- Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards Is Transforming Iran from Theocracy into Military Dictatorship by Ali Alfoneh
“The Cold War was a fundamentally unequal conflict that was presented and experienced on both sides as being equal,” Göran Therborn wrote in 1968, adding, “An unequal conflict fought as equal redoubles the inequality.” Cold Warrior bravado was not [End Page 163] solely emotional bluster by a few Strangeloves but a structural feature of US policy borne out of highly unequal geopolitical competition. This required intermittent reminders of “the present danger” for a domestic audience to balance out the obvious disadvantages faced by the Soviet Union. As a result, US policy makers and analysts repeatedly overestimated Russian power and missed out on key political shifts: raving about the “bomber gap” and “missile gap” in the 1950s, tuning out the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, misreading liberation movements in Latin America and Southern Africa in the 1970s, and disregarding the rise of the Soviet soixante-huitard Mikhail Gorbachev just up until he inadvertently pushed the red button to self-destruct the empire. Over the past decade, US-Iran relations have uncannily echoed these Cold War dynamics. Consider as exhibit A Iran’s June 2013 election, where the expert consensus enthusiastically predicted a conservative triumph by way of an Ahmadinejad clone. Instead, the genteel cleric and think tank éminence grise Hassan Rouhani, a man who has read more Michel Foucault than any sitting US politician, rode a wave of popular mobilization to win the ballot’s first round.
The Cold War dynamics may be similar, but given the vastly weaker relative power of the Islamic Republic, the histrionics are a tad more conspicuous. In the regrettably titled Iran Unveiled, Ali Alfoneh portrays a single military organization in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as a praetorian juggernaut that has determinedly pushed out the sole other competitor for postrevolutionary power: the Shi‘i revolutionary clergy. Among all the Iran hands in Washington, Alfoneh’s short articles disseminated out of the American Enterprise Institute have most consistently made the case for the IRGC’s rising dominance over three decades in the Islamic Republic’s domestic political economy and foreign policy. Unlike most Iran hands, who prefer to cite each other, Alfoneh, to his credit, relies on Persian source material for his allegations. Unfortunately, the sources he uses tell a different story.
Other than the introduction, where ominous words about the “essence” and “nature” of the IRGC are let loose for dramaturgical effect, Alfoneh’s main chapters contain a straightforward argument about Iranian politics. The IRGC is united while the rest of Iran’s political elite is divided. The perennial factionalism of the postrevolutionary order has allowed the IRGC to muscle its way in, especially when other political elites use the organization to settle scores. The economic, political, and ideological power of the IRGC is therefore based on internal unity amid external discord. This is Samuel Huntington’s 1968 argument from Political Order in Changing Societies: militaries in the Third World tend to be more cohesive than other political institutions in their countries, and thus in periods of social disorder, some sort of praetorian state is probable. Of course, to apply Huntington’s argument to a supposedly totalitarian state is a big no-no for Cold Warriors, who doggedly insisted on a categorical difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism (which just coincidentally mapped onto our enemies and allies).
Alfoneh focuses on two periods of postrevolutionary Iran with two kinds of evidence: recent memoirs from several key elites for the 1980s, and public proclamations and newspaper boastings from the IRGC and its opponents for the 2000s. For the first period, Alfoneh triangulates memoir passages by Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mohsen Rafiqdust, and Ayatollah Hoseyn‘Ali Montazeri, among others, to show that intra-elite strife during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war was far more severe than outside observers realized and occurred well beyond the 1981 ouster of Abolhasan Banisadr and his allies. Given that the IRGC had...