Vol. 5, No. 10 November 15, 2005
- Since becoming Iran’s president in August, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who served in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, has appointed fellow Revolutionary Guards members to the most key positions in his cabinet and administration, including his foreign and defense ministers.
The “revolutionary factions” have in recent months conducted a major purge of the military, security apparatus, civil service, state-owned corporations, and media. Iran’s armed forces are now controlled by senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
Within the Revolutionary Guards, there is an elite “Qods (Jerusalem) Force” responsible for military operations (including terrorism) beyond the boundaries of Iran. Ahmadinejad was a senior commander in the Qods Force. According to Al Sharq Al-Awsat, elements of the Qods Force have led operations against coalition forces in Iraq; other sources even contend that the Qods Force provided logistical support to the Zarqawi network in the past.
Iran’s oil production, which in the days of the Shah reached 6 million bpd, has declined to about 3.9 million bpd. Crude exports have fallen by 22 percent since May to 2.13 million bpd in September. Yet the windfall Iran has enjoyed from the sale of its oil has turned the country’s budget deficit into a surplus, enabling Iran to adopt a harder-line position concerning its nuclear projects and its relations with the West.
Ahmadinejad used the substantial windfall from the sale of Iran’s oil to accelerate and expand the 2005-2006 five-year program for defense spending. While he did not initiate the plan to double the military budget in five years, he greatly expedited it so that it will be completed well before the 2010 target.
Iran’s oil production, which in the days of the Shah reached 6 million bpd, has declined over the years to about 3.9 million bpd, even though Teheran’s OPEC quota is about 4.1 million bpd. Simultaneously, Iran’s crude exports continue their decline, falling by 610,000 bpd to 2.13 million bpd in September, compared to 2.74 million bpd in May (22 percent). This is generally attributed to increasing guerilla attacks on oil installations in the Ahwaz region of Khuzistan, a province bordering Iraq, largely inhabited by Iranian Arabs. An additional cause is the shortage of gas for injection into declining wells. Lastly, Iran’s reduced exports are attributable to the August rise of the super-militant, practically unknown President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, formerly mayor of Teheran, who soundly defeated Khojatislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, a flexible conservative (and multi-millionaire).
Since becoming Iran’s president in August, Ahmadinejad, who served in the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, has appointed fellow Revolutionary Guards members to the most key positions in his cabinet and administration. For example, both Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki served in command positions in the Revolutionary Guards. Ahmadinejad also purged several major ministries such as interior, national planning, finance, and, recently, foreign affairs, of appointees from the Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami presidencies over the last sixteen years. To the great disgust of the powerful clergy who practically rule Iran, the new president does not believe that he owes anything to the traditional power centers, foremost the clergy and the conservative middle class who have benefited financially from their relations with the corrupt governments of his predecessors. Moreover, during his campaign for president, the extremely militant Ahmadinejad sought the support of Iran’s poor and unemployed masses and vowed to revive Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards (also known as the Pasdaran) were established on May 5, 1979, by Ayatollah Khomeini as an ideologically loyal military formation for defending the Islamic Revolution. It quickly expanded to a force of over 100,000 men.1 Though initially focusing on the regime’s internal enemies, including ethnic separatist movements, it also became involved in overseas operations, making it the cutting edge of Iranian anti-Americanism. Its naval arm attacked civilian ships in the Gulf during the Iraq-Iran war, putting the Revolutionary Guards into direct conflict with the U.S. Navy.2
Within the Revolutionary Guards, there is an elite “Qods (Jerusalem) Force” responsible for military operations (including terrorism) beyond the boundaries of Iran, especially in Lebanon and in the Gulf region. According to Al Sharq Al-Awsat, elements of the Qods Force have led operations against coalition forces in Iraq.3 Other sources even contend that the Qods Force provided logistical support to the Zarqawi network in the past.4 It is noteworthy that Ahmadinejad was also a senior commander in the Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards.5
The windfall Iran has enjoyed from the sale of its oil since 2004 has already turned the country’s multi-year deficit into a budget surplus in fiscal 2004-2005 (Iran’s fiscal year begins in March), and even more so in 2005-2006. This has enabled the new president to increase further his substantial subsidies for staple foods and services, which benefit the lower classes of Iran’s 70 million inhabitants. However, it has also enabled him to adopt a harder-line position concerning Iran’s nuclear projects and its relations with the West. (Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor is said to be Ayatollah Muhammad Yazdi, an advocate of cultural isolation from the West.)
Last month, Ahmadinejad even attempted to revive the 1970s “oil weapon.” In an interview with the UAE’s Khaleej Times, he threatened, “If Iran’s case [concerning its nuclear enrichment program] is sent to the Security Council, we will respond by many ways, for example by holding back on oil sales.” Considering Teheran’s relatively limited oil exports and its budget’s 80 percent dependence on oil revenue, the market hardly reacted to the threat. However, this threat further increased the tension between Iran and the OECD countries. It also accelerated the flight of capital from the country (by massive exchange of riyals to foreign currencies) and the migration of Iranian companies’ headquarters to Dubai, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. Not surprisingly, under attack by the clerics, especially their all-powerful Guardians Council, Iran’s presidential office backtracked from the aforementioned interview.
Ahmadinejad’s crude militancy was demonstrated again when, in a speech on October 26, he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” Moreover, in remarks directed at Arab states, he added, “Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nations’ fury.” Such a threat was immediately condemned by most Western and Asian heads-of-state, Russia, and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general. It was also criticized by leading Arab dailies and some prominent Iranian reformists and conservative personalities, who considered it a sign of dangerous inexperience. On November 4, a BBC website reported that Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamena’i, commented, “We will not commit aggression towards any nation,” unless attacked.
Further demonstrating his hard-line internal and foreign policies, President Ahmadinejad completely revamped Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. Head negotiator Hassan Rowhani and Iran’s UN ambassador, Mohammad Javad Zarif, were removed. The new chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, was a brigadier general in the Revolutionary Guards. Moreover, top commanders from the Revolutionary Guards have also been incorporated into the Supreme National Security Council which oversees Iran’s nuclear diplomacy.6
Ahmadinejad also replaced 40 of Iran’s most senior envoys abroad, accompanied by a major reshuffle of Iran’s diplomatic service, which involves many hundreds of appointees of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. It is expected that the ambassadors and key foreign ministry functionaries with many years of experience in dealing with foreign affairs, now considered “moderates,” will be replaced by militant associates of the president, largely former Revolutionary Guards or Basij militia officers. This is bound to increase the tension between the new president and the clerics. In a speech in October, Ayatollah Khamena’i requested that his fellow clerics show more patience in their dealings with the new and inexperienced president. Yet, simultaneously, he substantially expanded the authority of the Expediency Council, a body considered Iran’s highest authority that can overrule any decision made by the government, parliament, and even the clergy’s all-powerful Guardians Council, chaired by the pragmatist Rafsanjani (who was defeated by Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections).
That the clergy are determined to block Ahmadinejad’s endeavors to undermine their authority and that of their supporters came to the forefront when the president’s nominee for energy minister was rejected by the clergy-dominated majlis (parliament), claiming that he totally lacks experience for this crucial position. Ignoring his previous alternative candidates, Ahmadinejad surprised the majlis by announcing the appointment of Sadeq Mahsouli as oil minister. A largely unknown former commander in the Revolutionary Guards, Mahsouli served recently as a deputy governor of western Azerbaijan province and has no experience in the oil industry. His appointment is likely to be rejected by the parliament. Indeed, criticism of the fiery president is not limited to reformists or conservative support blocs of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, but is also common among the hard-line clerics. Not surprisingly, their press organ, the conservative daily Kayhan, attacked Ahmadinejad on several occasions for using an “inexperienced team” to deal with critical internal and international affairs.
The son of a blacksmith whose humble image helped him win Iran’s mass of the devout poor, Ahmadinejad wants to break away from the relative “moderation” of domestic and foreign policy that “emerged” during the sixteen years of Rafsanjani and Khatami. In addition to “reforming” the government, the new Iranian president intends to play a major role in Iraqi affairs in the future, despite the American presence in the country. In addition to infiltrating southern Iraq, it is claimed that 250,000 Iranian soldiers are now stationed in the five provinces bordering Iraq.
The Iranian president is expected to be a far more formidable enemy to the West and to America in particular. Thus, in October, General Safavi, commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, declared before an audience of senior naval officers that Teheran’s mission was to create “a multi-polar world in which Iran plays a leadership role” for Islam. For this purpose, the “revolutionary factions” have in recent months conducted a major purge of the military, security apparatus, civil service, state-owned corporations, and media. Consequently, Iran’s armed forces are now controlled by senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, as are the police and the gendarmerie.7
Iran to Double Defense Spending with Windfall Oil Revenues
Recently, Ahmadinejad’s government allocated an additional $700 million for an emergency fund for defense purposes. In addition, Ahmadinejad used the substantial windfall from the sale of Iran’s oil to accelerate and expand the 2005-2006 five-year program for defense spending. While he did not initiate the plan to double the military budget in five years, he greatly expedited it so that it will be completed well before the 2010 target.
Far from being a conservative president whose thinking is in line with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamena’i and the Guardians Council clerics, President Ahmadinejad’s inexperience in international politics and economics and his rigid, doctrinaire thinking are creating obstacles for the Iranian officials dealing with the country’s current problems. A sign of a possible crisis is the continuing absence of a petroleum minister to replace Bijan Zanganeh, the seasoned former oil minister (and a Kurd), and the impending sacking of many of the oil ministry’s senior officials, accused of corruption by the new administration. As a result, international oil companies are now holding back on potential investment in Iran and are awaiting the appointment of a new oil minister. Yet, once again, Ahmadinejad’s choice for the post is likely to become bogged down in controversy, with majlis members determined to take a firm stand concerning the inexperience Mr. Mahsouli as minister of energy.8
If, by the end of the year, Ahmadinejad has not won parliament’s consent for a candidate, the majlis can appoint an oil minister it considers suitable. In the meantime, Iran’s energy industry is expected to continue to stagnate, and the country’s production capacity is unlikely to rise from about 4 million bpd currently to 7 million bpd by 2010, as envisaged by the previous government.
It seems that President Ahmadinejad’s abrasive and undiplomatic measures at home and in the international arena, ignoring Islamic Iran’s traditional power centers, have already produced powerful opposition to his policy and tactics. Indeed, Iran has called on the European Union to resume negotiations over Teheran’s controversial nuclear program.
* * *
1. Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 151.
2. Ibid., pp. 225-227.
3. “Iran’s Role in the Recent Uprising in Iraq, MEMRI, Special Dispatch Series, No. 692, April 9, 2004; http://memri.org/bin/opener.cgi?Page=archives&ID=SP69204. See also “General Panic: Meet Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, Commander of Iran’s Anti-American Qods Force,” Dan Darling, Weekly Standard, October 5, 2005; http://weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/156kncex.asp
4. During his stay in Iran, Zarqawi is believed to have visited training camps run by Iran’s clerical army, the Pasdaran, and received logistical support from the Pasdaran’s feared Qods Force paramilitary unit. The revelations, which are said to have come from Umar Bizani, a key Tawhid lieutenant apprehended by Iraqi security forces, also paint Tawhid as a terrorist competitor to al-Qaeda – a regional role that is actively being encouraged and nurtured by Iran. Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), October 5, 2004, cited in Eurasia Security Watch No. 53, American Foreign Policy Council, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2004.
5. “Ahmadinejad? Who’s He?” Iran Focus, June 25, 2005; http://www.iranfocus.com/modules/news/article.php?storyid=2605. See also Tony Allen-Mills, “U.S. Agents Probe Past of Iran’s Leader,” The Times (London), July 3, 2005; “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/ahmadinejad.htm
6. “Iran Continuing Purge of Reformers,” USA Today, November 2, 2005.
7. Michael Ladeen, Politics et Cetera, September 19, 2005.
8. Middle East Economic Survey, November 7, 2005.
* * *
Mordechai Abir is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and Professor (Emeritus) of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include Saudi Arabia: Society, Government and the Gulf Crises (1993) and Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era: Regime and Elites: Conflict and Collaboration (1988).