All the Guard's Men: Iran's Silent Revolution

T he failure of pro-democracy forces to mount an effective show of force on the June 12 anniversary of the bloody repression of protests against last year’s stolen election shows how well Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has consolidated its creeping coup d’etat and augmented its power throughout the last year.

In his Friday prayer sermon on June 18, after the anticipated anniversary demonstrations failed to materialize, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed, “Iran is not Georgia,” and therefore Western powers cannot “unleash a velvet revolution” there. To make sure this does not happen, Khamenei has mobilized the IRGC officer corps to crush the Green Movement. For now, Khamenei’s reliance on the IRGC seems to have paid off; the Green Movement, despite twelve months of brave civil disobedience and peaceful campaigns, has been reduced to limited outbursts of anti-regime protest. But increasing IRGC intervention in politics has also weakened Khamenei and his clerical regime and paved the way for the rise of the officer class of the IRGC as the new masters of the Islamic Republic.

Authority in the Islamic Republic has traditionally rested upon a fundamental alliance between the revolutionary Shiite clergy and the IRGC. Within the alliance there has always been a clear division of labor between the clerics and the IRGC officer corps, which is constitutionally mandated to “safeguard the revolution and its achievements” against internal and external enemies. But IRGC support of Khamenei has not come cheap, and in return for its assistance against reformist groups such as the Green Movement, Khamenei has had to bribe the IRGC with political, economic, and even ideological influence. The ultimate price of Khamenei’s victories over successive reformist efforts, with the Green Movement as only the latest example, may be the transformation of the Islamic Republic into a military dictatorship led by the Revolutionary Guard, a development that would leave Khamenei a hostage in the hands of his own praetorians.


E xamples of growing IRGC domination in Iran abound: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a former officer of the IRGC-controlled Basij militia, presides over a cabinet wherein twelve out of twenty-one ministers are former Revolutionary Guard officers, the most ever in the history of the Islamic Republic. (Ahmadinejad’s government also boasts a record low number of clerics; Intelligence Minister Hoj jat al-Eslam Heydar Moslehi, a Shiite mullah, serves as the lone representative of the clerical class, presiding over a ministry wherein intelligence analysts who denied the existence of a “velvet revolution” after the June 12, 2009, election have been systematically purged and replaced by IRGC officers.) Civilian members of the cabinet rise from among Ahmadinejad’s small circle of trusted friends: his fellow Iran University of Science and Technology alumni, local government and security executives who served in northwestern Iran in the 1980s, individuals who worked for Ahmadinejad during his brief tenure as Tehran’s mayor (2003–05), and several members of his family.

This is a clear break from the past. All cabinets in the history of the Islamic Republic—with the noticeable exception of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan’s transitional government in 1979—were broad coalition governments representing several powerful elite groups such as various factions among revolutionary Shiite clergy, the traditional bazaar class, the technocratic elites recruited from the now defunct Islamic Republican Party, the modern business elites of the 1990s, and former IRGC officers. These coalition governments secured the highest degree of consensus in political decisionmaking among elites of the country.

Former Revolutionary Guard officers also hold a majority in the Iranian parliament. These politicians have helped the IRGC infiltrate various sectors of the Iranian economy, including imports and smuggling, conversion of military industries to production of consumer goods, credit and banking, oil and gas sectors, and, more recently, the seizure of hitherto publicly owned companies as part of the Ahmadinejad government’s “privatization scheme.”

Just as elections in Iran are caricatures of those in true democracies, privatization is a parody of what is meant by the concept everywhere else. According to Article 44 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution, Iran should have a planned economy in which “the state sector is to include all large-scale and mother industries, foreign trade, major minerals, banking, insurance, power generation, dams and large-scale irrigation networks, radio and television, post, telegraph and telephone services, aviation, shipping, roads, railroads and the like; all these will be publicly owned and administered by the state.” Beyond the state sector, Article 44 also defines a so-called cooperative sector, which includes “cooperative companies and enterprises concerned with production and distribution, in urban and rural areas,” as well as a private sector, which consists of “those activities concerned with agriculture, animal husbandry, industry, trade, and services that supplement the economic activities of the state and cooperative sectors.”

A little more than a month before Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election victory, Khamenei issued a decree reinterpreting Article 44 to abrogate the constitution by calling for a smaller government and a twenty percent annual reduction in public-sector economic intervention over five years. Khamenei’s directive called for the privatization of large-scale industries to include major oil and low-end gas industries, mines, foreign trade, many banks, shareholder-owned cooperatives, power generation, many postal services, roads, railroads, aviation, and shipping. Khamenei’s directive obliged the government to transfer ownership of twenty-five percent of Iran’s economy to the cooperative sector by the end of the five-year plan and to support expansion of cooperatives with tax rebates and loan guarantees with the aim of encouraging cooperatives to participate in all spheres of the economy, including banking and insurance.

Khamenei’s move effectively launched the privatization of as much as $120 billion worth of public assets. In practice, privatization of these assets has meant the Iranian leadership’s expansion from relatively transparent parts of the public sector to parts of the public sector shielded from public scrutiny, especially the IRGC and its subordinate volunteer militia, the Basij. The transfers are conducted by their credit and finance institutions, such as the IRGC and Basij Cooperative Foundations and their subsidiaries. The latter has its own subsidiaries, including the IRGC Cooperative Foundation (Bonyad-e Ta’avon-e Sepah) and the Ansar Financial and Credit Institute (Moassesseh-ye Mali/Eghtesadi-ye Ansar). These institutions describe themselves as non-interest or Islamic banking institutes, but they engage in everything but giving interest-free loans. They function as financial arms of the IRGC and the Basij on the Tehran Stock Exchange (TSE) and elsewhere, using their leverage to purchase shares of Iranian companies.

In its latest assault against Iran’s economy, the IRGC purchased fifty percent plus one of the shares of the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) from the government for roughly $8 billion—the largest trade in the history of the TSE. Postponed on several occasions, the deal finally went through after the private sector representative, Pishgaman-e Kavir-e Yazd Cooperative, was eliminated from the bidding for “security reasons” only a few hours before the trade, leaving two IRGC-controlled companies, Toseeh-ye Etemad-e Mobin Consortium and Mehr Eghtesad-e Iranian, to compete for seizure of the company. Following the trade, the IRGC was obliged to transfer $1.5 billion in cash to government accounts within thirty days. Additionally, the IRGC must transfer $484 million every six months in sixteen consecutive payments. There is no guarantee, however, that the IRGC will, in practice, make these transfers to the government, and the new political class of the Islamic Republic, composed of former Revolutionary Guard officers, can hardly be expected to demand payments from their old associates. For all intents and purposes, this makes the privatization of TCI a handover of publicly owned enterprise to the IRGC—yet another calculated step in the organization’s campaign to dominate Iran’s economy.

The IRGC has also infiltrated the realm of spiritual life in Iran through its support for the radical Ayatollah Muhammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi. Yazdi’s career is an interesting case study in political opportunism. According to some sources, Yazdi was a member of the Hojjatieh secret society, which actively opposed the 1979 revolution and the establishment of an Islamic government prior to emergence of the Mahdi (the Imam of the Era and the Shiite equivalent of the Jewish or Christian Messiah). To this end, Hojjatieh even cooperated with SAVAK, the Shah-era intelligence organization. After the revolution, and especially since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Yazdi has emerged as one of the most radical proponents of Khomeini’s ideology and tries to mobilize support within the ranks of the IRGC for his bid to succeed Khamenei. Thus, Yazdi not only accepts but even encourages the IRGC’s interference in the political process, bringing in spiritual ties by describing the infiltration as “paving the way for hasty emergence of the Imam of the Era.” The IRGC commanders may have little faith in Yazdi’s theology or personal authority, but they are quite willing to use him instrumentally to advance their long-range goal: the takeover of power in all social, political, and economic realms of the Islamic Republic.


T he IRGC’s gradual seizure of power and transformation of Iran into a military dictatorship has consequences beyond the frontiers of the Islamic Republic and has already changed the country’s foreign and defense policy. In an echo of the backstabbing myth prevalent in Germany after 1918, for instance, officers of the Revolutionary Guard often accuse the clerical civilian leadership in Tehran, especially former President Rafsanjani, of having “betrayed” the revolution’s cause when it persuaded Khomeini to accept a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. This generation of IRGC officers has made it clear that it is ready to pay a higher price in order to achieve national goals—such as Iranian nuclear capability—and will be less concerned with the suffering of the civilian population under international sanctions. The IRGC’s opposition to Ahmadinejad’s attempt to reach an understanding with the P5+1 group in Geneva is an indication of this tendency.

The IRGC also has a clear economic interest in a general sanctions regime, which has removed foreign direct investments in Iranian businesses and removed foreign competitors from the Iranian oil and natural gas market, thereby helping the IRGC expand its economic clout through the seizure of major projects, like various development phases of the South Pars oil and gas field. The Revolutionary Guard’s hard-line stance on the nuclear issue and the current sanctions regime has also significantly weakened traditional players in the country’s politics, such as the bazaar contingent, the economic elites close to former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami whose businesses suffer, and will continue to suffer, under present and future sanctions regimes. As these players retreat from the Iranian market, the IRGC not only fills the economic vacuum they leave behind, but also gains their political influence.

The new generation of officers, too young to have experienced the Iran-Iraq War, also hungers for opportunities to win glory and recognition, but so far has had to satisfy itself with symbolic victories, such as hostage taking. The public humiliation of British sailors in March 2007 and IRGC Quds Brigade activities against the United States and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan provide further indications of what can be expected from a military-dominated Iran.

But the most dangerous time in the Revolutionary Guards’ creeping coup is yet to come. It is the moment of transition when the IRGC officers, on the verge of consolidating total control of the Islamic Republic, will need finally to eliminate domestic competitors by creating some state of emergency to legitimize their seizure of power from the clerics.

For the time being, however, the IRGC appears to have achieved its goals and is on track to take over the Iranian power structure. It has purged the regime of its countervailing center of power in the clergy; it has badly weakened the Green Movement; it has engaged civilian supporters of Khamenei in a battle for influence; and it is quickly transforming the Islamic Republic into a military dictatorship as Khamenei has nowhere else to look for support.

Still there is one ray of light in this dismal political cloud cover. Should the Revolutionary Guard fail to provide even the illusion of a competitive multi-party system in which the well-educated urban middle class can exercise political influence, another “Green Movement” may resurface to challenge it. Should IRGC repression of the peaceful opposition prove too extreme, radicalized members of the opposition may even employ such violent methods as were used before the 1979 revolution. Such a tragedy in the making shows how little the leaders of the Islamic Republic have learned from their own history.

Ali Alfoneh is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

OG Image: