For decades, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been inflating the role of the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK) in any popular protests, using this as smoke screen to mask the widespread popularity of regime change in Iran and the real popular demand for constitutional monarchy and democracy.
Widespread civil unrest
On May 15, 2018, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in Parliament that Britain shouldn’t pursue regime change in Iran, because the IRGC, and especially its Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, will seize power in Iran. His claim was criticized and derided by many Iranian opposition groups and even British members of Parliament. But this could exactly be the future of Iran’s Islamic regime, and it could happen in the near future.
Since 1997, Iran’s Islamic regime has employed a successful tactic, called “social engineering” — the choice, in other words, between bad and worse. The regime uses "social engineering" to persuade people to take part in elections and vote for reformists against conservatives, reformists they believe will improve both political and economic conditions in Iran.
By using this tactic, the regime can show the world that there is democracy in Iran, but in fact the structure of Iran’s theocratic political system is too rigid to allow real democratic change. Only one person, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the IRGC have the power to decide domestic and international policies.
Despite the nuclear deal, which the regime tried to present to Iranians as a successful instance of its foreign statesmanship, Khamenei and the IRGC never toned down their hostility toward the US and Israel. Instead, they strategically increased their military presence in Syria and, beginning with the establishment of the 313th division of the IRGC Quds Force in Syria in November 2017, changed their main objective from defeating Islamic State to defeating Israel.
A side effect of these costly foreign adventures was economic instability, which led Iranian and foreign investors to withdraw almost $30 billion (75% of Iran’s oil exports in 2017) worth of capital from Iran in 2017 alone! This has resulted in currency devaluation, price hikes, bankruptcy of various companies and industries, and so on.
The economic stagnation brought people to the streets of Mashhad on December 28, 2017, and led to widespread protests across more than 100 cities, including Tehran, Kermanshah, Ahwaz, Isfahan, Shiraz, Hamedan, Qazvin, and Doroud within just seven days. Unlike the 2009 protests, this time protests were started by the working class, who demanded regime change from the very beginning.
An estimated two million Iranians took part in the protests, which lasted 10 days. They chanted slogans against the regime, the Supreme Leader, and his international policy, including “You used Islam to make us poor,” “Leave Syria and do something for us,” “Not for Gaza, not for Lebanon, I will only sacrifice my life for Iran,” “Reformists, conservatives, the game is over,” “Death to Khamenei” and “Death to Basiji.” Slogans also targeted the Shia clergy system and demanded the establishment of a secular monarchy, for instance, “Corruption happens when the country has no Shah” or “Reza Shah, God bless your soul.”
Not surprisingly, the regime responded with violent measures, including mass arrests, killings and assasinating protesters and torturing detainees to death. The regime’s security forces, including Basij and IRGC, and especially their Tharallah headquarters in Tehran, managed to put a (temporary) end to the protests by the second week of January.
But quickly after that, the regime faced more security threats in the form of Iranian women’s rights activists (the decried “Western feminist movement”) who had waged peaceful protests against the compulsory Islamic hijab. These were followed by nationwide strikes by factory workers and Iranian truck drivers, which paralyzed Iran’s oil industry in some provinces for several days, forcing the regime to utilize IRGC trucks to haul fuel around the country.
It was only a matter of time before the US government’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and the resumption of sanctions caused even larger financial problems for Tehran. Most significant among these was the significant Iranian currency devaluation on June 24, which resulted in nationwide protest strikes in Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Mashhad and Qeshm on Monday that brought thousands of Iranians held demonstrations in the streets, where they chanted slogans against the regime authorities.
This, in turn, will lead to larger and widespread protests among all classes of Iranian society, forcing the regime to establish a state of emergency and transfer power entirely to the IRGC. On Sunday, during a meeting of IRGC war veterans and generals in Fars province, Khamenei’s special military adviser, IRGC Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, even hinted at a radical reform of Iran's political system in which IRGC and the Supreme Leader would be the only decision makers.Is the regime warning of an IRGC takeover?
Established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic regime, on 22 April 1979, the Revolutionary Guard is now the most powerful organization in Iran after the Supreme Leader. Not only is its annual budget twice that of Iran’s regular armed forces, despite having five times fewer personnel and military equipment, it has also dominated Iran’s economy through hundreds of shell companies dealing in the oil, aviation, construction, telecommunication, defense and other industries.
Khamenei used the IRGC to violently suppress the civil unrest that followed the 2009 presidential election protests, and subsequently awarded it special privileges that helped it penetrate further into the political system and economy. Hundreds of IRGC active and reserve forces were appointed as members of parliament, provincial authorities or CEOs of governmental organizations and important industrial companies. This has not only enabled them to secure the IRGC’s interests, but also to protect the regime and the Islamic revolution from the danger of political and financial collapse by means of circumventing sanctions.
According to a US State Department source who spoke with the author anonymously, only a few days before Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal, representatives of the Rouhani government and Khamenei’s adviser Ali Akbar Velayati met former US secretary of state John Kerry in Paris on 12 May, and apparently warned the European governments about their plan to transfer full power to conservatives (IRGC to be more specific) if the US attempted to pursue regime change in Iran. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that only three days later, Boris Johnson made his stark announcement followed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comment on May 24 that regime change was not a US objective in dealings with Iran.
Despite those statements, the nationwide protests and strikes, aimed ultimately at removing the Islamic regime and establishment of a secular democracy continue. On 23 April, the opposition Amad news service conducted an online survey of 147,606 of the 1.5 million members of its Telegram channel, who had managed to bypass government filters, asking whether they wanted just a new regime under leadership of the reformists after any regime change in Iran or they demanded establishment of a new system. Up to 59 percent of the voters called Reza Pahlavi, son of Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last king of Iran as their leader for regime change, while just 2% voted for a return of Mohammad Khatami, the leader of reformist movement within a new Islamic republic.What is the future outlook for Iran?
To protect the so-called “Islamic revolution” and prevent its collapse, Khamenei is expected to increase the power of the IRGC and allow it to take over the entire political system. An IRGC commander, most likely the current commander of the IRGC-Qods Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani, will be appointed as the next president, and the country will be run by a group of action-oriented “non-conservative” (as they call themselves) IRGC generals. The supreme leadership will gradually become a ceremonial role (especially after death of Khamenei).
Due to his role in forming and commanding Shi'ite proxies in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Qassem Soleimani has developed a popular and charismatic character among the supporters of the regime including members of the IRGC and Basij militia and even among the reformists inside and outside the country. He is also a popular figure among the Shiite communities in the region. While reformists in Iran are hardly the majority of Iranians, the regime will nevertheless need their cooperation, or at least their indifference, during any transition of power to IRGC.
To justify brutal suppression of future serious protests and the subsequent transfer the power to IRGC, Iran’s Islamic regime has started employing an old but still practical psychological tactic to gain support for IRGC and its security forces. It could include linking them to MEK/ MKO (NCRI) [Mojahedin-e Khalq/ Mojahedin Organization of Iran (National Council of Resistance of Iran)] which is an unpopular and undemocratic cult-like opposition group. It therefore ignores the fact that Iranians had chanted slogans against the regime’s policy for supporting Lebanese and Palestinian militia groups and Iranians have chanted widely slogans in support of the Pahlavi family as mentioned above.
On 31st December 2017, the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency posted [B1] a screenshot of the MKO leader’s tweet and claimed she supported and even organized the riots in Iran. On 3 January 2018, IRGC commander in chief, Maj. Gen. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari claimed [B2] that majority of the rioters were trained by MKO/ MEK. On 10 January, Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, member of the regime’s Expediency Council also repeated baseless claims [B3] that Mojahedin (called Monafeqin by the Islamic regime) had organized the riots.
IRGC recently organized many counter-protests to break the morale of protesters and increase those of its supporters, especially the security forces, during which personnel and their family members as well as active members of Basij took part. During these protests, IRGC commanders and representatives of Khamenei gave speeches [B4] and linked all the protests to the MKO/MEK, totally ignoring the fact that protests had been formed spontaneously by people through social media and majority of protesters had chanted slogans in support of Reza Pahlavi (as mentioned above).Why MEK can’t be connected to the popular protests?
The answer is simple. Firstly, the Iranians no matter where they protested always chanted slogans in support of monarchy. The most popular slogan was “Shahanshah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), God Bless you” or “Reza Shah, God Bless your soul.” It started in 2017 in Mashhad on December 28 and spread to Ahwaz, Hamedan, Sari, Sabzevar and Qom on 29 December, Hashtgerd, Qazvin, and Karaj on 30 December; Abhar and Amol on 31 December 2017, Masjed Suleiman on 1 January 2018, and Tehran on 2 January. In many cases they chanted “Prince Crown, Where are you? Please Help us.” On the other hand, no slogans were heard in support of the MEK. So this is proof that the protests of December 2017 and January 2018 were not linked to the MEK or NCRI which still opposes the Pahlavi family and is proud of taking part in overthrowing the Shah during Islamic revolution 1979, accused of using deadly force including against American citizens working in Iran at the time.
Secondly, Iranians widely criticized the regime policies for spending Iran’s national resources to support Palestinian militant groups through their slogans. Started in Mashhad on 28 December when people chanted “;eave Palestine and care about us” and also “not for Gaza, not for Lebanon, I will only sacrifice my life for Iran” all over the country. This is while one of fundamental parts of the MEK’s ideology is based on supporting Palestine’s liberation through armed struggle and because of this, the group established contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and many of its founding members.
MEK has invested in seeking politically support it in the US, specifically among the Trump administration but President Trump has yet to support the MEK, a testament to the fact that no sign of Iranian popular support for this group was spotted during the recent protests. Nevertheless, the IRGC and the Iran’s Islamic regime are trying to claim that the US government is widely supporting MEK.
A repeat of the Syrian Civil War scenario, where prisoners were purposely released by the regime, however, will not be possible in Iran by means of releasing imprisoned MEK members to increase the power of the group with an aim to radicalize the protests. This is due to the fact that thousands of members of MEK were killed during Operation ‘Eternal Light’ in 1988 and then during Persian Gulf War when their camps were bombed by USAF and Royal Air Force in 2003, and also due to the fact that MEK has less than 20 members left in prisons of the regime.
Despite this, the IRGC will continue to try to benefit from its MEK-centric propaganda by seeking to illustrate to the regime’s authorities and supporters that the entire Iranian protests are linked to the unpopular group, so it can justify its brutal nationwide crackdown of any civil unrest. Following to that, the MEK-centric propaganda will help a complete seizure of power in Iran by the IRGC.The writer is an Iranian defense analyst, freelance journalist, book author and historian living in exile since 2013.
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