Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Shia Rising: Iran Is Not Seeking Hegemonic Control of the Middle East but, Led by Its Revolutionary Guards, Will Do Whatever It Takes Inside Its Borders and beyond to Defend and Preserve the Islamic Republic

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Shia Rising: Iran Is Not Seeking Hegemonic Control of the Middle East but, Led by Its Revolutionary Guards, Will Do Whatever It Takes Inside Its Borders and beyond to Defend and Preserve the Islamic Republic

Article excerpt

On 10 February, Israel announced that an Iranian drone had been shot down in western Syria. Later, an Israeli F-16 crashed after being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire over the north of Israel. Both Iran and Israel claimed provocation by the other. Whatever the truth of the matter (the drone allegation was not fully convincing), it is clear that after nearly seven years of war in Syria, Shia Iran's presence in that blighted country is stronger than ever. In fact, what we mean when we speak of Iran in Syria is the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the influence of which has grown over the last ten years. Where did the Revolutionary Guards come from? How powerful are they, and does their greater influence signify an expansionist Iran and even more trouble in the Middle East?

When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile on 1 February 1979, he was greeted by an enormous crowd (estimates of its size have run up to three million, but no one really knows). For ten days or so after Khomeini's return, the country had two prime ministers: Mehdi Bazargan, a liberal non-cleric appointed by Khomeini; and Shapur Bakhtiar, appointed by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the last days before he left Iran in mid-January.

The situation in Tehran and across large parts of the country was chaotic. The police were scarcely to be seen, and some of their responsibilities, such as traffic control, were taken on by armed revolutionaries students and others who had taken weapons from ransacked police stations and military bases. Some of those armed paramilitaries were associated with revolutionary committees called Komiteh, rather like the Soviets in Russia in 1917-21.

The Komiteh were mostly based in mosques, from which they distributed food and fuel oil for heating and cooking (normal retail distribution had largely broken down). Other armed groups were connected with political movements--leftists, and the Mojahedin-e Khalq organisation (MKO), a Marxist-Islamic outfit that had carried out terrorist attacks against the Shah's regime (and some US nationals) over the previous decade. These movements had been persecuted almost to annihilation by the Shah's secret police, but had expanded again as the revolution gathered pace.

The final showdown came between 10-12 February 1979. Some air force technicians who had previously declared for Khomeini were confronted by members of the old Imperial Guard at the Doshan Tappeh base in the east of Tehran. Exchanges of slogans and abuse were followed by exchanges of gunfire. Crowds and armed paramilitaries converged on the area and some joined in the fighting (including MKO members).

The military, still loyal to Bakhtiar, sent armoured columns through the city to restore order and relieve the pro-Shah troops, but crowds surrounded the tanks and stopped them getting through. Finally, on the morning of 12 February, the military commanders met, acknowledged the hopelessness of the situation, announced on the radio their (so-called) neutrality and ordered all troops to return to their barracks. Bakhtiar gave up in disgust and went into hiding, leaving the country a few weeks later.

Khomeini's supremacy was complete. But there was still a dangerous vacuum of authority in the country, which persisted for several months in 1979. It was this chaotic situation that led to the formation of the Revolutionary Guards--or to give them their full title, the Guards Corps of the Islamic Revolution (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami). They are usually referred to as the Sepah by Iranians. Khomeini's overwhelming popularity as leader of the revolution was undisputed, but a variety of groups were hoping to take advantage of his supposed naivety, advanced age and political ignorance to win control for themselves --by violence if necessary.

In April 1979, one of Khomeini's closest followers, Morteza Motahhari, was assassinated by an obscure extremist group, the Forqan. …

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