BEIRUT // The increasing power of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has come under renewed attention, with some analysts warning that the organisation could be headed the way of Pakistan's all-powerful intelligence agency; an unaccountable military-industrial conglomerate, with tentacles reaching in to every aspect of the state. Most recently, Iran's parliament announced that it would be investigating the reported US$8 billion (Dh29.36bn) acquisition of a controlling stake in Iran's telecommunications company by a subsidiary of the IRGC, the latest example of expansion of the security force, set up in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini for the purpose of "guarding the revolution", in to the economy.
The commercial interests of the organisation, known in Farsi as the Pasdaran, are now believed to total billions of dollars, with their interests ranging from oil fields to car manufacturing to black market smuggling. In addition, the appointment of ultraconservatives close to the supreme leader to key positions in the Guards this week has heightened fears that the supposedly neutral organisation is becoming a tool for the suppression of political opposition.
"They are the strongest force in the country now," said Baqer Moin, a former head of the BBC Persian service. The Guards' agenda will be a key factor in the outcome of both Iran's nuclear negotiations with the West and the current domestic political turmoil sparked by the June 12 elections, analysts say. The organisation, made up of approximately 120,000 employees, was set up by the Ayatollah primarily to defend the country against external threats after the revolution. During the Iran-Iraq war, they became known for their determination and bravery against Saddam Hussein's armies. The IRGC is often characterised in the West as fanatical, partly because of the activities of its Al Quds (Jerusalem) unit, responsible for overseas intelligence activities in Lebanon and elsewhere, and accused by the US, among others, of terrorist activities.
But many who joined the Guards during the Iran-Iraq war saw it as a patriotic duty. "Imagine what it is like if a big power attacks your country," said one former officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "You felt as though it was the Guards that were holding the country together. It was a very intense feeling." The officer eventually left when the war finished, partly because he found the ideological atmosphere oppressive. "They were so patriotic they couldn't stand other ideas."
When the Iran-Iraq war ended, the Guards were deprived of a key role. They were integrated into the conventional army command structure, and became one security organisation among many jostling for influence in Iran's multipolar political landscape, albeit one with a strong link to the supreme leader. They did, however, expand the engineering and construction skills they had developed during the war into peacetime activities, and their subsidiary, Khatam al Anbia, eventually became one of the country's largest industrial and engineering contractors.
The president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was himself a veteran of the Basij, a volunteer unit affiliated with the Guards, and his ascendancy marked the political coming of age of a generation that had fought together in the Iran-Iraq war. In the 2004 parliamentary elections, 91 of the 152 newly elected members had IRGC backgrounds. Although former members took on new interests and agendas after leaving the Guards, and indeed some of them, such as the Tehran Mayor Mohammed-Baqer Qalibaf, have been openly critical of the conservative establishment, there is no doubt that social bonds, informal networks and a degree of shared perspective helped create a political climate that was favourable to the Guards' interests.
Under Mr Ahmadinejad, Khatam al Anbia received billions of dollars worth of government contracts for pipeline construction and oil extraction on a no-bid basis. According to a report released earlier this year by the Rand Institute, a US non-profit think tank, the IRGC's business interests now include laser eye surgery and the operation of Tehran's Imam Khomeini international airport. The Guards are also said to own or control several university laboratories and arms companies.
The Financial Times has estimated that about 30 per cent of their operations are business-related, generating an estimated $2bn in annual revenues. The Pasdaran are also believed to control most of the black market in Iran due to a network of jetties on the country's coastline they are accused of running. Several analysts have pointed out that this gives them an interest in the trade restrictions currently imposed on Iran. "They are benefiting from the current situation," said Mr Moin, the former head of BBC Persian service. "When there is tension their role is enhanced. While there is an embargo, they have the means and the facilities to import."
The Guards are also believed to have oversight of the nuclear issue. "You could argue that the Guards are using the nuclear programme as a means of leveraging their power vis a vis other actors in Iran," said Frederic Wehrey, the lead author of the Rand report. "The ministry of foreign affairs answers to the Guards and the supreme leader on the nuclear issue." The IRGC's transition from irregular army to dominant internal security force was confirmed in the post-election unrest this June, to which the Guards directed the response, with the interior ministry and the ministry of intelligence and security seemingly sidelined.
It is not clear, however, what ideological agenda the Guards stand for. They are constitutionally mandated to protect the Islamic revolution, but there is potential for different interpretations of what this entails. While the leadership have increasingly committed themselves to the supreme leader and Mr Ahmadinejad's definition of the revolution, the rank and file have their own views. To some extent, the rank and file of the Guards mirror wider trends within the Iranian population as a whole - three quarters of them are said to have voted for the reformist Mohammed Khatami in 1997 presidential elections, and there are reports of Guard members voting for the Mir Hussein Moussavi in June. Some Guard commanders are even rumoured to have been arrested in the post-election clampdown, though there is no evidence for this.
The structure of the Guards is believed to be decentralised, with different units operating with different degrees of autonomy, and a network of wealthy bonyads (religious foundations) under their influence, making internal factionalism a possibility as it expands its scope, according to the Rand report. Furthermore, the Rand report assesses that its increasing vested economic interests are changing the Guards outlook from a revolutionary organisation to that of an economic oligarchy. "Whenever a military delves into profit-making enterprises, it has consequences for its competence and ideology," said Mr Wehrey.
For the moment, the Guards undoubtedly represent the most powerful enforcers and guarantors of Ayatollah Khamenei's conservative agenda, and a formidable force for both opposition activists and western nuclear negotiators to contend with. But as their power accrues, their own agenda will become an increasingly important issue. Former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai once related a story about the Ayatollah being asked if he was concerned about the Guards mounting a coup. "It doesn't matter," the supreme leader is said to have responded. "It stays in the family; as they are our guys." With each new incursion of the security force in to the economy or the political sphere, the Ayatollah's theory looks increasingly likely be put to the test.
* The National