The first week of recent floods in Iran, with chaos and confusion, showed that, despite boasts by its commanders, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was unable to organize a credible rescue operation. Pictured: Flooding in Shiraz, Iran on March 25, 2019. (Image source: Fars News/Wikimedia Commons)
For years, "Iran experts" in the West have regarded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as the "deep government" in the Islamic Republic. However, the events of the past weeks, marked by floods that wreaked havoc in 22 of Iran's 31 provinces, may warrant a second look at that theory. The floods showed that, in real terms, Iran has no government and that the IRGC is more of a business-cum-security conglomerate than a government, deep or shallow.
The first week of chaos and confusion showed that, despite boasts by its commanders, the IRGC was unable to organize a credible rescue operation. IRGC chief Gen. Muhammad-Ali Aziz-Jaafari was even unable to travel to the affected provinces. Then came small but ominous protests by flood-stricken people against the IRGC, blaming it, rightly or wrongly, for causing the floods by jerry-building dams and railway lines.
Concerned that popular anger may trigger clashes between the IRGC and the populace, Gen. Muhammad Baqeri, Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, decreed that IRGC men should not carry arms in public. That meant that they wouldn't be able to mount any relief operation while risking attacks by angry crowds. There was the additional risk that local IRGC units might side with protesters who were their kin and kith. Top mullahs were also advised to stay away from stricken areas where their security couldn't be guaranteed. The vacuum created had enabled units from the regular army to remind the people that it still exists by doing a bit of relief work.
Scenes of people fraternizing with the army, regarded by some as a relic of the "good old days" before the mullahs seized power, caused some concern in the entourage of "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei.
With using the IRGC a risk-ridden scheme and the army not quite reliable, Khamenei decided to play his joker in the shape of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, whom he had just decorated with the Khomeinist regime's highest honor, the Zulfiqar (double-edged sword) Medal.
Official propaganda, echoed by ill-informed Western personalities and media, have built Soleimani as a cross between the Scarlet Pimpernel and Napoleon Bonaparte. As if that were not enough, regime apologists describe Soleimani in laughably exaggerated terms. Massoud Behnoud of the BBC's Persian service praises Soleimani as one of the "mystic commanders" who has marked Iran's history. Retired diplomat Jalil Bahar sees Soleimani as a potential "savior", the same way Reza Shah rescued a declining Iran in the last century. The daily Kayhan, reflecting Khamenei's views, claims that Soleimani, almost single-handedly, kept Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad in power, defeated ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, crushed the Israelis in proxy wars and seized control of a chunk of Yemen.
Time magazine has put Soleimani on its cover, while CNN called him "the most powerful man in the Middle East". Soleimani's fans quote the US General Stanley McChrystal describing their idol as "a great strategist."
Thus when Soleimani appeared on TV to announce he was taking over flood relief, many saw this as "Superman" rushing to the rescue at the 11th hour.
Soon, however, it became clear that "Islam's bravest soldier since Imam Ali" owed part of his reputation to bluffing and his talent for self-aggrandizement. He gathered a few cronies and set out for the southwestern province of Khuzestan to show that he could go where neither President Rouhani nor IRGC chief Aziz-Jaafari dared go.
Then began mishaps that resembled episodes from the Keystone Kops.
The heir to Imam Ali and Napoleon Bonaparte was stranded at Andimeshk, where floods had cut the Trans-Iranian railway. He had to hitch a ride in a Red Crescent helicopter and ended up in Malashieh where he took selfies with local Arab tribes. There, too, he was stranded until given transport by a local trucking company that usually carries sheep and cows. Unwilling to rely on the IRGC and/or Islamic security units for his safety, the general summoned Iraqi units of his foreign legion in the shape of the Popular Mobilization (Hashd al-Shaabi).
The summoning of Iraqi mercenaries showed that Khamenei isn't quite sure of the regime's military and security apparatus and, when the chips are down, relies on his foreign legion. The head of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Court Mussa Ghozanfar-Abadi puts it thus:
"When people do not help the revolution, Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi, Afghan Fatimyoun, Pakistani Zaynbiyoun, Yemeni Houthis and Lebanese Hezbollah shall come and defend the revolution."
Soleimani's experience in Khuzestan reminded me of a similarly farcical episode involving Adolf Hitler in March 1938 when he ordered his troops to invade Austria for Anschluss (annexation).
The plan was for Panzer units to enter the border at Braunau on 12 March at dawn and arrive in Vienna before sunset. The Fuhrer was scheduled to join them soon afterward for a night of celebrations. Austrian SS and fascist groups had organized numerous feasts all the way, waiting for General Heinz Guderian's Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) theory to be tested in practice.
However, as the night deepened, there was no sign either of the German army or the Fuhrer. It turned out that numerous German tanks and armored cars had run into engine trouble, creating a mammoth traffic jam behind which, his furor notwithstanding, the Fuhrer was also stuck. In the end, the Austrian SS had to commandeer railway cars used for carrying livestock to ship the Fuhrer's "kaput" tanks and armored cars to Vienna. Hitler and his entourage reached the city much later, hungry and all in a sweat.
Time magazine at the time had praised Hitler's army for "working like a clock." It turned out that the clock could get stuck while the bluff worked because gullible pundits in the West fell for the dictator's propaganda and cautioned against any action to nip the Nazi monster in the bud.
To be sure, the Islamic Republic of Iran isn't Nazi Germany and the hapless Qassem Soleimani isn't Adolf Hitler. But in both cases, Western gullibility has contributed to overrating a brutal regime and a mediocre leader, thus helping spread the fear that such regimes and leaders rely upon for their survival.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.