By CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty and CNN National Security Producer Jamie Crawford
It's a phrase Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to slip into with almost every comment about Iran these days: "I think Iran, unfortunately, is morphing into a military dictatorship."
That's how she put it in an interview on October 26, with BBC Persia. The expression appears to have first popped up during Clinton's February 2010, trip to the Middle East, where she said at a town hall appearance in Doha, Qatar, that U.N. sanctions are aimed at "enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran."
"We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship."
By "military dictatorship" the Obama administration means the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) which experts at the Council on Foreign Relations describe as a "socio-military-political-economic force with influence reaching deep into Iran's power structure" and having control of "strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises."
Striking at the heart of that "military dictatorship," the Obama administration has aimed most of its recent economic sanctions at senior officers of the Quds Force.
Most recently, the U.S. Treasury Department designated five Iranians, including four senior Quds Force officers allegedly connected to a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States.
Referring to Iran's growing "military dictatorship," Secretary Clinton often adds a bit of mystery, saying, for example, in an aside to BBC Persia: "It's been a little confusing because we're not quite sure who makes decisions any more inside of Iran, which, I think, is an unfortunate sign and kind of goes along with the ascendancy of greater military power."
Clinton's rhetoric is being noticed by Iran experts, including Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "'When she says it's becoming a military dictatorship, she's right," Sadjadpour says.
"In the past they used to refer to Iran as a, quote unquote, clerical regime. That's no longer true."
Sadjadpour says the West often concentrates on the religious and clerical aspects of Iran's leadership, including Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The ayatollah is more powerful than Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with authority to appoint the heads of influential posts in the military, government, and judiciary. But Sadjadpour says that is misleading. "The Supreme Leader is ... wearing this turban and clerical garb. A more apt sort of clothing for him would be military fatigues."
Ayatollah Khamenei, he says, is "seeking legitimacy in the barracks among the military," since he is perceived by some Iranian clergy as lacking religious education and credentials.
Khamenei was only a mid-level cleric when he succeeded Ayatollah Ruallah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, when Khomeini died in 1989. Khamenei's bona fides as an Islamic cleric were questioned when he was anointed, and suspicion among some in the clergy continues today.
"Those that are truly pious see the things that are taking place in Iran in the political realm are not reflective of their religious values," Sadjadpour says. "They see this widening income disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and many clerics don't respect Ayatollah Khamenei as a bona fide grand ayatollah."
Discontent among the clergy is worrisome for Khamenei, Sadjadpour says, but "what would be fatal for him would be dissent and discontent among the Revolutionary Guards." There is a "symbiotic relationship" between the supreme leader and the Guards, he says; the Ayatollah benefits politically and the Guards benefit economically.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, Sadjadpour says, "is garnering billion-dollar contracts as a result of their new found political prowess and the supreme leader...is buttressed politically."
"He may not have religious legitimacy, he may not have popular legitimacy, but he has a monopoly of coercion."
Khamenei may also be in the midst of engineering a fundamental shift in the Iranian power structure, having recently floated the possibility of abolishing the presidency, and switching to a parliamentary system.
The relationship between the supreme leader and Ahmadinejad has grown cold after Ahmadinejad forced the intelligence minister, a Khamenei protege, to resign earlier this year.
Khamenei promptly re-instated the minister, and the relationship between the two has not recovered according to Iran watchers.