Why Iran's Revolutionary Guards mercilessly crack down
A force to reckon with in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term, the Guards are led by commanders whose worldview was forged during the devastating Iran-Iraq war.
Beirut — To Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the danger facing the Islamic Republic is acute: Its founding ideals are under serious threat at home and from abroad, and every sacrifice must be made to preserve them as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embarks on his second term.
In response, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is openly taking the lead for curbing dissent following Mr. Ahmadinejad's sharply disputed June 12 reelection – a reflection of the influence it gained in both security and business affairs during the president's first term.
Over the past decade, and particularly the past two months, the perceived dual threat from domestic reformers and Western meddling has resulted in an IRGC-led militarization of Iran as security "needs" have shaped official decisionmaking.
Iran's reformists, decimated by arrests in the recent clampdown, have long argued that international pressure on Iran would strengthen the IRGC politically – while sanctions would increase the Guards' economic role.
Ironically, some conservatives now argue that continued protests will encourage a punitive approach from the authorities and a further drift to the right.
Amir Mohebbian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper, for example, blames postelection violence on the reformists' decision to take to the streets.
"The support of foreign countries for the reformist movement, especially from the US, only helps antireform groups to show the hand of strangers behind their activities," says Mr. Mohebbian, an astute commentator who was one of the first to predict that Mir Hossein Mousavi would present a serious electoral challenge to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Blaming the West, particularly Britain and the US, for fomenting the largest public protests since the republic's infancy, the IRGC has led efforts to suppress protests. It's been aided by its affiliated Basij militia, a volunteer force whose membership is put officially at many millions. The corps itself is estimated to have 125,000 members.
In addition, opposition activists have alleged that the IRGC, which has its own intelligence section, is responsible for the detention of hundreds without trial. They assert that it was concern over IRGC-run jails which led Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to close a key detention center, Kahrizak, last week.
How US pressure strengthens IRGC's hand
Established in 1979 as a parallel army to preserve the Islamic Revolution's ideals, the IRGC is led mainly by commanders who were profoundly shaped by the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. For nearly a decade, they fought far-superior forces that – backed by most of the Arab and Western worlds – attacked Iranians with chemical weapons and Scud missiles.
While Ahmadinejad is often credited with boosting the IRGC's standing, its clout also grew during the 1997-2005 presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami.
That period ended with rising US pressure on the regime, shaped by President Bush's characterization of Iran as part of an "axis of evil."
In the name of security, Iran's reformists warned, fundamentalists in the IRGC and other parts of the security apparatus were undermining the country's laws and judicial processes.
Saaed Hajjarian – the recently arrested "brain of the reformists" – warned in an interview with this reporter in 2005 of "a ladder of democracy – or rather semidemocracy – that someone climbs up, and then kicks away."
Mr. Hajjarian continued: "To threaten Iran, nearly every day, America is looking for any excuse – the nuclear issue, terrorism, human rights, the Middle East peace process. There are different US pressures ... but some make the situation here more militarized, and in such an atmosphere, democracy is killed."
In 2006, the US allocated $66 million to groups working to "promote democracy" in Iran, and the following year persuaded the United Nations Security Council to sanction several IRGC commanders over the corps' role in Iran's missile and nuclear programs.
The Bush administration regularly accused the Guards of supplying advanced explosives to insurgents in Iraq, a charge detailed in a 2008 State Department report on terrorism that also outlined IRGC arms supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
After taking over as commander of the IRGC in September 2007, Mohammad Ali Jafari devolved its command structure to Iran's 30 provinces and the capital, while more closely integrating the Basij.
The IRGC linked the move to Israeli military maneuvers in the Mediterranean and to violence in Iran's Kurdish and Baluchi regions, where Iran alleged the US supported militant separatists. But Mr. Jafari was also quoted by the Iranian media as saying, "The main mission of the IRGC is to deal with the internal enemies."
Billions in contracts under Ahmadinejad
In addition to enhancing its security remit, the IRGC has expanded an array of businesses originally launched to exploit its construction experience from the 1980-88 war. This growth has derived in part from filling the gaps left by international firms pulling out due to UN and US sanctions, especially in the energy sector.
No reliable figures exist for the IRGC's overall economic strength, as its subsidiaries are subject to little public scrutiny. But estimates reach many billions of dollars.
In a rare disclosure, businesses were put at 30 percent of IRGC "capacities" in a 2006 interview by Brig. Gen. Abdol-Reza Abed, an IRGC deputy commander and head of Khatam-ol-Anbia, one of its many companies.
The IRGC's economic role has clearly increased with projects awarded by Ahmadinejad.
Within a year of his taking office, Khatam-ol-Anbia won a $1.3 billion contract for a gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf to the eastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, and edged out Norwegian firm Kvaerner for developing part of the South Pars gas field. An IRGC-owned company, Sepasad, has also won a $1.2 billion contract to build a line of the Tehran subway.
There is current speculation in Tehran that Mr. Ahmadinejad's second-term oil minister will be Rustam Qassemi, the head of Sadra, an engineering subsidiary of Khatam-ol-Anbia.
While some IRGC businesses are run by managers in tailored suits, others have a military feel. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, uniformed Revolutionary Guards on the border with northern Iraq ran a lucrative trade in scrap metal of destroyed Iraqi tanks and other armor.
The IRGC, known in Iran as Sepah, is widely involved in unofficial import-export work that would be seen as smuggling in much of the world.
"This is why Sepah increases its role in response to sanctions – and would increase it even more if the US and its allies put a blockade on petrol imports," says a business analyst, who requested anonymity, by telephone from Tehran.
Why Iran is not a military dictatorship
Former members of the IRGC have taken direct positions in politics. Many support Mr. Ahmadinejad, including close ally Saeed Jalili, Iran's top security official, but there are prominent exceptions.
For example, Mohsen Rezaei, who commanded the IRGC from 1981 until 1997, is a critic of the president who on Sunday called for the prosecution of security operatives linked to violence against demonstrators or detainees.
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran mayor and former national police chief, also has a tetchy relationship with the president.
While some have argued in recent weeks that the IRGC's increased influence has turned Iran into a virtual military dictatorship, many who detect a growing "militarization" of politics argue that the IRGC is not in a position to take total control of the Islamic Republic.
"If indeed what happened in Iran was a capstone to a creeping military coup, it was certainly a botched one, at least so far," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii. "I simply cannot believe that all the mess was planned to assure a final takeover by the security establishment.
"At this point, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing," she adds. "The pressure from below is revealing, or more accurately deepening, cracks – and these cracks probably exist among Sepah as much as anywhere else."
Mohebbian, the conservative editor, insists that fundamentalists themselves can check any drift to authoritarianism. "The roots of democracy and strong and deep," he says. "Nobody in Iran can accept any kind of dictatorship, military or nonmilitary, because our revolution [in 1979] was against dictatorship."
Guards face 'homegrown' crisis
But a reformist sympathizer close to Iranian intelligence says Iran – and the IRGC – are in a "completely homegrown" crisis that is deeply unpredictable.
"How all this works out is anyone's guess," he says by telephone from Tehran. But he adds that, while loyalty to Ayatollah Khamenei is central to the IRGC's commitment to vilayat-e faqih ("rule of the jurist"), the Supreme Leader's age and frailty foster insecurity.
"Sepah is outwardly loyal to the leader," he says, "but there are huge questions as to what might happen if the leader should pass away without Sepah being first put back to a [purely] military role. In any case, the leader has taken a blow to his prestige [with the postelection unrest] and if he weakens physically, then who knows how Sepah will respond? This is all about power, not religion."