Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What Iran Needs.... a timely coup or popular uprising, and the replacement of nut-job President Ahmadinejad with a military dictatorship. So says Jonah Goldberg of NRO.

Nice thought, but there's a major problem with that scenario. When Mr. Goldberg talks about "serious and sophisticated members" of the Iranian military, which one is he talking about? Since the Islamic Revolution, Tehran has maintained a dual military system, consisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the "regular" armed forces. In other words, Iran has both IRGC and "regular" ground forces; two navies, and two air forces, with personnel and hardware roughly divided between these organizations.

The "regular" military, in some respects, represents continuation of the military created by the Shah. While the mullahs distrusted the Iranian armed forces, they couldn't disband them, particularly with Saddam lurking next door. Instead, they began building the IRGC, creating a military organization that was undoutedly loyal to the new regime, and capable of defending it against an internal uprising. Both regular and IRCG units fought in the long war with Iraq, where the revolutionary guards gained a reputation for fanaticism and fatalism; on several occasions, IRGC units staged "human wave" attacks against entrenched Iraqi positions, with horrific casualties.

While the IRGC and regular military are supposed to cooperate in defending the Islamic Republic, their relationship has been marked by competition, distrust, and outright hostility. There are numerous examples of IRCG air defense units firing on Air Force drones (and vice versa), because the two organizations refuse to coordinate flight activities. "Joint" training between regular and IRGC entities remains somewhat rare, and both sides maintain their own equipment, training and logistical systems. Not the most efficient--or effective--way to run a military.

Howevever, this separate-but-equal system appears to be changing. In recent years, the IRGC has slowly gained primacy among Iran's military forces. High value assets--including Tehran's ballistic missile force--are strictly under control of the revolutionary guards. The IRGC also appears to be winning the battle for funding and new systems, while conventional forces make do with worn-out, U.S. produced equipment, bought by Iran in the 1970s.

The IRGC's slow rise to preeminence also lessens the chances for a military coup. Political and religious "reliability" are critical factors in the advancement of an IRGC officer's career, and the mullahs have selected their generals carefully. Conversely, the pool of western-trained officers who remained in the military after the revolution is rapidly decreasing. Iran's theocrats have long viewed these officers with suspicion, and they were tolerated only because of their technical or management expertise. These western-influenced officers-many of whom trained in the U.S.--were long considered a source of a potential coup. However, their dwindling numbers (and influence) makes that an increasingly-remote possibility.

A military coup in Iran would be nice--almost anyone is preferable to Ahmadinejad--but you've got to be careful what you wish for. A revolt led by the IRGC (not likely, in my estimation), might lead to another radical regime; a coup among the regular forces would be preferable, but that would probably result in open warfare between the regulars and the IRGC, and the possibility of a civil war in Iran. Such a conflict that could easily boil over and engulf other nations in the region, with potentially horrific consequences.

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