The struggle that erupted recently between President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and the Revolutionary Guard may be the most remarkable political event within that country since the Green Revolution five years ago. The current conflict has been acted out mainly online, rather than in the streets, but its implications are just as serious.
The Green Revolution began as a protest against election fraud. The recent events are a protest against something more oppressive: the Revolutionary Guard, that multi-pronged force dedicated to protecting the Iranian Revolution.
I found myself reading 3,000 words about this battle because I follow the reports from the Middle East Media Research Institute, otherwise know as MEMRI. It’s an online service that translates speeches, newspaper columns, sermons and interviews from the Middle East and elsewhere. It has about 80 employees translating Arabic, Farsi, Urdu-Pashtu and Dari material, sometimes analyzing it but often just delivering it to eager readers like me. It’s a non-profit agency that relies on donations.
Iran is one of its specialties. MEMRI experts monitor 40 Iranian newspapers and 16 television stations day by day. They cover everything from nuclear development and the sermons of Iranian leaders to the advocates of women’s rights and democracy.
Rouhani, who is considered the leader of the pragmatic faction in the Iranian government, has apparently decided the Revolutionary Guard is too big and too powerful. At a conference in December he said Iran must beware of corruption, which has helped bring down many regimes. Corruption results, he said, when a single arm of government gathers too much power — when it has weapons, money, a daily paper, a website and a news agency. He didn’t mention it by name, but he could only have been describing the Revolutionary Guard.
That led to a heretical essay on Khabar Online, a website linked to the pragmatic camp. Reza Shah Mohammadi developed Rouhani’s views and warned that the Revolutionary Guard could take control of Iran through a military coup. He added that they have prisons, missiles, jets and troops inside as well as outside the country. And they take a great interest in politics. He suggested that makes them more dangerous than beneficial. He argued that the Guard should be limited to its original mission, defending the regime, as Ayatollah Khomeini directed.
If called upon, Mohammadi asked, will the Guard defend Iran against foreign invaders? Or will it surrender, as the Iraqi army did? On the matter of corruption, he imagined a possible moment in the future when Iran, like Iraq, finds itself paying wages to 50,000 nonexistent troops.
Abruptly, this article disappeared off everybody’s screen, but not before others had copied it. The Khabar Online website’s management apologized and said it was definitely not authorized by the director. Leaders of the other faction, the ideological, non-pragmatic element, said “traitors” and “inciters” must be responsible for this outrage. The deputy attorney general announced that the website has been found guilty of disrupting public opinion. A Revolutionary Guard publication demanded to know who created this fear and hostility.
For years I’ve been a grateful follower of MEMRI. There’s something bracing about reading a complete text, rather than brief quotes that appear in news stories. Of course we get only what the speakers will say in public, but that much can be striking and educational. The reader feels a step closer to distant cultures that once seemed unknowable but are now at least partially known to all of us.
Turning up on my screen, between a bulletin about the Oscars and an ad for a sale at Sears, MEMRI becomes a frequent reminder that the world always turns out to be even stranger than one expects. In a great open field in Hyderabad in southern India, an Islamic cleric led prayers describing the Charlie Hebdo killers as martyrs, rightly following precedents set by the Prophet Muhammad, whereas a writer in the official Syrian daily said the attack was caused by Western governments supporting terrorism in Syria. Algerian newspapers launched a “We Are All Muhammad” campaign.
The MEMRI editors get criticized because they seem to choose only the most extreme texts to translate, or the craziest. Whatever they choose is either significant or totally outlandish. In Turkey, MEMRI reports, an Islamist source declared that olives grow on “the tree of the Jews” and are unwelcome in Turkey. “It is planned that all the olive trees in Turkey will be cut down within the next three years. This is a very great blow to Israel.”