The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran’s most powerful economic, social and political institution, was created as an elite military force at the founding of the Islamic republic, but its broad mandate — to protect the revolution — has allowed it to reach far beyond its military capacity.
The Guards moved aggressively after the contested 2009 presidential election to tighten its grip on society, and senior Guards officials have been moved into many important government positions. The Guards’ leadership is considering transforming the Basij militia, a volunteer force under its command, into a professional, full-time force. Another tool for extending the Guards’ reach at home has been privatization, initially intended as a means to improve the economy but criticized more recently as a shell game.
The Guards takeover of a majority share in the nation’s telecommunications monopoly has amplified concerns in Iran over what some call the rise of a pseudogovernment, prompting members of Parliament to begin an investigation into the deal. A private firm was excluded from the bidding one day before shares went on sale, and a company affiliated with the elite force won the bidding.
The Guards ability to enhance its status since the 2009 election has important implications for the future of Iran’s domestic politics, decisions on its nuclear program and prospects for long-term relations with the West, said Iranian analysts. Increasingly, it is the interests of the Guards and its allies that are driving the nation’s policies, and those interests have often been defined by isolation from the West.
In October 2011 Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that federal authorities had foiled a plot by men linked to the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and to bomb Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington.
The corps is not large. It has as many as 130,000 members and runs five armed branches that are independent from the much bigger national military. It commands its own ground force, navy, air force and intelligence service.
But as its role expands deep into society, the Guards also finds itself forced to balance its ideological inclinations with the practical aspects of protecting its own interests, analysts said.
The Guards oversees the nuclear and missile program, and the recently revealed enrichment plant near Qum is built into a mountain on a Guards base. With inflation over 20 percent and manufacturing in serious decline, the Guards and its allies have appeared ready to take steps to head off new sanctions over the nation’s nuclear program.
The corps’s two best-known subsidiaries are the secretive Quds Force, which has carried out operations in other countries, including the training and arming of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon; and the Basij militia. The Basiji includes millions of volunteer vigilantes used to crack down on election protests and dissidents.
The corps has become a vast military-based conglomerate, with control of Iran’s missile batteries, oversight of its nuclear program and a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching into nearly every sector of the economy. It runs laser eye-surgery clinics, manufactures cars, builds roads and bridges, develops gas and oil fields and controls black-market smuggling. Members of the Revolutionary Guards and their families receive privileged status at every level, which benefits them in university admissions and in the distribution of subsidized commodities, experts say.
Its fortune and its sense of entitlement have reportedly grown under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member. Since 2005, when he took office, companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards have been awarded more than 750 government contracts in construction and oil and gas projects, Iranian press reports document. And all of its finances stay off the budget, free from any state oversight or need to provide an accounting to Parliament. The corps’s alumni hold dozens of seats in Parliament and top government posts.
In 2007 the administration of George W. Bush accused the Revolutionary Guard, and the Quds Force in particular, of supplying weapons and training to anti-American fighters in Iraq. In a press conference, President Bush stated flatly that the Quds force was the source of so-called shaped charges used by Iraqi insurgents to attack American troops, far more sophisticated than standard improvised explosive devices. The administration announced sanctions against the Quds force, calling it a terrorist group, and accused the entire Revolutionary Guard Corps of proliferating weapons of mass destruction. It was the first time that the United States has taken such steps against the armed forces of any sovereign government.
In the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 election crisis, the corps remains a public front of unity. The crisis, the gravest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, erupted after Iran’s Interior Ministry declared that the moderate Mir Hussein Moussavi was defeated by Mr. Ahmadinejad by 63 percent to 34 percent. Tens of thousands of demonstrators representing a cross section of society and part of the clerical establishment called the official results a fraud, demanding a full recount if not a new election.
With the nation’s ruling class apparently divided by the electoral results, the hard-liners in charge sought to portray the unrest as the work of outsiders. The Guards said it had taken action against “deviant news sites” financed by American and Canadian companies. Its aggressive drive to silence dissenting views led many political analysts to describe the events surrounding the June 12 presidential election as a military coup.
On June 22 the Guards issued an ominous warning on their Web site saying that protesters would face “revolutionary confrontation.” “The Guards will firmly confront in a revolutionary manner rioters and all those who violate the law,” the notice said. Shortly afterward a group of as many as a thousand demonstrators at Haft-e-tir Square in central Tehran was quickly overwhelmed by baton-wielding riot police and tear gas. During the ongoing crackdown some protestors, notably 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, were shot and killed.
Nonetheless, there are glimmers of fractures under the corps’s opaque and disciplined surface. Political analysts said that behind the scenes there were internal disagreements about the handling of the election and the demonstrations. One political analyst said that many of the rank and file were known to have voted for Mohammad Khatami, an outspoken reformer, when he was first elected president in 1997.
In his will, Ayatollah Khomeini asked that the military stay out of politics, and senior Revolutionary Guards officials have been careful to defend themselves against accusations of political meddling after the June 12 election. But Gen. Javani warned the public that there was no room for dissent.
“Today, no one is impartial,” he said, according to the official news agency IRNA. “There are two currents: those who defend and support the revolution and the establishment, and those who are trying to topple it.”
A Bizarre Plot
On Oct. 11, 2011, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador began with a meeting in Mexico in May, “the first of a series that would result in an international conspiracy by elements of the Iranian government” to pay $1.5 million to murder the ambassador on United States soil.
The men accused of plotting the attacks were Manssor Arbabsiar and Gholam Shakuri. Mr. Holder said the two men were connected to the secretive Quds Force, and the Justice Department said in a statement that Mr. Shakuri, a member of the Quds force, remained at large. Mr. Arbabsiar, a naturalized American citizen, was arrested on Sept. 29.
A senior administration official said that the Treasury Department planned to announce new sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard, already the target of heavy sanctions for its role in overseeing Iran’s nuclear program.
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