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Iran: Defending The Islamic Revolution -- The Corps Of The Matter

By Houchang Hassan-Yari

The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), created in May 1979 as an ideological force to defend Iran's fledgling Islamic regime, now stands poised to strengthen its political and military clout. In a recent meeting with IRGC high commanders, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei discussed important changes in the IRGC's role, the most significant being the creation of a center tasked with formulating the corps' strategic policies. The center will also prepare a long-term program for increasing the IRGC's autonomy vis-a-vis the traditional military establishment. The IRGC is thus on the verge of being transformed from a junior player in the country's military defense, to a key factor in the country's military and security doctrine -- a rise that could come at the army's expense. The Birth Of The Corps Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution defines the primary role of the IRGC as protector of the revolution and its achievements. Among the tasks carried out by the corps were the monitoring of citizens' activities, enforcement of the dress code, and the seizure of material not favored by the regime. However, President Mohammad Khatami provided insight into the corps' actual functions during a meeting with IRGC commanders in March 2000 in which he praised the IRGC's defense of Iran during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, its protection of Iran's reconstruction plan, and efforts to ensure the country's security. The IRGC's core domestic mission, in practice, can thus be described as being ideological, political, and partly economic in nature, while carrying out both military and security duties. Article 154 indirectly expands the IRGC's political and military relevance beyond Iran's borders, wherein it defines the Islamic Republic's mission as one that seeks the happiness of mankind in human society and recognizes independence, freedom, and justice as universal human rights. While eschewing interference in other countries' internal affairs, furthermore, the article stipulates Iran's support for the rightful struggles of oppressed peoples against their oppressors anywhere in the world. Thus, the IRGC's interest in aiding the Lebanese, Bosnians, Palestinians, and others against their "oppressors" is effectively prescribed in the constitution. Expanding Horizons Another constitutional article affords the IRGC a great opportunity to strengthen its political and military presence. Article 151 says the government is obligated to provide military-training facilities for everyone in the country, in accordance with the precepts of Islam under which all individuals should have the ability to take up arms in defense of their country, and thus the system of the Islamic Republic. This constitutional green light resulted in the creation in 1979-80 of the Basij Resistance Force, a volunteer paramilitary force that is subject to the IRGC. General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the commander of the IRGC, predicted that in the Third Five-Year Development Plan (2000-04) the number of Basijis will expand to 15 million (9 million men, 6 million women) to better counter potential domestic and foreign threats. While apparently falling short of the goal outlined in the plan, Basij commander Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi estimated the number of Basij personnel at 10.3 million in March 2004 and 11 million in March 2005. Rahim-Safavi described the Basijis as a means to protect internal security and to serve as a powerful deterrent force against foreign incursion. To facilitate these efforts, members of the Basij have received standard military training and have also been taught asymmetrical warfare techniques by the IRGC. There are Basij units in all government agencies, universities, factories, and municipal localities. The "Velayat Project," under which thousands of pupils are exposed to Islamic principles and studies, is part of the effort to create a 20-million-strong army in Iran and constitutes another opportunity for the IRGC to expand its role. The IRGC-governed Basij Resistance Force took responsibility for the military training of the project forces. Of the 10,000 volunteers who enrolled in the project, only 3,200 were accepted to participate in this summer's training. The Palestinian issue is also a source of attraction for Iranian youth to enroll in paramilitary organizations. Believers in a "clash of civilizations" who prepare for total war with the enemies of Islam and Iran can fill out recruitment applications published in the weekly "Parto Sokhan." The headquarters of the Tribute to the Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, which is affiliated with the IRGC, is behind the recruitment drive. The effort has reportedly culled 40,000 volunteers to undergo special training to become suicide bombers for serving the Palestinian cause against the Israeli occupation. The Reformation Of The IRGC The IRGC's active involvement in domestic politics began following Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989. In the 1990s some IRGC commanders denounced then-President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's political, social, and economic reforms as damaging to the values of the revolution. Under Khatami's presidency (1997-2005) the reform movement accelerated -- a development that had the additional effect of helping the IRGC gain prominence. Following the 1999 student riots, some hard-line elements of the IRGC warned Khatami that his reforms were endangering the revolutionary order and that the IRGC could not stand by and watch as the fruits of the revolution were destroyed. As a result, these IRGC officers said, they essentially had no alternative than to intervene to uphold the interests of the Islamic regime. In a letter to Khatami, 24 IRGC commander stated that they would take the law into their own hands unless the president cracked down on demonstrators. It became clearly evident that the IRGC's opposition to the reform movement was such that it would take action to counter it when deemed necessary. In 2003, Rahim-Safavi wrote in a letter to the Majlis speaker: "The IRGC considers itself responsible for the defense of the Islamic Revolution, its achievements, and the ideology and values of Imam Khomeini. We insist upon avoiding political games and infighting among different parties and groups. [Parliamentarians] should also refrain from extremist actions and respect the dignity of the Majlis. Our main mission is to stop those who wish to destroy and overthrow the Islamic Revolution." The Future It is clear that the IRGC stands on solid ground at the onset of the new political era in Iran. Using the experience it gained in carrying out large projects during the war with Iraq, the corps has become a force in Iran's economy by launching numerous companies. Many of these enterprises receive lucrative government contracts and are active in the agriculture and oil sectors, on road and dam construction, and in automobile manufacturing. In addition, former IRGC commanders run the Oppressed and Disabled Foundation, an extremely powerful and wealthy organization that takes care of underprivileged Iranians. The IRGC's long reach into political affairs is also increasingly apparent. Iran's parliament contains about 80 former IRGC members, while other former members command the regular army and the national police. Still more occupy important civilian and government positions, such as municipal councilors, mayors, provincial governors, university professors, and businessmen. And possibly most significant, none other than the country's new president -- Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- served with the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War. However, Ahmadinejad's 3 August inauguration leaves the IRGC's future far from clear, and begs a number of questions. Are the new president's ties to the IRGC strong enough to lead to a significant increase in its involvement in foreign affairs, domestic politics, and the economy? Will the IRGC, which already receives the lion's share of the defense budget, play an even more dominant role in military affairs and security decision making? As always, Iranian affairs are very dynamic and unpredictable, but history teaches us that for every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction. And there is little doubt that attempts to establish the militarization of power will be met with resistance from within. (Dr. Houchang Hassan-Yari is the head of the Political Science and Economics Department at the Royal Military College of Canada) See also: Observers Fear Militarization Of PoliticsFor weekly news and analysis on Iran, subscribe to "RFE/RL Iran Report."