A spate of Intelligence reports reaching Washington from Tehran, the Gulf, Israel and other key places contribute to the growing certainty that Iran is on the brink of an internal explosion that could blow away its revolutionary Islamic regime, suddenly and violently.
The ayatollahs are well aware of their fragile situation. Some have arranged escape routes in case of an uprising and, according to one intelligence report accessed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources, nest eggs have been deposited in overseas banks by certain leading clerics against such moment as they are forced to make a run for it.
Most scenarios agree that the main danger to the regime in Tehran emanates from the possibility of a crushing US offensive against Iranian bases, though not civilian targets, spurring hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers to deserting their posts, shedding their uniforms and taking to the streets in anti-government riots.
Only a handful of troops will remain to confront the Americans.
As long as US forces do not harm Iran’s national interests and confine their assault to the regime’s military support base, according to this scenario, they will be cheered on by the Iranian people, who will take advantage of the opportunity to bring the government down in the early stages of the campaign.
Promising though this scenario sounds to ears in Washington, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and Iranian sources say it represents but a cautious appraisal of the most recent intelligence data, which pose a much bigger question mark over the Iranian government’s durability. Compilers of these reports have visited Washington to find out from members of the national security council and CIA officers why the United States is agonizing so hard over which regime to attack first – Tehran or Baghdad, when the obvious no-brainer is Tehran.
They argue that the campaign against Iran would be a pushover compared with the long and complicated war ahead in Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts have prepared a rundown on the state of Iran’s armed forces, leadership, economy and society.
The Armed Forces
At the command of the Iranian government is a military composed of a 450,000-man standing army; Revolutionary Guards consisting of between 300,000 and 350,000 troops, expandable to 500,000 soldiers in an emergency call-up; and the bassij Islamic militia, whose hardcore nucleus of 70,000 members maintains its paramilitary framework and gives its up to 1.2 million reservists from the poorest social strata proper military training. Iranian military publications claim up to 20 million volunteers would answer the militia’s call to arms in all-out war, but this is a deliberate exaggeration. Even when the Khomeini regime was at peak popularity in the mid-1980s, the bassij could not muster more than 2.5 to three million men.
Like Khomeini his mentor, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does not trust the standing army. This sentiment is fully reciprocated by the top army brass who are deeply suspicious of the clerical politicians who rule the country – especially Khamenei. For this reason, the regular army is charged with defending Iran’s borders far from the capital. It is thus sidelined, kept to the country’s fringes and denied a foothold in Iran’s main cities and industrial, economic and social power centers. The Revolutionary Guards and bassij defend the interior, effectively keeping the army out.
The army’s field of action was further limited in recent years. As Iran pressed forward with its ballistic missile and nuclear program, the military chiefs discovered that the army was debarred from operating not only in the interior but also outside Iran’s frontiers and denied access to its most advanced weaponry. The Revolutionary Guards alone were mandated to operate outside Iran and also awarded the control of its sophisticated weapons programs.
The Iranian armed forces, almost to a man, are therefore deemed by most intelligence experts to be opposed to the Iranian government to the point that they can no longer be counted on to fight off a foreign invasion.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution – and through the seven-year Iran-Iraq in the 1980s, the Iranian army steered a course between allegiance to the revolutionary government and staying out of politics, lest the regime find a pretext for weakening the military. The generals now admit their error. While they kept to the sidelines, the ruling clique cut into the army’s spheres of operation and undermined its authority. They could only grit their teeth when huge budgetary allocations were transferred from the army to the Revolutionary Guards, building this force up into a rival.
In the past four years, while the army was forced by lack of funds to exempt masses of conscripts from military service, without even basic training, the Revolutionary Guards reveled in lavish funding and absorbed recruits.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the Revolutionary Guards-controlled ballistic missile program launched production of the Shihab-3 medium-range missile series in early June this year. Manufacturing facilities for their components have been set up in Shiraz, Esfahan and Teheran. Production is still slow – no more than two missiles a month. Some are already deployed on the lines facing Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, Khozistan, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq.
Despite Iran’s promises to stop the series after the Shihab-3, planning for the 5,000-kilometer (3,000-mile) range Shihab-4 is advancing.
Iran is also projecting Shihab-5, a missile with a 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) range, capable of reaching targets on the eastern seaboard of the United States. This version is in the initial planning stages. Its continued development and manufacture depend on the fate of the North Korean government and Russia’s consent to continue sharing its missile technology.
The Revolutionary Guards
Intelligence experts estimate that in an uprising against the regime or a US military assault, about two-thirds of the Revolutionary Guards will desert or simply fade, leaving no more than 70,000 to 100,000 opting to defend the government
The Iranian government’s strength is anchored at present in the Revolutionary Guards units stationed in cities and villages and guarding essential utilities like power stations, water resources and transport hubs. The Revolutionary Guards, the Pazdaran, also maintain a flock of internal agents known as the Komiteh, spies who report to their superiors on suspicious or subversive acts or words by individuals in the populace or staff employed at organizations under their eye. Seeing eyes and ears are also provided by more than 500,000 mosque preachers up and down the country, who offer intelligence to their paymaster, Iran’s spiritual ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his henchmen. This dependency has generated for the regime a highly effective network of agents and spies in almost every corner of Iran.
Comprised mainly of poor villagers and impoverished city dwellers who came from the country looking for work, the bassij comes closest to being Iran’s popular army. With the Revolutionary Guards, the bassij is supposed to defend the homeland against all invaders. But conventional wisdom claims that more than half of its number will turn tail as soon as the first shot is fired. Most experts on the Iranian military agree that the strength at the disposal of the Teheran regime will vanish a lot faster than did the Taliban fighting force in Afghanistan.
Corruption at the Top
Khamenei’s standing among secular Iranians, as well as his religious countrymen, has slipped steeply in recent years. Political resilience is not in his nature. Unlike his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who supported radicals one day and reformists the next, Khamenei is an inflexible hardliner, who stands immovably against reform and freedoms.
His support base in the general population is non-existent and his opposition is constantly expanding.
Iran’s spiritual leader has never gained the respect of accredited religious figures. They tend to sneer at his lack of erudition and question his fitness for handing down religious rulings.
He has never made the grade as Grand Ayatollah and is therefore not qualified to act as a senior Islamic judge. Khamenei’s hard work over the years to bring Iran’s clergy under control has not paid off. Most of the senior priests cherish their independence and reject him as a religious power. To much of the public, he is a clerical lightweight and therefore a figure bereft of support either from the clergy or the general population.
The publication last week of Sheikh Jamil Adim Tahari’s letter of resignation was yet another slap in the face. Tahari is one of the most nationally esteemed clergymen and immensely popular in Esfahan. Tahari wrote that even in Iran’s darkest periods, never were so many clergymen persecuted and put on trial as they are today. Even Khomeini’s heir-apparent, Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, has been in detention for the past four years after criticizing Khamenei. Many middle-rank clergy have been tried and stripped of their religious authority for daring to criticize the regime or call for more moderation and humanity in state policy, including an end to executions in the name of Islam.
President Mohammad Khatami’s popularity is also in decline. The Iranian people, who voted him in as a reformer, are bitterly disappointed in his failure in five year to achieve any real social progress or ease repression. In the bazaars of Iran, Khatami is nicknamed derisively “the Smiling Don” – charismatic and smooth spoken but ineffective as a healer for the country’s multiple ills.
Indeed, repression in Iran is more ruthless now than before Khatami’s election in 1997.
His most signal failure is seen in the worsening economic crisis, galloping corruption and the glaring social gap. A host of rich parvenus, most if not all relations or cronies of Iran’s clerical rulers, are the focus of popular disaffection. Two clans top the pyramid of corruption – those of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Vaez Tabasi. The latter controls the Islamic society of Khorasan province in northeastern Iran. He is popularly known as the King of Khorasan thanks to his influence and wealth.
Every market peddler knows about the billions of development dollars that continually disappear into the bank accounts of Iranian leaders and their families.
Spreading unemployment, drug addiction
Unemployment in Iran now stands unofficially but realistically at 30 percent, or six million to seven million people, out of a potential workforce of some 20 million. Between three million and six million Iranians are drug addicts. Special cleanup squads prowl the streets of Iran’s major cities, including the capital, Tehran, to pick up the bodies of junkies who died overnight.
The drug scourge has spread to previously untouched segments of the Iranian population. Girls aged 11 or 12 have learned how to sell their bodies for a fix.
In villages and suburbs, poverty has forced women into prostitution, sometimes with their husbands’ knowledge, to avoid harassment by the Revolutionary Guards. Brothels have become a thriving industry. Authorities in Tehran have spoken of thousands of whorehouses and 350,000 women working as prostitutes in a city where the chador is ordained by law. Popular frustration has generated thousands of underground cells, which distribute leaflets and organize secret protests, but lack a guiding hand to mold them into a cohesive and powerful political force.
The regime’s repressive activities have stunted the growth of an alternative political leadership, although intelligence experts believe one will emerge when the time comes. Several intelligence reports mention Said Hajjarian, a former deputy minister in the office of Iranian intelligence, as a possible alternative leader. The target of an assassination attempt in Teheran after he criticized the government, he is now a paraplegic. Hajjarian opened an opposition website called Emrouz, or Today, containing a wealth of information on happenings in Iran. Most of the information comes from Iranian intelligence personnel willing to cooperate clandestinely with him against the government.
Heshmatollah Tabar-Zadi, who took part in the seizure of the US embassy in Teheran in 1979, is another example of a potential leader. By exposing financial corruption among Iranian leaders he sent a shockwave through the ruling echelons. He now leads a political organization called the Iranian Democratic Party and is working openly to bring down the present government.
There are also pro-democracy forces at work outside Iran. Reza Pahlavi, the 35-year-old son of the last shah of Iran, is based in Maryland. He occasionally issues appeals to the Iranian people to rise up against the regime. He has also urged Iranian opposition groups in exile to unite in the common cause of toppling the Teheran regime. But his activities are mostly low-key.
However all these afflictions pale when seen against the biggest failure of the Islamic Shi’ite revolution and government in Iran. A quarter-century after the revolution, and despite the Iranian government’s deep involvement in international terrorism, the Islamic Republic has failed to export its revolution to a single corner of the Muslim world, with the exception of a small segment in Lebanon stretching from the southern suburbs of Beirut to the Israeli border. No group, community or Muslim nation has heeded the clarion call.
For all these reasons, Iran’s Islamic revolution is sentenced to perish with the present Iranian regime.