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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."