The ayatollahs continue to enrich uranium, despite the high-profile meeting on July 19, 2008 in Geneva between Tehran's top nuclear negotiator and senior western diplomats representing the Group of 5+1. No surprise there. They are banking their regime's survival on nuclear capability. Ali Larijani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator, once said that giving in to the West's demands that Iran suspend its enrichment would be suicide.
But, however much their regional role is tied to developing a nuclear weapon, domestically their grip is being challenged on a daily basis. Indeed, the backbone of the ayatollahs' regime, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is being revamped at great haste, primarily to cope with rising dissent. The region's changing geo-strategic dynamics coupled with sanctions targeting the IRGC, and its terrorist elite unit, the Qods Force, are also factors.
According to intelligence gathered by the Iranian Resistance's network inside Iran, on June 28, 2008, Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, the IRGC Commander-in-Chief, launched a major reorganization of the Corps. The scale of this re-org is unprecedented since the 1985 re-vamp, when the clerical regime's founder Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the IRGC split into three branches - Army, Navy and Air force.
The new structure changes the IRGC from a centralized to a decentralized force with 31 provincial corps, whose commanders wield extensive authority and power. According to the plan, each of Iran's thirty provinces will have a provincial corps, except Tehran Province, which will have two.
The key questions are why, and why now. A look back at the summer of 2005, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was propelled to the presidency, provides some insight. His rise came about through a "complex and multi-layered" plan devised by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and the IRGC top brass. With Khamenei's backing the IRGC had already taken the reins of power in most key areas. Ahmadinejad's presidency placed the IRGC atop the executive branch, and the metamorphosis of the IRGC into a politico-military force was complete.
Khamenei then sought to implement a strategy reflecting the new pecking order. To this end, on August 21, 2005, just days after Ahmadinejad's inauguration, he ordered the formation of the IRGC Strategic Research Center and appointed then Brig. General Jafari as its head.
Within two years, the Strategic Research Center developed the new strategy, whose main components are: 1) A reign of terror on the populace; 2) Terrorist suicide operations capable of striking at the "enemy", including on "enemy" soil; 3) Increasing Iran's missile strike capability; 4) Acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
With a new strategy at hand and the IRGC in control, Khamenei felt all the pieces were in place. He was mistaken. According to reports from within the IRGC, Khamene'i soon realized there were growing problems with IRGC personnel. With Ahmadinejad's cabinet at the helm, many veteran IRGC Brig. Generals gravitated toward political, cultural and naturally, economic realms. Not only were they disinclined to fight, but they were also reluctant even to wear the IRGC uniform.
Almost a year ago, feeling the effects of internal unrest and foreign pressure worsening, Khamenei dismissed Major General Rahim Safavi, once a darling of the radical factions but later described by Ahmadinejad's cronies as a "liberal" and softy.
On September 1, 2007, Khamene'i promoted Mohammad Ali Jafari, a friend of Ahmadinejad, to the rank of Major General and appointed him IRGC Commander. On October 20, 2007, in his first public statement following his appointment, Jafari explained that "According to the judgment of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, the Guards' strategy has changed. Accordingly, the Guards' primary mission at this juncture is to fight the internal threats."
He added: "Internal security and its preservation are the tasks of the State Security Forces and other security organs. But if the problems go beyond a certain point, then the Guards - with the permission of the Supreme National Security Council and the Supreme Leader - will take charge."
According to one of the regime's analysts, "The whole security environment is intended to really suffocate or torpedo any possible change from within." In February 2008, Jafari acknowledged the regime's inability to uproot the opposition, saying, "Animosity toward our revolution is never-ending. As we move forward, the battle between the revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries becomes more critical and complicated."
Jafari has stressed that the IRGC's new strategy entails two essential components: accurate intelligence about enemy activities, and an increase in the regime's missile capabilities. Earlier this month, he told reporters that the IRGC "is equipped with the most advanced missiles that can strike the enemies' vessels and naval equipment with fatal blows." Back in May, he was quoted by the state-run Fars news agency as saying that "An independent command might be created in IRGC in order to fortify the structure and activities of the missile section."
Another of Jafari's priorities during the past ten months has been dealing with the wave of retirements, buy-outs, and resignations by IRGC Brig. Generals. Obviously, these coincided with Khamenei's efforts to tune the regime's military apparatus with the threat of a military confrontation. Khamenei found he had no option but to purge most of the commanders of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and replace them with post-war commanders. This explains why a good many of the twenty provincial commanders announced since June 28 have lower ranks than Brig. General, which means they were lower-ranking officers during the Iran-Iraq war.
In May, Jafari alluded to Khamenei's unhappiness with the old-timers. Speaking at a ceremony introducing the new commander of Tehran's paramilitary Bassij Force (tasked with internal security), Jafari said that "in the past few years" there had been "negligence" about "domestic security" in the IRGC. Calling for a reorganization and review of the IRGC's mission, he added that the negligence was due to "a few good years" during the Iran-Iraq war, when the IRGC pursued mainly "military activities" and paid "little attention to other aspects" of its responsibilities, meaning preserving the theocratic regime against popular dissent. Strengthening Bassij Force has been the core element in the IRGC re-org.
The revamping of the IRGC underscores the reality that while the ayatollahs' foreign policy imperatives are to establish a client state in Iraq and acquire a nuclear weapon, domestically they are at risk from the Iranian people and their democratic resistance movement - the enemy within. The success of this domestic movement is the key to a non-nuclear, peaceful Iran and to an independent and democratic Iraq.
Alireza Jafarzadeh is the author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis (Palgrave: February 2008).
Jafarzadeh has revealed Iran's terrorist network in Iraq and its terror training camps since 2003. He first disclosed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water facility in August 2002.
Until August 2003, Jafarzadeh acted for a dozen years as the chief congressional liaison and media spokesman for the U.S. representative office of Iran's parliament in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy director of the Washington office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is credited with exposing Iranian nuclear sites in Natanz and Arak in 2002, triggering International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. He is the author of "The Iran Threat" (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008). His email is Jafarzadeh@ncrius.org, and is on twitter @A_Jafarzadeh.