Since taking office two weeks ago, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has wasted little time in molding the Iranian government in his own extremist image, a process which started with last week’s appointment of Ali Larijani as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Larijani, a former commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and a close advisor to Ahmadinejad, possesses impeccable extremist credentials and is a favorite of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Supposedly a diplomat, Larijani is evidently not a fan of tactful parlance, recently declaring, “We have bloodthirsty foes like the United States and Israel who could attack us with all they have. So, why should we deny ourselves any category of weapons just to please the savage European powers?”
This government-wide elevation of hard-line Iranians continued on Sunday, when Ahmadinejad submitted his list of 21 proposed cabinet members to the Majlis, or national parliament, for approval. His proposed slate of advisors failed to include one woman or reformer, featuring only religious conservatives and extremists whose idea of “reform” involves women being forced to wear full head coverings and the public execution of homosexuals.
Analogous to this consolidation of ultra-conservative power inside Iran is the rise in authority of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps itself. The IRGC is considered by its commanders to be the primary guardian and servant of the Iranian revolution, both at home and abroad, a responsibility it has vigorously upheld since its formation in 1979. Now, with the election of Ahmadinejad – himself a former IRGC commander – the IRGC appears to be taking a leading role in policy formulation for the entire Iranian government. Of the twenty-one future cabinet members, eight are former IRGC members, such as nominee for Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar, a 25-year veteran of the IRCG with extensive links to international terrorism and weapons proliferation. Most of the other nominees have worked closely with the IRGC or in corps-sponsored operations throughout their careers. Such developments are only the latest indication of the IRGC’s transformation from state agency into a state unto itself, a startling revolution in Iranian affairs which should horrify anyone who values freedom and stability in the Middle East.
A Bloody History
To understand the disquieting dimensions of the IRGC’s genesis, one need only look at their organizational history, a past replete with murder, oppression, and terrorism. Beginning in 1979, the IRGC became the Khomeini regime’s chief ideological enforcer, executing dissidents and torturing opponents. Their charge as protectors of the revolution was enshrined in Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution, which gives the IRGC the responsibility of maintaining Iran’s religious nature and spirit. Officers such as a young Mahmud Ahmadinejad (who joined the IRGC in 1980) took to their guardian of the revolution role with fanatical devotion, setting up an extensive secret police force that quickly stamped out any remaining opposition to Khomeini’s totalitarian regime. Their instruments included prison facilities such as Evin prison in Tehran, where hundreds of regime opponents, real or imagined, were tortured and shot by IRGC officers.
The IRGC’s domestic security role also entails a responsibility to provide Iranian civilians with military training. This effort has led to the formation of the “Baseej,” a 4.5 million man paramilitary militia which has stood in violent opposition against reformist forces throughout the country. Baseej members – at the behest of their IRGC officers - were extremely active in combating the urban unrest that occurred under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami. The militia was often observed beating protestors with clubs, raiding college dorm buildings, and destroying opposition media outlets. The IRGC-Baseej devotion to the existing order in Iran has continued to this day, as their street muscle proved instrumental in turning out a sufficient amount of support for Ahmadinejad, while simultaneously threatening reform-minded voters.
The IRGC has never been content with simply fighting subversive forces within Iranian borders; Article 154 of the Iranian constitution charges the IRGC with aiding the “oppressed” people of the world. This innocuous assignment has served as the justification for the IRGC’s longstanding and deep ties with terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and Iraqi terrorists. Hundreds of IRGC soldiers are currently stationed in Lebanon alongside Hezbollah terrorists, where they operate massive training camps and supervise the expansion of Hezbollah’s rocket force. Through the IRGC’s “Al-Quds” unit, Iranian officers have planned and coordinated numerous international terrorist attacks, including the 1994 attack on a Jewish target in Buenos Aires which resulted in 86 deaths. When Al-Qaeda leaders such as Saif al-Adel fled Afghanistan for Iran in late 2001, they were greeted and protected by IRGC officers. In Iraq, according to the latest issue of Time Magazine, the IRGC currently controls a sophisticated terrorist network of at least 280 agents and assassins which has murdered hundreds of Iraqi civilians, as well as an increasing number of coalition troops. With such a heinous past, it is no wonder the IRGC’s increasing power inside Iran disturbs opponents of the Tehran regime.
A Growing Influence
This drift of IRGC officers into elite Iranian society has not been limited to the upper echelons of government. Lower-strata civil service jobs, such as police chiefs, economic advisors, and military officers are increasingly being filled by IRGC men. The IRGC is also heavily represented in the nation’s universities, with guards officers taking over university presidencies and professorships. At the same time, the IRGC has expanded its influence over Iran’s economy. IRGC front companies have become the largest businesses in Iran, dominating profitable sectors such as telecommunications and international trade. Additionally, most of Iran’s ports are controlled by the IRGC, allowing millions of dollars in import/export taxes to flow directly into IRGC coffers.
With their societal and economic infrastructure in place, IRGC leaders have felt increasingly comfortable in taking high-level appointments and pushing for increased powers and authority. The 290-seat Majlis includes over 70 former or active IRGC officers, even though corps officers are forbidden by clerical law to hold such political offices. Dozens of mayors, provincial governors and deputy ministers also owe their allegiance to the IRGC. Most of Iran’s critical overseas missions in cities such as Kabul and Baghdad are not run by the foreign ministry, but by the guards. With this augmented political weight, the IRGC has successfully lobbied the ruling clerics for additional powers. Just two weeks ago, Ayatollah Khamenei finally gave in to several familiar IRGC requests, granting them total control over Iran’s military infrastructure and natural resources during times of war.
Solidifying the IRGC’s influence within the Iranian power structure is its stewardship of Iran’s most valuable asset – its nuclear program. On the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei, all nuclear related activities – both covert and overt – have been placed under the command of the IRGC. The centerpiece of their efforts is the sprawling Malek Ashtar Industrial complex in Tehran, which the IRGC has operated since 1986. Recently expanded, the complex is tasked primarily with the construction of nuclear centrifuges, a mission overseen by IRGC nuclear scientists. In November 2004, sensitive nuclear technology that had been under the control of the armed forces was transferred to the IRGC and installed in the Malek complex, without explanation. IRGC General Jaafari Sahraroudi, considered to be President Ahmadinejad’s closest advisor, has been tapped to personally oversee coordination between the IRGC’s development program and other ongoing Iranian nuclear efforts.
At the heart of the IRGC’s overall mission is the protection of the nation’s clerical leadership. IRGC leaders are directly accountable to Khamenei himself, and some are known to be fanatically loyal to his personage. That said, as the organization’s power and influence grows, its abject loyalty to Khamenei and his ruling Guardian Council becomes more and more tenuous. Khamenei has repeatedly warned the IRGC against political involvement, cautioning the corps to avoid becoming an active political force within the Iranian polity. Such strictures have always been quietly ignored by the IRGC leadership, but this disobedience has increased in recent years. Turf battles between the IRGC and those close to Khamenei have already erupted over various doctrinal and economic issues.
Indicating a further strain in the relationship between the clerics and their guardians is the willingness of many in the IRGC to express their frustration with what they see as the corruption of the mullahs, a complaint popular among ordinary Iranians. They have followed up on this appealing rhetoric by setting up hundreds of community clinics and recruitment centers, actions dictated by their nationalist ideology which advocates spreading the fruits of the revolution to the masses, not just the theocratic elite. Such faux populism stands in stark opposition to the exclusive oligarchy status long coveted by the mullahs. While the IRGC should not be expected to formally take the reins of power anytime soon, their powerful role should ensure that other sectors of the Iranian leadership will consistently accede to their wishes. Khamenei, who has little public support and is increasingly an outcast among the ruling clerics, now relies heavily on his guardians in the IRGC. The man whose word was once considered holy writ in Iran now relies on his former bodyguards for legitimacy, a somewhat fragile agreement that the IRGC can be expected to take advantage of.
The repercussions of the IRGC’s ascendancy for the U.S. and its allies are troubling across the board. In Iraq, increased IRGC power means additional interference by already active Iranian agents, as the IRGC leadership specifically tasked with such operations – such as General Qassem Soleimani - is promoted to the upper-echelons of the Iranian government. With their increased authority, they will likely seek to expand "insurgent" programs, a development which promises further death and destruction for American soldiers and their Iraqi allies.
The push for better relations between the U.S. and Iran – which appeared somewhat promising in the late 1990s – is again on the back burner, as the IRGC leadership has always stated - publicly and privately – that there is no need for any diplomatic niceties with regard to “the enemy”. Indeed, candidate Ahmadinejad was the only Iranian presidential contender who failed to include improved relations with the United States in his platform. This disregard for meaningful diplomacy will no doubt extend into nuclear negotiations as well, as the IRGC will never acquiesce to Western demands that their nuclear operation be halted. Such a move would be anathema to the virulently nationalist strain inherent in IRGC dogma, and would also serve to decrease the IRGC’s power inside Iran, two developments which are fundamentally unacceptable to the IRGC.
As troubling as the IRGC’s rise to power is for the United States, it is far more disconcerting for two other groups, namely Iranian reformers and Israelis. The IRGC has aggressively hunted down dissidents and reformers throughout its history, throwing them in jail or beating them in bloody street battles. In 1999, disturbed by student unrest and the “permissive” political atmosphere promoted by President Khatami, 24 senior IRGC officers drafted a letter to the president, calling on him to take action. Otherwise, warned the signers, the IRGC would take its own violent measures to quell the disturbances, in order to fulfill their promise to guard the revolution. Khatami – wisely – gave in to the IRGC’s demands. Such a threat helps signify the corps adamant stance against any democratic reforms and the lengths they are willing to go to – including a military coup – in order to stop them.
The state of Israel in particular has much to fear from an IRGC-based government. Ahmadinejad and his IRGC allies have been some of the more vitriolic enemies of Israel among the Iranian elite, deriding the “Zionist influence” in almost every one of their public announcements. Ahmadinejad himself has pledged on numerous occasions that he would never negotiate or meet with Israeli officials. Seeking to emulate the “heroic martyrs” in Palestine, the IRGC has recently initiated a plan to recruit and train thousands of men willing to give their lives in suicide bombing operations in order to “protect Islam” from Israel. Such actions indicate the IRGC’s willingness to at least maintain, and probably intensify, Iran’s fanatically anti-Israeli stance.
With the rise of the IRGC and its militarist allies, the Iranian dynamic is altered significantly. The new IRGC leaders are considerably better educated than their clerical superiors, giving them a better grasp of the international political scene. They are firm believers in Iranian nationalism, a doctrine which requires extensive international involvement and the possession of nuclear weaponry. Critical of the corruption that has paralyzed the Iranian leadership for decades, the IRGC is capable of mobilizing a significant amount of sympathetic Iranian public opinion to their side. They are adamantly anti-Western and anti-Semitic, their ideology firmly rooted in the Khomeinist values of piety and religious extremism. Noted Iran expert Amir Taheri put it best, recently referring to Ahmadinejad and his IRGC allies as “the North Koreans of Islam.”
This new leadership generation – most of whom are in their 40s and 50s – fought and bled on the battlefields of the1979 revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and Lebanon, while their clerical masters memorized verses of the Quran in the serene seminaries of Qum. Like the Roman Praetorian Guard of ancient times, the hard-charging officers of the IRGC may soon tire of protecting their clerical overlords, and may choose to wield power themselves. Their ascendancy poses a whole new Iranian rule-set for the U.S. to grapple with, one significantly more dangerous than the one it faced in the past.