Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, warned this week that Iran is "moving toward a military dictatorship", prompting a swift and furious response from Iran that proved she had hit a very raw nerve. The regime was already smarting from similar accusations levelled by its domestic opposition. That Mrs Clinton echoed them during a tour of the Gulf stung even more.
The regime prides itself on overseeing a model Islamic state - with supposedly popular legitimacy - that it claims is far more pluralistic than Arab monarchies on the other side of the Arabian Gulf. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fulminated yesterday: "Those who have turned the Gulf into an arms depot in order to milk regional countries have now dispatched their official to go around the Gulf and spread lies against Iran."
Tehran maintained that the US itself was a military dictatorship, pointing to its wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said the pot was calling the kettle black: the US's military budget, he said, was 80 times larger than Iran's. Mrs Clinton's tough comments marked a sharp shift away from Barack Obama's policy of engagement, and telegraphed the US president's intention to use economic pressure to force a wedge between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian public.
The US is preparing fresh sanctions that will specifically target the elite force that manages Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and oversees the harsh repression of the opposition. "We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving towards a military dictatorship," Mrs Clinton said in Qatar on Monday. How accurate is her depiction of Iran as a country sliding towards a military takeover? Most Iran experts agree with the thrust of Mrs Clinton's argument, although there is disagreement over terminology.
Some suggest that Iran is becoming more of a security state than a "military dictatorship". But all agree that in recent years the revolutionary guard - a nominally popular movement mandated with protecting the ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution - has spread its tentacles throughout Iran's political and economic establishments - and that its power and influence are rising rapidly. The force's relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei and his polarising protégé, Mr Ahmadinejad, is a symbiotic one, where each side depends on, and benefits from, the other's support.
Whether the supreme leader and the president have the upper hand over shadowy revolutionary guard leaders - or vice versa - is a moot point. The force backed Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections and was in turn rewarded with immense economic clout, and an unprecedented king-making say in politics. The revolutionary guard has received at least US$6 billion (Dh22bn) worth of government contracts in two years, state-run media say. The force operates Iran's international airport, controls the country's telecommunications, runs huge chunks of the construction industry, and has major investments in the oil and gas sector.
Iran's main opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, sniped recently that: "If the guard has to calculate on its abacus every day to see how much the prices of their shares have gone up or down, it cannot defend the country and national interests." There are several former revolutionary guard officers in Mr Ahmadinejad's new cabinet. Iranian dissidents long prefigured Mrs Clinton's warning. Shortly before his death last December, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the opposition's spiritual leader, declared that, following Mr Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election, Iran had become a "military regime".
Abroad, many Iran experts and think tanks have issued similar warnings. Professor Gary Sick of New York's Columbia University wrote last November that Iran "seems to be sliding into a corporatist military dictatorship with an Islamic veneer". The government demonstrated how efficient it has become "at this repression business" last Thursday, when Iran marked the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution, said Prof Sick, who was the chief White House aide on Iran during that revolution.
The opposition had planned mass protests, but these were snuffed out with brutal, pre-emptive measures and a massive flexing of security muscle on the streets. A former senior European diplomat to Tehran, however, characterised Mrs Clinton's comment as "a sound bite rather than a piece of serious analysis". Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added: "There's no junta. If you conjure up the idea of a military dictatorship, people immediately think of Brazil, Turkey or Nigeria under the generals. Iran will never be anything like that because the religious factor is so strong and the loyalty of the military leaders is to the supreme leader and the system he embodies."