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Iran: A Rising Star In Party Politics

President Ahmadinejad is a founding member of Isargaran (file photo) (epa) Of the more than 100 registered political organizations in Iran, one that is rarely discussed is the Jamiyat-i Isargaran-i Inqilab-i Islami, roughly translated as the Islamic Revolution Devotees Society and known simply as the "Isargaran." Yet President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is a founding member, another founder is in the cabinet, and other members serve in the legislature. The party, which is comprised mainly of Iran-Iraq War veterans and therefore represents a second generation in postrevolutionary politics, is wielding increasing influence and deserves greater attention.

"Isar" is the Arabic word for altruism and, in the Iranian context, "isargaran" (plural of "isargar") has fairly specific connotations. "Isargari technically means giving selflessly and isargar refers to someone who gives selflessly to a sacred cause, but now it has been adopted for a specific meaning, namely somebody who has sacrificed in the name of the Islamic revolution," Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi writes in "The Antinomies of Iran's War Generation," published in the 2004 book "Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of the War." Farhi adds that the term is used officially as a reference to those who have given their own or a loved one's life defending the regime.

Given this provenance, the word isargaran is used frequently in Iran. There is the Party for Defending Devotees and the Constitution (Hezb-i Defa az Isargaran va Qanun-i Asasi), as well as a Devotees of Pure Mohammedan Islam (Sazeman-i Isargaran-i Islam-i Nab-i Mohammadi). In August 2004, the latter group distributed registration forms for volunteers to defend the sacred shrines in Iraq. An Assembly of Devotees (Majma-yi Isargaran) existed in the sixth legislature. There also is a state foundation that provides services to the families of those who gave their lives in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and to the former prisoners-of-war; it is called Bonyad-i Shahid va Omur-i Isargaran.
As the Isargaran exerts greater political influence, and because the president is a founding member, it is instructive to examine its current foreign policy stance.

Working As A Party

Parliamentarian Hussein Fadai, who is from Shahr-i Rey in Tehran, is secretary-general of the Isargaran. Ali Darabi was his deputy until his replacement by Lutfollah Foruzandeh in October. President Ahmadinejad is a founding member of the Isargaran, as is Economy and Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari (who served in the fifth and seventh parliaments). Other prominent members are legislators Fatemeh Alia, Nafiseh Fayazbakhsh, and Mehdi Kuchakzadeh. Members in the media include the director of the hard-line daily "Siyasat-i Ruz," Ali Yusefpur, as well as Bijan Moghaddam, who was appointed the director of "Iran," the Islamic Republic News Agency's daily, in early October.

Mujtaba Shakeri, Hadi Imani, and Ahmad Moqimi are some of the other founding members of the Isargaran. Central council members elected in the 28 February 2002 congress of the Isargaran, who are not identified above, are: Ali Ahmadi, Ali Mazaheri, Mohammad Mehdi Mazaheri, Ahmad Nejabat, Abol-Hassan Faqih, Seyyed Jalal Fayazi, Ahmad Moqimi, Abdul Hussein Ruholamini-Najafabadi, Alireza Sarbakhsh, Sediqeh Shakeri, Masud Sultanpur, and Mohammad Ali Taqavi-Rad.

Most members of the Isargaran are veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, and the organization also includes disabled veterans, freed prisoners of war, the family members of martyrs (people who died in the war), and those who were involved in the revolution against the monarchy. For example, Secretary-General Fadai's younger brother, Mohammad, served in the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps in northwestern Iran, and he lost his life during the campaign against Kurdish insurgents. Fadai himself was imprisoned for his revolutionary activities, and he served as a combat engineer during the war -- possibly with the IRGC. After the war, he continued as a military engineer -- apparently for the now-defunct Construction Jihad Ministry -- and then worked for the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan).

Election Competitions

According to some sources, the Isargaran began organized political activities in the year beginning March 1995, but the extent of its activities in the 1996 parliamentary elections is unknown. At least one of its founders was elected that year. According to "Farhang-i Ashti" on 9 June 2005, the Isargaran was founded on 3 February 1997.

In the May 1997 presidential election, the Isargaran backed the conservative front-runner, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Nateq-Nuri. Two years into Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's tenure, in August 1999, the Isargaran issued a highly critical analysis of his presidency. The analysis noted a "lack of consideration for economic reform" and referred to unemployment, falling incomes, and a reduction in purchasing power. It accused the administration of replacing skilled managers with individuals not selected on the basis of merit. The analysis warned: "Social instability, growing acts of robbery and murder, social decadence, administrative corruption, and constant humiliation of the people in their day-to-day business dealings and a widening of the gap between the people's expectations and government policies have together created a deep crack which could culminate in a national crisis."

Isargaran unhappiness with Khatami continued, and the society issued another critique that dismissed presidential complaints about a lack of real power, according to "Sobh" of 5 December 2000. It said individuals who raise these complaints are doing so to settle political rivalries instead of concentrating on solving people's problems: "In circumstances in which society is being eroded by economic problems, and hardships, unemployment, drug addiction, discrimination, and corruption on various levels, which economic or social dilemma can possibly be resolved by focusing on the issue of whether or not the president should be given more authority?" The Isargaran worried that the constitution's checks and balances are in danger.

Reformists won control of the sixth parliament (2000-04), but approximately one-sixth of the victors were candidates backed by the Isargaran. Fadai said the Isargaran "did not take part in any coalition and was the only formation or political party whose lists consisted of principled persons loyal to the ideals of the Imam and the followers of the leader," according to "Resalat" of 21 February 2000. He continued, "Apart from Tehran, we presented 187 candidates, some of whom were also on other parties' lists; according to results announced up to noon yesterday, more than 50 of the Association's candidates have gained seats." The conservative newspaper "Kayhan" reported on 25 February 2000 that 42 Isargaran affiliates were elected.

Regardless of these apparent gains, Isargaran warnings continued. In early 2001, the group announced that Iran was in danger of being subverted from within, as the efforts of foreign governments, counterrevolutionary groups, and elements within the ruling system converged, according to "Resalat" of 7 February. The repetition of American and "Yeltsinesque" reformist slogans are meant to deceive people, it said, and the legislators are being distracted from serving the public -- it referred to "popular issues," including "people's livelihood,...unemployment and other youth predicaments such as marriage and housing,...development,, being accountable,... respect for the law,... [and] the fight against poverty, corruption, and discrimination." An Isargaran statement quoted by "Resalat" on 28 November 2001 said that "extremists and the revisionist current" are preventing the legislature from doing its work.

Fadai claimed that the United States is supporting the reformists, "Resalat" reported on 31 July 2002. He urged "revolutionary forces and the genuine reformists" to adopt a resolute stance against these elements. Fadai continued: "America must be made to realize that among the revolutionaries who are firmly committed and loyal to the ideals of the Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and the Islamic revolution martyrs, there are no disputes and disagreements about the principles of preservation of independence, and the rejection of foreign domination and interference. Furthermore, it must be made absolutely clear that those who link their fates with the demands and aspirations of America can expect nothing but loss and harm in the future."

A Hard-Line Resurgence

Reformist domination of elected institutions seemed fairly complete after the 2000 parliamentary race, with control of the executive and legislative branches, as well as the municipal councils. The hard-liners did not give up, however, and turned their attention to the 2003 council elections. Indeed, it was at this time that the heretofore unknown Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami) emerged, and 14 of 15 candidates whom it backed won seats in Tehran. The council then selected a mayor -- Isargaran founding member Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- on 29 April 2003.

The hard-liners then focused on the next election -- for the legislature in 2004. As part of the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, the Isargaran backed 17 exclusive candidates, and it backed another 13 who had the support of other parties, according to "Iran" on 16 February 2004. Isargaran leader Hussein Fadai, furthermore, headed the Abadgaran election committee, "Hamshahri" reported on 27 May 2004. Aided by the Guardians Council's rejection of most viable reformist candidates -- including more than 80 incumbents -- the Abadgaran fared well in that race, winning all the seats in Tehran and many more in other constituencies.

The Isargaran were not content with this situation, however, and set about trying to create an Isargaran faction in the legislature, "Iran Daily" reported on 9 June 2004. Abadgaran leaders discouraged this in an effort to impose uniformity and the appearance of cohesion. When Hojatoleslam Nateq-Nuri addressed an Isargaran central committee meeting, he emphasized the need for unity among the hard-line forces, according to "Shoma" of 30 September 2004.

Eyeing The Prize

The Tehran press began discussing Tehran Mayor Ahmadinejad as a presidential candidate in the summer of 2004, but he was such an unknown quantity at the time that other prospective candidates garnered much more media attention in the ensuing months. The Isargaran continued to work quietly during that time, but it issued a prophetic statement, quoted in "Siyasat-i Ruz" on 2 January: "The more famous the candidates, the more their agendas will be overshadowed by their names, and consequently the destiny of the country will be the same as it has been up to now."

But any illusions about unity and solidarity among the conservatives had been put aside. As of December 2004, there were at least five possible hard-line candidates, and as some stepped aside others took their places. When the more traditional Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces -- which included the older organizations such as the Tehran Militant Clergy Association and the Islamic Coalition Party -- met in March 2005 and selected Ali Larijani as its candidate, Hussein Fadai of the Isargaran abstained from voting. Soon thereafter he created what came to be known as Coordination Council II, which considered others' candidacies.

The Isargaran eventually backed the candidacy of national police chief and former Revolutionary Guard Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, announcing that he won out over Ahmadinejad, Larijani, Ali-Akbar Velayati, Mohsen Rezai, and Ahmad Tavakoli, "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on 30 May. The Isargaran statement explained that all the candidates had the minimum qualifications, and it added that the Isargaran met with all the candidates to exchange views. The society pledged that it would depend on the outcome of public opinion polls to determine who would earn the most votes, and for that reason it chose Qalibaf.

This was a peculiar situation, with a party backing someone other than one of its founders. The move could be perceived as a Machiavellian political maneuver meant to deceive the competitors in the presidential race. Indeed, after his loss, Qalibaf complained of betrayal by his supposed supporters. The decision to back Qalibaf, furthermore, created splits in the Isargaran -- central council member Abol-Hassan Faqih left to lead Ahmadinejad's election headquarters, deputy-secretary general Ali Darabi joined Ahmadinejad's campaign, and Ali Ahmadi left to head Mohsen Rezai's campaign. Regardless, the Isargaran backed Ahmadinejad in the second round of the election, when he defeated Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

There appear to be real and continuing differences between Ahmadinejad and the group that he helped found. As the legislature considered the president's nominees for cabinet positions in August, the parliamentary presiding board supported the nominees. Isargaran and Abadgaran parliamentarians were reportedly the leading opponents because they did not have sufficient input on the candidates, an "Etemad" report suggested on 23 August. Four of the nominees failed to win votes of confidence; the legislature is considering new nominees and is scheduled to vote on them on 9 November.

What Does The Future Hold?

The Isargaran held its third major conference in early October, and the organization's provincial leaders and central committee members were in attendance, according to "Iran" on 2 October. The organization appears to be in a strong position -- members include the president and a member of his cabinet, parliamentarians, a Tehran council member (Masud Zaribafan), and a provincial governor (Seyyed Solat Mortazavi of Khorasan Razavi Province). Its role in having some cabinet nominees rejected shows that it is capable of mobilizing support and is becoming a political actor of some import. On the other hand, the growing distance between the Isargaran and Ahmadinejad suggests that it will not be a trouble-free process. Moreover, Isargaran member Mujtaba Shakeri said on 17 October that the Isargaran has yet to determine its relationship with the Coordination Council of Islamic Revolution Forces, ISNA reported.

As the Isargaran exerts greater political influence, and because the president is a founding member, it is instructive to examine its current foreign policy stance. After its October conference, the group issued a statement saying that if the diplomatic apparatus lives up to its potential, Iran will have "the capability to penetrate and influence the Western coalition against the Iranian nuclear program, and it will be able to create a division in the false international coalitions," "Iran" reported on 2 October.

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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