line of defense and the only hope for fulfilling their national dreams and aspirations.

Such comments and praise indicate that the regular army enjoys a positive image among young Iranians. Maybe the reason for this is that, from their perspective, the army has not been engaged in the regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters and does not have blood on its hands, unlike the IRGC or Basij, which are the leadership’s main tools when it comes to cracking down on the Iranian people.

The Iranian army is regularly subjected to slander, malicious gossip and backbiting by its IRGC peers.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The timing of Sayyari’s comments is also significant, as some in Iran believe that he and other commanders see the end of the Iranian regime as being imminent and are preparing to jump from the ship before it sinks.

It seems that Sayyari will not be able to avoid the consequences of his comments, even though they appear to reflect the viewpoint of a large percentage of the Iranian army’s commanders. There are reports of tremendous pressure being imposed on Sayyari to appear in the media again to retract his statements or make it clear they reflect his own viewpoint, not that of the military establishment to which he belongs. There is also speculation that Sayyari soon could be summoned for trial before a military court and be forced to take early retirement.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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