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Iran’s Aging Revolutionaries

By July 15, 2009 No Comments

Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

–George Orwell, 1984

In the recent Iranian Presidential election, the citizens were only offered candidates for the presidency who were approved by the Supreme Revolutionary Council – the Mullahs who actually run the country. Essentially they had the choice between Hitler- Extra Foamy (Ahmedinajad) down to Hitler – Extra Light (Mir Hossein Mousavi). It seems that a majority of Iranians opted for Mousavi as the best of a bad field, which was unfortunate as all the ballot boxes appear to have been pre-stuffed in Ahmedinajad’s favor.

The Nazi analogies with Iran are especially appropriate if one considers their internal security arrangements. The Basij (“Mobilization”) movement has morphed considerably from the days it consisted mainly of 14 year old boys with plastic keys to heaven sent to stomp through Iraqi minefields in the 1980-88 Persian Gulf War. Now it vaguely resembles the old Nazi German Ordnungspolizie (the Order Police) except that most Basij members are volunteers. The Ordnungspolizie were not intelligence agencies like SIPO and the Gestapo, but the German einsatzgruppen who murdered hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe were culled from their ranks. The Basij have many similar functions to the Ordnungspolizie.

Comparisons between the Waffen SS and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are also appropriate. Iran still has a conventional army, navy and air force, but the IRGC has been growing for 30 years and has been creaming off the best recruits and best equipment. They might also be thought of in terms of the old Soviet KGB and its predecessor organizations, which also handled internal security, border troops (for a while) and ran the prison camps, besides running external intelligence.

Iran’s third political armed force is Ansar-e-Hezbollah (followers of the Party of God), which is a religious militia composed of hard-line Khomeinists and could be thought of as the equivalent of the old Nazi Sturmabteilung. The Hezbollah-types tend to be young and highly indoctrinated (Ahmedinajad pumped a lot of effort into building them up), and are all too eager to bust heads of intellectuals, students, townspeople and anyone else who might be capable of out-thinking them. They might not have the same uniforms as Rohm’s old SA did in 1932, but the personality types are much the same.

One last comparison: The IRGC includes the Iranian equivalent of the ‘Latvian Riflemen’ from Lenin’s Russia. Lenin used outsiders to guard him in the first days of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Latvian riflemen had no great love for Russians generally, nor for Russian politics… but they were loyal to their paymaster. Some of the IRGC units that were moved near Tehran in the aftermath of the ‘elections’ were supposedly composed of Lebanese Shiites from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and other rural roughnecks from the Arab world.

Thinking of Mousavi as ‘Hitler – Extra Light’ might not be completely fair. While he was the prime minister in most of the 1980s (when Ali Khamenei was president and Khomeini was supreme leader) he has largely disassociated itself from high office for over a decade, and has been openly critical. It would not be accurate to cast him as some sort of Iranian Dubcek, but perhaps as seeing him as a Gorbachev is more defensible.

Ahmedinajad and Khamenei both remain indefensible.

Until Michael Jackson’s death pre-empted media coverage, the whole world watched via cell-phone footage as ordinary Iranians vented their displeasure at being robbed of even this poor choice. As was the case with the Chinese protestors that were crushed – often literally – at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Westerners assumed that the Tehran protests were some manner of pro-democracy protest and thrilled to the idea of a real democratic revolution occurring in Iran. This isn’t accurate. People seldom protest for something, but they often do against something else.

In Beijing in 1989 and in Tehran in 2009, what really angered the people was the corruption of their leaders. It is human nature to want to be wealthy although we can be content without wealth (and often are). But what really grates is a rotten system that political elites manage for their own benefit, which doesn’t meet the needs of all and yet the elites tell everyone that they’re managing it for the common good as they help themselves to the benefits. In China in 1989, Party cadres were raking off all sorts of benefits from the emerging economy. In Tehran, the Mullahs have blown the economy, but have personally enriched themselves in the process.

None of this is particularly surprising.

Given the historical record, nobody can be too cynical about the motivations of revolutionaries. The naked greed of the Pigs (who are more equal than other animals) in George Orwell’s Animal Farm is drawn from life – thirty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, senior cadres of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were living high off the hog compared to their not-so-equal subjects.

In Revolutionary France, there were those who immediately grabbed what they could from the arrests and executions (Danton is said to be among them). With the arrival of the Directory in 1795, the final leaders of the Revolution – like Barras and Rewbell – were notoriously corrupt. Like Stalin, Hitler lived very well without even needing to have much of an official income. In a Socialist society, the state really can provide all of your possible needs – providing that you are running it.

In their superb biography Mao: The Unknown Story Jung Chang and Jon Halliday point out that the Chinese supreme leader had innumerable homes around the country. All were luxurious, fully staffed and stocked with the finest foodstuffs, and they were all earthquake proof and seldom visited. As the Red Guard stomped around China in the start of the Cultural Revolution, so did squads of organized looters who seized treasure and antiques for Mao and his associates. Mao, even in extreme old age, never lacked young women in his oversized bed either.

Arthur Koestler, whose many essays and articles explored the totalitarian mind set, wrote his last article on the Soviet Union in 1956 and announced that he didn’t need to push them around anymore – they were doomed. He thought it might take another generation or so (and the USSR dissolved in 1991), but that this end was inevitable ever since Lenin had introduced the idea of ‘Proletarian Millionaires’ as part of his first Five Year Plan around 1921. To Koestler, this meant that corruption was inevitable and would eventually rot out the state – which it did.

There is an ingrained trait among those who consider themselves to be the selfless defenders of the people. If the people don’t have the means to control these defenders (like some combination of regular elections, the rule of law, a professional civil service and freedom of the press), then the defenders like to reward themselves for their sagacity, compassion, hard-work, etc.

It might be hard work to run a farm efficiently or to handle 50 hours of shift-work in a factory, but just try listening to speeches for a week, or sitting in on committee discussions or drafting legislation. You deserve those extra comforts; because defending the people is very hard work… and you are doing it for all those peasants and workers. Don’t know how lucky they are that you work so hard for them?

It is human nature to invent an excuse for wrong-doing and then come to believe the fib is gospel truth. Everyone has self-justifications for something they did that was wrong. If we do meet somebody who hasn’t done this, we don’t trust them since they can’t possibly be human.

As Lord Acton famously points out, revolutionaries and others who assume power with few limits inevitably become corrupt. Even in democratic societies, we see constant pressure from politicians to limit the authority and power of the controls placed upon them; and when this succeeds, corruption is again inevitable.

The question: Do revolutionaries knowingly seek to enrich themselves before or after they take power? There are plenty of examples of both. Mao was already shamelessly appropriating luxuries and living like a bandit in 1927. The fanatic Jacobin Robespierre was widely held to be incorruptible, but he only spent three years in prominence before his execution. Moreover, given his fixation on some obtuse ideal of ‘virtue’, his potential for self-reward will always remain unknowable.

The Iranian Revolution is in its 30th year. The angry young ‘students’ who catapulted the Mullahs into power are now in their early ‘50s. The simple Spartan lifestyle of a young revolutionary is all very well at twenty years of age, but not when you’ve taken a wife and have your first child. Reality piles up faster than dirty diapers and empty cat food tins… and reality presents endless bills. The pressing need for money is a faster agent of corruption than any other.

Revolutionaries don’t age well. It’s hard to remain the new young vibrant Tomorrow, when over the course of a few decades you have become the middle-aged sedentary Today. The hair might be receding while the glasses and waistline get thicker, but it is only human to continue to believe you are just as vibrant and young as you ever were. The problem is that the years really do stack up and temptation cannot be endlessly resisted. believe you are just as vibrant and young as you ever were.

Most Iranians are younger than the revolution and have no love for its heroes. What they see is an older generation getting in the way of theirs. What they also know that there was a time when the economy was better and now it is not. They graduate from school with expectations of prosperity only to find that opportunity has receded. Moreover, the few opportunities that exist have probably gone to the children of the revolutionaries.

Iran’s economy is performing poorly – 80% of the country’s export earnings and something like 50-70% of the government’s revenue comes from the sale of oil and gas. The official unemployment rate is 12%, unofficially it may be 40%.The current slump in oil prices has hit Iran hard and may last for some time. Ahmedinajad’s “peaceful” nuclear program isn’t generating badly needed electricity, and his fulminations about Israel have brought UN sanctions on the economy that are hitting hard.

Moreover, the chances of growth are poor. Outside of the oil and gas industry, much of the rest of the economy is in the hands of the Bonyads. These are large foundations run by the clergy which supposedly divert their profits to the needy. They are widely criticized for being unaccountable, over-staffed, and highly inefficient. Worse, given their tax-exemption and histories of government subsidies, it is hard for Iran’s real middle class to compete with the Bonyads.

Should a real entrepreneur try to start up a soft-drink bottling plant for instance, he will be competing with Bonyad-e Mostazafen za Janbazan that already has its permits, doesn’t pay taxes, and argues that the profits from its Zam Zam Cola sales (and its textiles, ceramics, house-wares, etc, etc,) go to help disabled veterans. Government auditors will pour over the entrepreneur’s books and inspect every aspect of his plant; while the Bonyad has no such trouble. Given that this particular Bonyad has many ties to senior Revolutionary Guard Corps members, the entrepreneur will be lucky if this is all that happens.

In the last year, even the bloated Bonyads have been feeling the pinch from declining oil revenues and global recession. Economic sanctions and the priority on weapons programs and military spending are not helping either.

Like every group of revolutionaries, there are many factions among Iran’s turbaned-totalitarians. Most of the top beneficiaries of the Bonyads are on the ruling council. There are militants (Ahmedinajad among them) who want to pump funds into missiles, nuclear arms, and subsidies for Hizbollah. Others have their private interests to maintain and their local power bases to support, and there are simply not enough revenues to go around.

Much of the passion behind the recent Presidential elections has resulted from the economic failure. The mobs in Tehran were not the frustrated middle class, but came from all walks of Iranian life.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Husseini Khamenei, is also not highly regarded by his peers among the senior clergy. Moreover, his long habit of secrecy and playing off factions never made him popular, but as long as everyone got a slice of the pie, his leadership was tolerable. Now that the pie has shrunk, his ability to lead is much diminished.

Now the squabbling over the pie has intensified. Since Ahmedinajad and the hardliners have control over most of the IRGC, the Basij and Anser-e-Hezbollah, they were able to quash the protests and are flexing their muscles at the rest of the Supreme Revolutionary Council. At the same time, Khamenei has been facing dissatisfaction and dissent from other clergy on the Council as well.

It is hard to have any sympathy for the Revolutionary Council. It is always sweet to watch revolutionaries receive a large helping of ‘just desserts’ and this is the next course they must confront. Unfortunately for the Iranian people – who truly deserve better than they have had for the last 30 years – repression and mismanagement is going to continue for some time. Inevitably, the Iranian people will be able to free themselves — perhaps sometime in the coming decade, but they must find their own way.

A frequent traveler from Tehran once told the author that Iran Air flights from the Imam Khomeini International Airport used to announce when the plane was flying over the late Ayatollah’s tomb. This practice stopped when it was noticed that some passengers would rush to the bathrooms so as to be able to flush the toilet when the announcement was made. The next generation might finally be able to freely adorn the Ayatollah’s grave with effluviastic gratitude for all he has done for Iran.

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