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.
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.
"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.
Senior commanders have also made no secret of their dramatic intervention in politics during the election period, citing the risks of a reformist victory for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.
He and other opposition figures accuse the Guard and a coterie of right-wing commanders of fraudulently engineering the reelection of the archconservative Ahmadinejad, which sparked hundreds of thousands of Iranians to take to the streets in protests.
Those demonstrations were put down with brutal efficiency by the IRGC and their affiliated Basij militia. Scores of Iranians lost their lives in the violence.
Former IRGC officers constitute half of Ahmadinejad's new cabinet, finalized in mid-November, and one-third to one-half of parliament, according to Mr. Alfoneh. The Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies have been purged of anyone with reformist sympathies, due to what IRGC commanders consider a failure to recognize efforts by opposition and foreign agents to topple the regime in a "velvet revolution," according to sources in Tehran and Iran analysts abroad.
'Deep and symbiotic relationship' with Khamenei
Khamenei has had to pay dearly for such backup, however, says Alfoneh. "The IRGC's support for Khamenei does not come cheap, and he has had to bribe the IRGC with economic monopolies," such as the telecommunications deal, which effectively puts many of Iran's mobile and land phone networks and Internet under IRGC purview.
The result has been a "very deep and symbiotic relationship with the supreme leader, and [the IRGC] have used the Ahmadinejad administration to not just solidify their hold on power, but to enrich themselves at the same time," says Nader of RAND.
Of the thousands arrested in the Guard's crackdown, the price has been high for the 140 reformist activists imprisoned for months, forced to make videotaped confessions, and subjected to show trials.
Newsweek correspondent and filmmaker Maziar Bahari, who was arrested on June 21 and spent 118 days in the hands of IRGC intelligence officers, offered a glimpse of the Guard's mentality in the Nov. 30 edition of Newsweek.
Social to political revolution
Until my imprisonment I never fully appreciated the corrosive suspicion that is rotting the Islamic Republic from within," wrote Mr. Bahari, who said the officers beat him daily for weeks and accused him of being a spy. "The Guards see real enemies all around them – reformists within the country, hundreds of thousands of US troops outside. Even worse are the shadows – supposed agents of Britain, the United States, and Israel – upon whom they impose their own fearful logic." He writes of a future "a few years from now, after the Guards have consolidated their position," as if it were beyond doubt.
"We reached the point of inevitability of IRGC seizure of total power some years ago, but we don't know for how long the IRGC will remain in power," says Alfoneh, contacted in Copenhagen, Denmark. "Let's not forget that Iran is going through a social revolution. The question is when this social revolution morphs into a political revolution."