Is Iran on the brink of a military coup d’etat? Not likely, because the Islamic Republic has not one but three regular armies. As rivals, they can hardly be expected to join forces to overthrow the clerical regime.
Before he was ousted in 1979, the Shah built up a formidable standing army, which switched sides to the ayatollahs and now stands 400,000 strong. The Revolutionary Guards, the Pazdaran, established by the Islamic regime, numbers 300,000 servicemen. In addition, a voluntary paramilitary force known as the Bassij is made up, according to official figures, of 200,000 men, built around a core of about 90,000.
In theory, the Pazdaran and the Bassij, both dedicated to Islamic radicalism, could oust the government, assuming the regular army – which would not be sorry to see the back of the Islamic regime – stayed on the sidelines.
Certain puzzling events in recent years have intimated that the two mainstream Iranian blocs vying at the tope of the regime – Islamic radicals led by Ali Khamenei versus reformists under president Mohammed Khatemi – may not be the real sources of power in the Islamic republic. There seems to be a pot-pourri of rival forces pulling wires back stage.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iran experts have long suspected the “all-powerful” Khamenei is under the thumb of the Revolutionary Guards (Pazdaran) – not the other way round – and their vehicle for realizing the policies of two young and ambitious officers, commander in chief Yahya Rahim-Safavi and his deputy Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr. Together they control the combined power of the Guards and the Bassij.
Over recent years, their authority has expanded well outside their official duties to the point that they appear to govern a state within a state. They run their own prisons and intelligence services inside and outside Iran, administer enormous budgets and control their own free port on the Persian Gulf, some 100 km (60 miles) east of Bandar Abbas, through which they ship in whatever they please, including arms. They control newspapers and journalists and also sponsor clerics who give them their ideological and spiritual legitimacy.
The two young officers are also in big business, running huge corporations that trade worldwide and maintain ties with foreign politicians.
Unbeknownst to Iran’s civilian leaders, Rahim-Safavi and Zolghadr conducted trade, military and political dealings with Saddam Hussein’s late sons Uday and Qusay up until the United States invasion of Iraq. A lucrative trade of munitions and commercial goods for Uday and Qusay was conducted through the Revolutionary Guards own port.
In some informed circles in Iran, the two independent-minded officers have become powerful enough to be called a shadow government or a “government of darkness”, with agents and informers planted deep inside government offices across the country.
Several recent episodes have exposed their real power in the country and that of their key ally in the clergy, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Zad.
The most dramatic indicates that the decision to aid, abet and shelter al Qaeda operatives was taken by the two Pazdaran commanders – possibly over the heads of Khamenei and Khatami.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s terror experts, all of the senior Al Qaeda fugitives from the Afghan War who were given passage through Iran were taken under the wing of the Revolutionary Guards together with a secret unit in charge of exporting Islamic revolution and handling Islamic terrorist groups outside Iran.
A member of the Iranian parliament, who asked to remain anonymous, told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the Revolutionary Guards' secret ties with Al Qaeda leaders were deep and cordial. After using their Iranian bases for carrying out bombing attacks in Riyadh in May, they are hatching plots for mega-attacks against the United States in Asia or Africa.
But all this, the Pazdaran officers may have kept from Khamenei. Attempts by his agents to fill in the blanks were unsuccessful.
The Iranian government decided to keep a low profile over the potentially explosive arrest in Britain of Hadi Soleimanpour, the former Iranian ambassador to Argentina and his possible extradition to Buenos Aires in connection with the 1994 bombing outrage that killed 85 people at a Jewish community center.
However, the incident had the “shadow government” worried. For the first time, a senior Iranian diplomat was held by a foreign country and was in a position to be pumped about Iran’s clandestine terrorist associations.
While the government in Tehran decided to pursue the issue by quiet diplomacy with the UK in the hope of dissuading London from handing Soleimanpour over to Buenos Aires, the Revolutionary Guards chiefs resolved independently on more direct action. Ansar al-Islam gunmen under the command of the Bassij and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati were instructed to stage a shooting attack against the British embassy in Tehran. The British embassy in the Iranian capital came under attack therefore while President Khatami’s emissaries were conducting secret negotiations with London.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources, the two officers also arranged for a threat to be conveyed to the UK government that Soleimanpour’s extradition to Argentina would lead to dozens of British soldiers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra being killed.
Ten days ago, a group of British troops narrowly escaped being taken hostage by agents of the Pazdaran chiefs in at Ali-Sharqi near Basra.. The British army was tipped off and aborted the plot.
The 54-year-old photojournalist Ziba (Zahra) Kazem died in custody on July 11 in Tehran as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a “cranium fracture”.
She was reportedly beaten following her arrest on June 23 while taking photos of Evin prison, north of Tehran.
Ziba Kazem was taken into custody even though she held a permit from the Iranian government office overseeing the activities of foreign journalists and after the intelligence services headed by Hojatol-Eslam Ali Younesi found she was innocent of any offence and ordered her release.
However, the tragic episode was engineered by the “shadow government”.
She was jailed and tortured in a bid to extract a confession that she had been spying for the United States and Canada. Our sources report that Kazem, who believed her Canadian citizenship would protect her, stood her ground with great bravery and even humiliated her tormentors. At one stage, the chief interrogator tried to rape her. When she fought back, he fractured her skull.
The episode has badly shaken Canadian-Iranian relations. The two officers are now trying frame Younesi for the crime to shift the blame away from their own agents, who were acting on the authority of Judge Said Mortazavi. He was recently appointed chief prosecutor for the Teheran district and is in their pocket.