By Alireza Nader
February 17, 2021
In a revealing comment, the Islamic Republic’s intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi, said last week that the November 2020 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was arranged by a “member of our armed forces.” Alavi’s comment may have been an attempt to defend his ministry against charges of incompetence in the wake of Fakhrizadeh’s death, but it also demonstrates deep fissures within the regime and possibly within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well. Israel is the top suspect in Fakhrizadeh’s killing, and the successful operation suggests that the Mossad, Israel’s leading intelligence agency, has built a sizeable infrastructure for its operations in Iran. It is even possible that Israel’s network included elements of the regime, including security forces such as the IRGC.
The Revolutionary Guard is tasked with protecting the regime from all internal and external threats. Yet not all Guards are entirely devoted to their leaders. The same forces that have created widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment throughout Iranian society, including corruption, economic mismanagement, and repression, have impacted the Guard as well.
To be sure, the top echelon of the Guard may be devoted to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as they have become enormously powerful and wealthy under his patronage. Still, some Guards may be motivated to cooperate with Israel by financial incentives or career dissatisfaction. Guards opposed to the regime itself may wish to weaken it from within by cooperating with Jerusalem.
Many Guards once supported the reform efforts of former President Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005) and backed Mir Hussein Mousavi, the reformist presidential candidate who challenged the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Yet hopes for reform in Iran have completely faded, not only among the public, but among the elite as well.
Iranians, including regime insiders, view the Islamic Republic as a failed political system that has reached a dead end under Khamenei, an ideologically rigid and self-indulgent dictator.
It is no surprise that some Guards may be actively plotting against Khamenei. Senior Guardsmen have criticized him in the past, only to be silenced under duress by the regime. Some members of the Guard are reportedly unhappy with efforts by Khamenei and his son Mojtaba to consolidate power by replacing the regime’s older elites. In so doing, they seek to ensure the IRGC’s ultimate loyalty to Khamenei’s revolutionary principles as the regime experiences widespread popular and elite dissatisfaction.
Guards and other security forces loyal to Khamenei were responsible for crushing popular revolts in 2018 and 2019, killing an estimated 1,500 Iranians in the November 2019 demonstrations alone. Future demonstrations are likely to face similar or greater violence from a regime desperate for survival.
Yet some Guards may face a moral dilemma, as many are recruited from the general population and may be reluctant to butcher their own people. Some may resist orders, while others may actively work with Jerusalem to weaken the regime, including by sharing information that leads to the killing of senior regime officials and the destruction of crucial nuclear infrastructure.
The recent explosions at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which reportedly destroyed numerous centrifuges, are likely the work of the Israelis, who may well have had insider help. The security of Natanz, like that of Iran’s entire atomic program, falls under the purview of the IRGC.
The regime will not hesitate to use violence against the population – the 2019 massacre was a message to Iranians never to come to the streets in protest again.
But the killing of Fakhrizadeh suggests that elements from within the regime’s power structure may be willing to betray Khamenei to prevent Iran from sinking into the abyss.
Fakhrizadeh’s death and the divisions within the regime also provide the Biden administration with alternative options for exerting pressure on the regime if it fails to roll back advances in its nuclear program.
Outnumbered and outgunned for now, disaffected Revolutionary Guards may bide their time for the right opportunity as the regime slinks from crisis to crisis. Fakhrizadeh’s killing is today’s crisis. Tomorrow may bring one much bigger.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies