The grip of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

Friday 28 August 2009 19.00 BST

Ayatollah Khomeini asked in his will that the military be kept out of politics. But they control more of the country than ever

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s list of cabinet nominees reveals a determination to fill the top positions in Iran’s government from a coterie of loyal men, plus three women, many of whom are strongly linked to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Under Ahmadinejad’s previous administration there was a distinct militarisation of politics: many ministers, as well as ambassadors, mayors, provincial governors and senior bureaucrats, were drawn from the guards. Ahmadinejad himself is widely associated with the IRGC, but in an interview his adviser insisted that the president had never been a member and was present only “when necessary” (although when pressed the adviser noted that Ahmadinejad’s role included “logistical support” and “war engineering” during the Iran-Iraq war).

Whatever Ahmadinejad’s exact link with the Revolutionary Guards it is clear that they are playing an increasingly significant role in Iranian politics. The IRGC’s entry into politics dates from long before Ahmadinejad’s ascendancy. Back in 1997 several of their leaders openly endorsed the conservative presidential candidate Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. Although the reformist Mohammad Khatami won that election, he soon faced strong opposition from the guards. Their commander, General Rahim Safavi stated in April 1998 that some reformers were munāfiqs (a particularly highly-charged term for a hypocrite) and said that those threatening the Islamic republic should be beheaded. Although Ayatollah Khomeini asked in his will that the military keep out of politics, by May of 1998 Safavi warned that the IRGC were not apolitical and that they would respect one authority above all, the supreme leader. This alliance between a new wave of conservative politics and the IRGC is well detailed in Anoush Ehteshami and Mahjoub Zweiri’s book, Iran and the Rise of Its Neoconservatives, which carries the prescient subtitle “the politics of Tehran’s silent revolution”.

The “silent revolution” reached an apex back in June when the IRGC played an instrumental role in the power-grab-cum-coup-d’état that returned Ahmadinejad. The interior ministry, the body mandated by law to administer elections and which played a significant role in June’s election manipulation, will be headed by Mostafa Mohammad Najjar. Najjar, defence minister since 2005, served with the IRGC in Lebanon. Ahmadinejad’s defence minister nominee is a former guards commander, wanted by Interpol in connection with the 1994 bombing of an Argentine Jewish cultural centre, and his nominee for the intelligence ministry was previously the supreme leader’s representative in the IRGC. All cabinet posts must be approved by parliament, but given the strong conservative presence there, loyal to Ahmadinejad, it seems likely that these nominees will be accepted.

The Revolutionary Guards also manage and run a business empire reportedly including everything from laser eye-surgery clinics to car manufacturing, from oil and gas field development right through to black-market smuggling.

Although the US treasury suggests the guards control billions of dollars worth of business, construction, finance and commerce, the exact extent their economic empire is unclear: they do not openly report income to the central bank and many of their contracts are awarded without the supposedly mandatory open-bidding process. As an example of their reach, in July 2007 the energy ministry awarded IRGC contractors all public infrastructure projects in water, electricity and bridges for western Iran. Since 2005 Ahmadinejad has attempted to push IRGC alumni – even those without requisite political experience – into key economic ministries and above all the important petroleum ministry.

In a cold show of force on May 8 2004, the Revolutionary Guards occupied Tehran’s new Imam Khomeini airport which had opened just hours before. The IRGC demanded that the Turkish-Austrian consortium, TAV, then managing the airport be removed, saying that it posed a threat to Iran’s “security and dignity”. The real motivation seemed economic: a company close to the IRGC had lost its bid to operate the airport. It seems that since January 2008 the IRGC have served as the “temporary” operators of Imam Khomeini airport.

The “silent revolution” in Tehran has moved Iran ever further from its revolutionary theocratic and republican ideals, towards a militarised security state like so many of its Middle Eastern neighbours. The Revolutionary Guards’ political head, General Yadollah Javani warned the Iranian public in the aftermath of June’s disputed election that “today, no one is impartial. There are two currents; those who defend and support the revolution and the establishment, and those who are trying to topple it”.

It seems clear that the majority of the IRGC are firmly supporting the establishment – some would go so far as to suggest that this Praetorian Guard are themselves running the show, albeit from behind the scenes. It is important however to note that despite a broadly shared conservatism the IRGC does not behave as a monolith. Mohsen Rezaee, who served as the Guard’s chief commander for 16 years, stood against Ahmadinejad in June’s presidential election and rejected the official results. Since then he has openly demanded that those who attacked the opposition and tortured detainees be put on trial.

Although Iran increasingly resembles a security state its military picture is fragmented – a legacy of the decision following the 1979 revolution to split the military between the Revolutionary Guards and the larger regular army. There is also a paramilitary militia, the Basij, now subordinated to the IRGC.

One prominent Iranian analyst speculated with me that Iran’s ultimate capacity to repress its population is limited. She pointed to the fact that during the widespread protests in June the state only deployed certain forces, perhaps concerned about the loyalty of others – they seemed on occasion unwilling to arm the Basij with more than bricks and stones or to utilise the regular army.

As she saw it, the combined forces of the IRGC and police were strongly tested by the number of protesters marching on the streets; she was not convinced according to her back-of-envelope calculations that the state had sufficient repressive force to control both the capital and the provinces in the face of widespread insurrection. Anecdotal reports of police directing people to protest sites add doubt as to their ultimate loyalties.

For the time being it seems the opposition has been terrified off the streets. The Iranian state’s fierce face should not be taken as a sign of strength but rather the inverse: fundamental weakness. The political legitimacy of the regime is destroyed and to maintain order they must rely on repression and a culture of fear. In the meantime the control of key institutions by the Revolutionary Guards’ alumni is steadily increasing.

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