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Iran's Revolutionary Guard Has A Lot To Lose

Cleric Ali Saedi (right) is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's representative to the IRGC

Cleric Ali Saedi (right) is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's representative to the IRGC

From the earliest days of the Islamic state in Iran, it was clear the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) would not remain a mere military force.

The IRGC differed from the army the previous regimes kept. It was an ideological institution, in charge of safeguarding the Islamic regime. Furthermore, the constitution entitles the IRGC to engage in economic and educational activities during peacetime.

The vast industrial infrastructure left behind after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War left no doubt that the IRGC would be a serious force in the country's economy. Thanks to its access to machinery and expertise in handling large projects, the IRGC almost immediately became Iran's largest economic conglomerate, spreading its tentacles across all economic sectors, including the oil industry; agriculture; and road, airport, and dam construction.

It is worth noting that one of the first politicians to highlight the runaway power of the IRGC was Mehdi Karrubi, currently a leader of the so-called Green opposition movement. Back when he was speaker of the sixth Majlis (2000-04), he divulged that 60 illegal jetties along the south coast were controlled by the IRGC and used for illegal import and export activities. Another member of parliament later said that one-third of Iran's imports entered the country illegally, implicating the involvement of the IRGC.

Inevitably, the economic role of the corps was complemented by increasing political clout. The IRGC's grip on the political system solidified with the 2004 Majlis elections, which gave a majority of seats to former IRGC and Basij militia members, and the 2005 presidential election, which was won by former corps member Mahmud Ahmadinejad. These triumphs were facilitated by the supreme leader's total support.

The machinations by which the IRGC turned its economic empire into political power during the 2004 and 2005 elections were a marvel. IRGC and Basij members and their families swamped the voting booths and voted in accordance with the advice of their commanders. Former IRGC leader Seyyed-Yahya Rahim-Safavi boasted at one point that the corps could mobilize 22 million voters and sway elections at will.

These victories came at the end of a tough period for the IRGC -- the rule of the reformists from 1997 until 2005. At times, the corps' confrontation with the government of President Mohammad Khatami threatened to become a coup. In 2004, the administration awarded the contract to provide services at Tehran's newly opened Imam Khomeini International Airport to a Turkish company. In response, the IRGC took over the airport, parked tanks on the runway, and prevented takeoffs and landings until the government relented. After Khatami, the corps made it clear they would not tolerate another reformist.

Symbiotic Relationship

Upon becoming president, Ahmadinejad wasted no time in awarding the juiciest government contracts to the IRGC. Ghorb, the industrial and construction wing of the IRGC, was given no-bid contracts to develop the 15th and 16th phases of the South Pars Gas Field, and to build a 950-kilometer pipeline to Pakistan and India. It was also allowed to take over the Kish Oil Company. These deals turned the already massive Ghorb into one of the largest conglomerates in the Middle East.

It should also be mentioned that all the IRGC's economic activities are monitored only by internal IRGC auditors and that the corps pays no taxes. As "Etemad Melli," a newspaper associated with Karrubi, editorialized after the 2005 presidential election, the real winner in that poll was Ghorb.

Under Ahmadinejad, the government stepped up the pace of "privatization," encouraged by the supreme leader himself. One after another, government companies were sold off to bidders with ties to Ghorb. In recent days, a 51 percent stake in the Communications Company of Iran was sold to an IRGC affiliated firm. This company controls the infrastructure of landlines, cell-phone service, and data storage and exchange for the entire country.

Ahmadinejad's relentless attacks on former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani can also be interpreted in the context of the struggle for economic domination. Rafsanjani's family probably controls the most wealth in the country, after the IRGC and various bonyads (foundations) with ties to the IRGC.

Ahmadinejad targeted Rafsanjani with criticism in both his 2005 and 2009 election campaigns. Behind his charges of "ideological impurity," Ahmadinejad has gone after Rafsanjani's economic might. Steady attacks on the Free University, a national chain of private campuses that is believed to be controlled by Rafsanjani and comrades from his Mo'talefeh party, has forced its board of trustees to turn it into an endowment in order to maintain control.

But the battle continues, and the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently ruled the endowment is not legal because the land the campuses occupy belongs to the state. Control of this education network is not only an economic issue, but an ideological one as well, since the Free University could become a base for the Basij.

Hampering Development

Throughout the past decade, Karrubi -- who has now emerged as the main opposition leader in Iran -- has been relentless in his criticism of the economic activities and political interference of the IRGC. During the crisis that has followed the election in June, Karrubi has continued to target the IRGC, prompting calls from the corps' leaders for his arrest.

When Karrubi last month publicized cases of rapes in prisons, most of which are controlled by the IRGC, he was denounced by almost every power holder in the country. When IRGC members tampered with the medical records of the allegedly raped detainees, Karrubi memorably quipped: "The IRGC has already taken over the economy and politics. Now it seems they are taking control of the medical field as well."

Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the deposed heir apparent of Islamic republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a harsh critic of Supreme Leader Khamenei, has also attacked the IRGC. "This regime is neither Islamic nor a republic; it is a mere dictatorship," he concluded. "This is no longer the ‘rule of the qualified jurist.' Rather, it is the 'rule of the generals.'"

The crucial role of the IRGC and the Basij militia in controlling the June election and in putting down the postelection demonstrations has underscored the role of this behemoth in preventing democratic development in Iran. Their manipulation of the last two presidential elections reveals the generals' contempt for democratic processes.

As the IRGC's economic might grows, so does its political influence and its cultural role. When the opposition calls the current crisis in Iran a "coup," they are not far wrong. Indeed, the events of this summer should be considered the "second electoral coup" of the IRGC.

And as the veneer of theocracy vanishes, a crude and often violent military dictatorship is emerging, and a "republic" similar to the one in Pakistan is taking shape (although Pakistan is more democratic because of its relatively independent judiciary). But both countries are characterized by ideologies of religion intertwined with nationalism and relentless coups that reflect the will of the ruling generals and prevent the consolidation of democracy.

Rasool Nafisi is an academic and an expert on Iran. His latest work (coauthored) is "The Rise Of Pasdaran," a study of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Rand Corporation, 2009). The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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