Since the June 12 Iranian presidential election stirred massive anti-regime demonstrations, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his inner circle of hard-liners have used the armed forces -- particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- to suppress dissent. Western observers have commented on the country's slide toward military dictatorship. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, devoted his Sunday news show to it this past week. But what was once a theory now seems commonly acceptable fact, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's latest appointments to the IRGC demonstrate.
The secretive paramilitary group became a dominant institution in Iran -- socially, politically, militarily, and economically -- during Ahmadinejad's first term. He appointed IRGC members to positions as ambassadors, mayors, cabinet ministers, and high-ranking officials at state-run economic institutions. The IRGC returned the favor during the electoral campaign. Before the election, the chief of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, encouraged the guards to "participate" -- a not-so-subtle directive to do whatever necessary to guarantee Ahmadinejad's re-election. They did so, both by intimidating opposition members and even, some in Iran allege, single-handedly rigging the vote.
Khamenei's new appointments to the IRGC leadership give hard-liners unprecedented power. The appointees also include some of the most feared and brutal men in Iran -- implying the IRGC will become an even stronger anti-democratic tool in the state's hands and making any mediating dissent from its ranks far more unlikely.
Consider the appointees. The new commander of the Basij, a paramilitary group under the IRGC's control, is Mohammad Reza Naghdi.
Back in 1993, Khamenei appointed Naghdi as deputy director of intelligence of the Quds Force, a branch of the IRGC responsible for international operations. Naghdi and his team allegedly committed numerous acts of torture and abuse. After the courts charged a high-ranking member of the Ministry of Intelligence with murdering secular intellectuals, Naghdi and his team formed a "parallel intelligence force" to avoid such scrutiny. This allowed Naghdi and his cronies to work outside the control of then-President Mohammad Khatami, who had vowed to cleanse the ministry. They continued their brutal practices, despite his attempts at reform.