Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the most powerful branch of Iran's military, is known for its fierce rhetoric, for supporting fellow Shiite Muslims across the Middle East, and for challenging American and Israeli regional influence by any means possible.
Domestically, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) wields substantial political influence and controls a multi-billion dollar business empire that accounts for at least one-tenth of Iran’s economy, and perhaps much more.
For many years, the IRGC profited, too, from economic sanctions imposed by the United States and other world powers over Iran’s nuclear program, by presiding over everything from vast construction projects and smuggling to charitable foundations.
So why, as negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 powers near a June 30 deadline to agree on easing the sanctions in return for limits on the nuclear program, is the Guard supporting an emerging deal?
One reason is that the IRGC is loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has cautiously endorsed a nuclear deal. But another, say analysts, is that years of managing lucrative companies have created a more flexible business-first mentality, offsetting its ideological orientation.
In short, sanctions relief is good for the economy, which is good for everyone’s business. And more broadly, easing the daily plight of ordinary Iranians helps guarantee survival of the Islamic Republic – thereby preserving the IRGC’s prominent role.
President Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 elections in part by promising to remove the sanctions. While some in the Guard benefited from earlier years of sanctions, until about 2011, the far more comprehensive measures imposed under President Barack Obama – from curtailing Iran’s oil exports to throttling its cash transactions – have hurt even the big players.
Sanctions 'hurting their pockets'
“I think under the surface a lot of the different businessmen who are connected to the [IRGC] are putting pressure on Rouhani and his team to make sure these [nuclear] deals go through, because it’s hurting their pockets very deeply,” says Narges Bajoghli, a PhD candidate at New York University who interviewed some 150 members of the Guard and affiliated Basij militia over nine years of research.
“Of course, they have an interest in making themselves seem like a very strict organization, but I think when you go into the belly of the whole thing, you realize it’s not like that, especially since they’ve been involved in business,” says Ms. Bajoghli.
While hard-line Iranian politicians oppose any nuclear deal that requires compromise, and dislike even talking to the US and Western powers, whom they accuse of seeking regime change, the IRGC top brass in early April publicly backed the nuclear talks like never before.
“Up until today the nuclear negotiation team have defended the Iranian nation’s rights well, and the nation and IRGC is grateful for their honest efforts,” said IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari.
But the support came with a dose of tough talk. This period of negotiations was a definitive year for Iran, Maj. Gen. Jafari said, and “the enemy” – the United States – was “wrongly thinking” it could change Iran’s behavior through talks and sanctions. Lifting all sanctions was the main demand of the talks, he said, in addition to preserving Iran’s right to uranium enrichment and nuclear development.
Guard wants the status quo
However analysts say the IRGC is far from monolithic, and that its own confrontational rhetoric often masks a pragmatic side.
"They don’t want a full-blown war,” says Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran expert at Georgetown University, noting that the IRGC nevertheless challenges the US and confronts Israel “on a daily basis” through covert and other operations.
“Ultimately, the IRGC wants the status quo, wants the Islamic Republic to be reinforced, wants [it] to stay in power, and if things continue and there is more opposition internally because of sanctions or because of Iran’s isolation, that would endanger the IRGC and that would endanger the regime,” says Ms. Tabatabai.
A critical experience for the IRGC and its allies was the violent aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, when millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest a result they believed was rigged.
The Guard and Basij militia – a hard-line volunteer force known for rigorous religious training and devotion to the regime – led the crackdown, but the scale of dissatisfaction “shook many of them to the bone,” says Bajoghli at NYU. The IRGC, she says, realizes “they can’t manage it if people are so unhappy with the economy,” and that “the economy will not get better until sanctions are lifted, and sanctions won’t be lifted until there is a deal.”
Cash, patronage, power
The Guard’s weekly magazine, Sobh-e Sadegh, recently highlighted Khamenei’s words. The negotiating team and talks toward “an honorable agreement” deserved support, it wrote, while “optimism about the US” was to be avoided.
But for the IRGC support for a deal may be about money and preserving post-deal political influence.
“Some prefer total monopoly [and] are terrified” of the opened economy that would come with sanctions relief, says an analyst who has done extensive work inside Iran and asked not to be named. “Others see the big picture, that there is huge money for the IRGC and affiliates once the economy opens up.”
The IRGC’s institutional presence in elected bodies is “extremely weak and about to get weaker” with parliamentary elections next year likely to force out some hardliners. “So you create patronage outside those bodies. But it requires money,” he says.
“Cash equals patronage equals power.”