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Iran's Revolutionary Guard tightens grip

In post-election crackdown, Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps has taken a new leading role by tightening its control over levers of state power and stifling dissent.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 2009

A presence: Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard salute as they pass a portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini during a military parade. The group was formed to ‘safeguard’ Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Morteza Nikoubazi/Reuters/File

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Istanbul, Turkey

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may carry the title of "supreme" leader in Iran, but in the aftermath of the contested presidential elections in June, another power has played an increasingly critical role in shoring up Iran's Islamic system of government.

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The elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), founded in 1979 to protect the ideals of the Islamic revolution, took a lead role in the violent crackdown on postelection dissent, which it saw as bringing the regime to the brink of collapse.

But the IRGC has also greatly expanded its grip across the Islamic Republic, adding new media and business holdings to an empire that steadily grew during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first term.

"Now they are moving to further cement their control," says Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corporation and coauthor of a comprehensive report earlier this year on IRGC influence in Iranian society. "They are making sure they control all levers of state power.... We have a force now that is not only involved in politics, but is taking over politics, and taking over the state."

The result is a fundamental shift to the right – and toward an unprecedented degree of militarization – in Iran's government. While the Guard has long been the keeper of Iran's most important secrets, including its nuclear facilities and ballistic missile arsenal, it has now in many ways also become the kingmaker in Iranian politics.

Mr. Khamenei is "still the supreme authority in Iran, but in a lot of ways he has become beholden to the Revolutionary Guard to maintain his authority, because his position [as supreme leader] has lost so much credibility," says Mr. Nader. On the streets, protesters burned posters of Khamenei and shouted "Death to the Dictator," – a pointed message for him and Mr. Ahmadinejad.

"Khamenei is facing a dual pressure," says Ali Alfoneh, a specialist on the IRGC at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"From outside, he has to manage a permanent nuclear crisis until the Islamic Republic becomes a nuclear power," he explains. "From inside, Khamenei faces increased pressure from the opposition [and so] has chosen to rely upon the only center of power which has remained loyal to him: the IRGC."

Revolutionary Guard makes media acquisitions

The 120,000-strong IRGC is just one-third the size of Iran's regular army. But its ideological pedigree – and mandate to "safeguard" Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, as spelled out in the Constitution – has enabled it to become one of the most powerful institutions in Iran.

In recent weeks the Guard or affiliated companies have made new acquisitions that will deepen their influence over what people read and watch, and how they communicate in private.

They announced the creation of a new media outlet called Atlas, to be rolled out next spring; bought a 50 percent, $7.8 billion stake in Iran's newly privatized telecommunications company; and added a $2.5 billion rail contract to the large portion of Iran's economy – from infrastructure to laser eye surgery – that the IRGC already controls.

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