TEHRAN – Whether or not the military posturing by the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman actually results in armed hostilities, militarists in this country are having a field day.
While politicians such as Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karrubi (reformist former parliament speaker) are seeking to lower tensions, the militarists see an opportunity in the confrontation.
"Militarists are still craving for a confrontation with the U.S. because this can strengthen their status," said an observer, who requested anonymity. "Their future will depend on the outcome of the standoff."
Last week, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) naval and air forces staged a military maneuver in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman near the Hormuz Strait to test-fire the newly acquired, Russian-made TOR M-1 surface-to-air defense shield, claimed to be short-range by the manufacturer.
The war games were the country’s second since a Dec. 23 United Nations resolution banned sale to Iran technology or material that could be used in its nuclear or missile programs. But Iran test-fired its short-range missiles in January.
The military exercise held by IRGC’s air wing and code-named "Saeqeh" (Thunderbolt) was designed to boost air defense and counterattack "any possible" offensive against the Iranian airspace, Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander, was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
The TOR M-1 air defense shield has a 12 km range which could be increased to 20 km, Salami said and added that it is capable of rapidly tracing down 48 targets and engaging with eight, including cruise missiles simultaneously. The system, capable of tracing modern Cruise missiles, was successfully test-fired on the first of the two-day maneuvers, Salami said.
In addition to a number of other short- and medium-range missiles, IRGC deployed the SSN4 land-to-sea strategic missile in operations dubbed Ra’d (Thunder) on the second day of the exercise, Rear Admiral Fadavi of IRGC naval force was quoted saying. The missile can carry a 500-kg warhead and is capable of targeting and destroying big warships, he said.
The military exercises were being carried out at a time the United States is increasing its military presence in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, and concerns are escalating about a possible U.S. military action against Iran. The maneuvers can be considered a response by the IRGC as a military-political force.
The IRGC, the regular army and the law enforcement forces act under the command of the Joint Staff of the armed forces. All chief commanders are appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who as Supreme Leader is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
IRGC is an over 200,000-strong force. Established immediately after the Islamic Revolution, it has continued to serve alongside the regular army. Growing fast and trusted much more than the regular armed forces of the time that still had many members from the royal army, it was invested by the Iranian Constitution with responsibility to "safeguard the Revolution and its achievements."
"Being made responsible to safeguard the achievements of the Revolution meant a dual role for IRGC, unlike the regular army that has always served as an exclusively military body and has never got involved in political disputes or factionalism, a role it still continues to play," an analyst in Tehran told IPS.
Having air, naval and ground forces of its own, very much parallel to the regular army, the IRGC has two additional divisions, namely, the Basij militia and the vaguely defined Qods Force, a body said to have been established originally to export the Islamic revolution to other countries.
The Qods Force and its activities are kept pretty much in the shadows. The five diplomats the U.S. army arrested in Irbil, northern Iraq, in January allegedly belong to the Qods Force.
It is significant that on Wednesday, U.S. President George W. Bush accused the Qods Force of distributing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq, though Iran denies this. "What we do know is that the Qods Force was instrumental in providing these deadly IEDs to networks inside of Iraq. What we don’t know is whether or not the head leaders of Iran ordered the Qods Force to do what they did."
Bush said whether the leaders in Tehran were directly involved or not, the weapons were a threat to U.S.-led forces engaged in quelling sectarian violence in Iraq. "I intend to do something about it … we’re going to protect our troops," he said.
"IRGC recruited young revolutionaries over the years and trained and prepared them for taking various responsibilities in the newly established regime. Those who remained in the force after the end of the war with Iraq (1980-1988) turned into a group that like militarists all around the world insisted on playing a role in the country’s politics and in determining its strategies," the analyst in Tehran said.
"Demilitarization, taking distance from fundamentalism, joining the international community, resolving tensions and a move towards a free economy endangered their raison d’etre so they resisted all those changes and formed one of the main cores of what later became the hard line faction," he explained.
The Basij militia draws volunteers from among people of every walk of life and almost every age. The militia is often accused by the opposition of meddling in political affairs, factionalism and serving as a means to guard hardliners’ interests.
Both the IRGC and its militia wing were accused of influencing the presidential elections in 2005 in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and conducting a character assassination campaign against his main rival, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose views on free market economics and joining the international community were considered "heretical" in spite of his clerical status.
Since Ahmadinejad took office a little over a year and half ago, the IRGC has turned into the country’s biggest contractor, being granted more than ten billion US dollars in gas pipeline projects. It is also a major contractor in road construction and dam building.
Ahmadinejad is also giving the Basij militia, a national network of more than 11 million members, priority in awarding government contracts in provincial development projects. A number of his ministers have an IRGC background and several deputy ministers have been directly recruited from the force. "All these are ways the hard line militarist faction of the regime can buy itself loyalty," the analyst said.
"Iranian reformists constantly refer to the last will of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Revolution, in which he admonished all armed forces to keep away from interference in political factionalism," the analyst pointed out.
Militarists, however, justify their involvement in politics claiming it is their constitutional responsibility to "guard the revolution" and the Islamic Republic. "The war between militarists and politicians has been going on for a long time now," an observer told IPS.
One of the instances of the confrontation between militarists and politicians became public several months ago when in an interview the IRGC’s former chief commander, Mohsen Rezaiee, accused politicians of lobbying to halt the Iran-Iraq war by accepting U.N. resolution 598, "before victory could be achieved."