Iran's hidden revolution: How a military dictatorship replaced a theocracy

In Mr. Ahmadinejad, the public saw a man who repudiated the profligacy of the clerical class, a man who was ascetic, humble and devout. And he capitalized on that image to consolidate power and to promote his brothers in arms. Fourteen of the 21 cabinet ministers he has appointed are former members of the guards or its associated paramilitary, the Basij. Several, including Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, are veterans of notorious units thought to have supported terrorist operations in the 1980s.

This creeping militarization has not been restricted to the central government: provincial governors, press commissars, film directors, intelligence officers and business leaders are increasingly former members of the guard. The elite force controls much of the economy either directly — the Basij has rights to oil extraction — or through proxy companies like Khatam al Anbiya, which dominates construction throughout Iran.

Technically, the pinnacle of power in Iran remains Ayatollah Khamenei, along with the 12-member Guardian Council. Yet he has proved eager to fall in with the president’s overthrow of the clerics. Indeed, Western intelligence services suspect Ayatollah Khamenei approved the rigging of the second round of the 2005 presidential election to throw decisive votes to Mr. Ahmadinejad. And this time around, the supreme leader made clear his preference with coded references like his exhortation to vote for “a man of the people, sincere, with a simple lifestyle.”

Why would he deliberately undercut his own clerical class? Survival.