Ghalibaf was not the only former Guard running for president, or least he wasn’t until Mohsen Rezaei, who commanded the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) from 1981 to 1997, withdrew two days before polling. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won the election, had served during the 1980-1988 Iraq war as an engineer in the Basij militia linked to the IRGC.
Set up in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and answerable to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the IRGC has around 120,000 troops, including naval and air units – nearly a third the size of the 400,000-strong regular armed forces.
“It’s a people’s army,” Hussein Shariatmadari, editor of the conservative newspaper Kayhan, once told me. But with the IRGC also part of Iran’s factional politics and a business heavyweight, its relations with the Rouhani government face intense scrutiny in Tehran.
Internationally, the IRGC is targeted by U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. The Guards have also played a crucial role in conflict in both Syria and Iraq though the elite Al-Quds brigade.
But within Iran, there are more rumblings over the IRGC’s opaque commercial empire. This made up around 30 percent of the Guards’ operations in 2006, according to an interview given by Brig. Gen. Abdol-Reza Abed, then the IRGC deputy commander and head of Khatam-ol-Anbia, one of its many companies.
Figures of IRGC income vary, especially if alleged smuggling is included. But no one doubts the IRGC expanded under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when affiliated companies won contracts including a $1.3 billion a gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf to the Pakistan border, exploration for phases 15 and 16 of the South Pars gas field, and a $1.2 billion line for the Tehran metro.
This growth arose in part from tightening Western – especially U.S. – sanctions that drove out international operators, especially in energy. Growing pressure over Iran’s nuclear program led to the leadership favoring self-sufficiency, state planning and import substitution.
But this stifled the private sector, which President Hassan Rouhani now wants to encourage to foster growth. This is just one reason why Rouhani is trying to trim the IRGC’s wings. Tension with the Guards bubbled over early this month when the president aimed a broadside. “If guns, money, newspapers and propaganda all gather in one place, one can be confident of corruption there,” he told a conference in Tehran.
His words made headlines in Tehran. Battered with questions at a public appearance, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC ground forces commander, said it was only an assumption that the president was speaking about the IRGC, and the media also reported Rouhani rowing back in suggesting he had been talking “in general.”
Whether the usually calm Rouhani had shown signs of frustration or was firing a calculated warning shot, we should not conclude a major clash is looming. Indeed, there are many signs that the president and IRGC are finding ways to compromise.
The Guards seem to have agreed their companies will give up smaller projects. Abdullah Abdullahi, head of Khatam-ol-Anbia, has said his company will not take on contracts under “100 to 150 billion tomans” – around $30-44 million. A proposed 50 percent increase in the IRGC’s budget allocation for 2015-2016 seems designed in part to compensate for a loss of business profits. Back in September, Jafari said that after “doubts at the beginning” there was “good cooperation” with Rouhani’s government.
Fundamentally, the IRGC supports the principle of Velayat-e Faqih (rule of the jurist), so disputes are likely to be resolved mainly behind the scenes as long as Rouhani retains Khamenei’s support. This is not to say that the Guards will stay entirely apart from politics. Commanders have voiced their opposition to relaxing vigilance against “seditionists,” a term applied to the Green movement, whose leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi remain under house arrest for encouraging protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Leading IRGC figures will also continue to seek political positions. Ghalibaf, now mayor of Tehran, may retain presidential ambitions, and has an ally in Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds brigade, who reportedly endorsed his candidacy in 2013.
Another rising star is Ali Shamkhani, the former head of IRGC naval forces appointed by Rouhani as the country’s top security official. Attesting to the range of views in the IRGC, Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab from southwest Iran, was defense minister under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, at a time when Khatami helped secure Rezaei’s removal as IRGC commander.
“Shamkhani is no Rezaei in terms of political ambitions,” Farideh Farhi, of the University of Hawaii, told me, “but he has shown himself to be much more of a political person than Soleimani, who seems happy with his good and adept soldier portrayal.”
Farhi doubts Soleimani seeks the political limelight, despite his media exposure organizing Kurdish and Shiite forces resisting [ISIS] in Iraq. “He’s been head of the [Al-Quds brigade] since 1988 and doing much the same stuff for years,” she said. “He was promoted to major general in 2011 and brokered peace in Basra in 2008 [between the Iraqi army and the militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr]. His more recent public persona is a function of events, and the use that public persona has for all players involved.”
Bottom line: Many Iranians, and certainly the political class, look to the Revolutionary Guard for defense at a time of crisis. Rouhani wants the men in uniform to remember they are first and foremost soldiers.
Iran Briefing | News Press Focus on Human Rights Violation by IRGC, Iran Human Rights
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