Iran: One country, two armies
Iran marked Army Day and President Hassan Rohani had been expected to call for unity in the face of domestic and foreign threats to the regime. Instead, Rohani lavished praise on the army and simultaneously shot a series of poison arrows at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Clearly, internal and external threats no longer necessarily mean Iran’s ruling elites will rally around the flag.
This is an extraordinary change. Iran’s Army Day, celebrated each April 18, dates to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 public declaration of support for what once was known as the imperial army. At the time, Khomeini said: “The army is now in the service of the nation and Islam.”
The declaration marked an important shift in the relationship between Iran’s revolutionary leadership and the military.
Before the revolution, the imperial army was the monarchy’s main support. During the revolution, the shah, who was determined to leave Iran, and the US administration wanted to preserve the army to secure the country’s territorial integrity and deter a Soviet incursion. Further goals at the time included preventing a military coup and facilitating the peaceful transfer of power from the monarchy to Khomeini and his revolutionary allies. The United States naively hoped to secure good relations with post-revolutionary Iran.
Part of the plan worked. After secret meetings between the army leadership and Khomeini’s representatives, he granted a general amnesty to commanders and, in February 1979, the army declared its “neutrality” towards the revolution.
The revolutionaries seized power but betrayed their promise to the army by executing top generals. They created the IRGC to prevent coups by revanchist monarchist officers of the regular army. The body of the army had been preserved by Khomeini. In return, it showed its loyalty by suppressing irredentist movements in the country and its sacrifices in eight years of war against Iraq.
This long and painful history featured in the initial part of Rohani’s Army Day speech this year but the contrast he drew with the IRGC was a surprise.
“The army has always performed its duties without ever demanding concessions from the government and the nation,” Rohani said in indirect reference to the political demands made by the IRGC leadership. “The army knows politics well but never entered the realm of political games,” he continued, hitting out again at the IRGC.
Then he tackled a particularly sensitive issue: “Today, there is no mention of army commanders when it comes to economic corruption!” This sentence can only be interpreted as the president’s reference to IRGC involvement in economic scandals.
The IRGC publicly responded to the thinly veiled criticism condemning the “disuniting statements of some elements and individuals, whose improper quibble and sarcasm weaken the proud commanders of the guards.”
The IRGC statement took further aim at Rohani by accusing him of joining the ranks of US and Israel supporters with his remarks. “In doing so, they sing the tune of the hegemonic order and provide pretexts to foreign and counter-revolutionary media and their lackeys within Iran,” the IRGC statement said.
Brigadier-General Gholam-Hossein Gheibparvar, commander of the IRGC auxiliary Basij, continued the counteroffensive at the Martyr Mahallati mosque in the heart of the IRGC Social Housing neighbourhood in Tehran. He said: “Official tribunes can certainly not weaken the guards since the community of the guardsmen is committed to the revolution and the leader.”
IRGC deputy chief commander Brigadier-General Hossein Salami used the Friday prayer to condemn Rohani’s speech, saying: “We sometimes see our friends looking us in the eyes and echo the words of our enemies.”
Even army chief Major-General Abdolrahim Mousavi expressed solidarity with the IRGC. He attended IRGC Day festivities and publicly declared: “I’m here to strike a blow to the mouth of the enemies of the regime!”
Such expressions of solidarity, however, can no longer hide the deep divisions among the ruling elites in Iran, even at a time of domestic crisis and external pressure.