By Ray FLeming

HILLARY Clinton's decision to turn her rhetoric against Iran's Revolutionary Guard is a little surprising. Describing the Islamic Republic as being close to a military dictatorship because of the Guard's influence may be quite near the truth but it is nothing new. The Revolutionary Guard was formed to “protect the Islamic Revolution” in 1979 but since then has built itself into a 120'000 strong force which has tentacles in every part of Iranian life, from the government whose Cabinet includes six former Guard members -- one of them Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself -- to all forms of business especially the sector controlling communications and weapons production. It is almost certainly more powerful than Iran's regular army although its fighting qualities, as opposed to its commercial acumen, have never been tested.

With the relative failure of the opposition presence at the most recent demonstrations in Tehran, Iran is entering a critical phase in the viability of internal protest. If UN-approved sanctions are applied against key areas of the economy it is almost certain that the Ahmadinejad government will use that as an excuse to bear down on independent voices in the interests of national unity. Meanwhile, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week Iran's representative answered criticism by describing his country as “a successful model of brotherly and amicable coexistence” and last year's election as “an exemplary exhibition of democracy and freedom”.