Guardians of the revolution – and business

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard emerged as the most powerful actor in economy and polity.

Iran's IRGC is not afraid to flex its political and economic muscle [Reuters]

A recent statement by Iranian MP and economist Ahmad Tavakkoli that the Sepah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC], has been involved in slightly less than 10 percent of the nation’s development projects, raises questions about the real powers this military institution weilds over the country’s economy.

Founded shortly after the February 1979 revolution, the IRGC’s initial mission was to protect the revolution against “counter-revolutionaries”. Today it is considered the most powerful economic actor in the republic. A few months after its foundation, Article 150 of the then newly drafted constitution specifically authorised the formation of the IRGC with the goal of “protecting the Revolution and its achievements”. This only increased the power and authority of the IRGC. In addition, before the ministry of intelligence was established in 1984, the IRGC did a considerable amount of intelligence gathering.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was strongly opposed to the armed forces being involved in politics. But, it will only be a little exaggeration to claim that the eight-year-war with Iraq, and the armed struggle waged by internal groups against the government, transformed the IRGC into an armed political party. 

Expanding sphere of operation

Following the war with Iraq, which ended in 1988, the government began the reconstruction of the country, it was then that the IRGC began its first steps into the economic arena with the blessing of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and then President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Of course, in any country that is rich in natural resources, mainly oil, political power brings economic power and wealth.

Its [IRGC] officers are in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the state, as well as city councils, provincial governments, etc. Khamenei himself once said, ‘Over the past 27-28 years, the Sepah [IRGC] has provided experts to every corner of the country.’

Today, it wields  a powerful presence in the national economy. In the past year (March 2012 to March 2013) alone, the IRGC carried out at least 8 percent [Pr] of the national development projects. It has also penetrated other government organs. Its officers are in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the state, as well as city councils, provincial governments, etc. Khamenei himself once said, “Over the past 27-28 years, the Sepaah [IRGC] has provided experts to every corner of the country.”

Despite this, Major General Mohammad Ali Sepah, the IRGC chief, said last September [Pr], “So long as all the key positions of the nations are not taken over by revolutionary forces, we will still be in the third stage of the Islamic Revolution [Islamisation of the country].”

Political Activism 

The IRGC’s involvement in politics is due to two factors. First, Iran is situated in a dangerous region and faces significant threats. The nearly 35 years of military threats, by Iraq, the US, Israel, and others, has completely securitised the nation and its political process and, hence, increased the IRGC’s power, especially in foreign policy. Second, politics is the ability to organise one’s forces, and the IRGC excels at that. No other group in Iran even comes close to its level of organisation.

In September,Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said that the IRGC’s main mission was to protect the revolution and confront the internal threats against it, both armed – in the provinces of Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchestan, and unarmed – in the massive demonstrations in 1999 after an uprising by the university students, and protests in the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential elections of June 2009.

He said that the 2009 protests “were far more damaging and serious than the war with Iraq”, because – in his opinion – the United States was behind them, adding, “When perverted political views are determined to illegally penetrate the state and exert influence, such as the sedition of 2009 [the word for the Green Movement coined by Khamenei] which was a political problem that became a security one, the Sepaah will intervene; it must be able to predict the political problems and issue the necessary warnings.”

In reality, the crackdown on the Green Movement and the arrest and imprisonment of its leaders and supporters had nothing to do with the US. It was a reformist movement led by high officials of the regime over the past three decades.

Khamenei has allowed the IRGC to intervene in the economy, and the political process, in order to use it for his own ends and for the survival of his regime, as was evidenced by the last few years of Ahmadinejad’s administration. Going beyond his constitutional authority, he appointed not only the IRGC chief, but also its commanders, as well as the commander of the Basij. Although he appointed them to 3-5 year terms, he often removed them before their full terms, so that none could develop a power base and think about a coup.

The IRGC’s intervention in the presidential elections that led to the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005 has been highly controversial and debated. Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, then deputy IRGC chief, said, “The Principlist forces [the conservative and hardline factions] succeeded, through a multi-pronged plan and in a tight competition, in attracting the support of the great majority of the people for an effective servant of the nation [Ahmadinejad]. Ahmadinejad is a symbol of a pious revolutionary who believes in justice and religion.” The presidential election of June 2009 turned out to be even more controversial.

The problem with the IRGC’s economic involvement is that, they do not operate transparently and are not monitored and audited by the Majles or any other part of the government.

Elimination of subsidies

One example of the IRGC intervention in the economy and politics and its support for Ahmadinejad, was the issue of eliminating the subsidies that for decades the government provided to people for their basic food and energy needs. Ahmadinejad asked the Majles to grant him complete authority for eliminating the subsidies, but the parliament resisted. Then, the chief of staff of the armed forces, Major General Hassan Firoozabadi, intervened and asked the Majles in December 2012, to submit to Ahmadinejad’s demand. The next day the Majles granted Ahmadinejad the authority.

Firoozabadi said [Pr], “Today, the result of the courage and sacrifice of Dr Ahmadinejad is that the Majles, with a view to help the government to carry out this great step [elimination of the subsidies] that is known as the great surgery on Iran’s economy, has granted the government the authority… We ask the Majles to help the government as much as possible.”

But, Ahmadinejad’s destructive policies and the society-wide protests against the IRGC’s intervention in the political process prompted Khamenei to order the IRGC not to intervene in the presidential election of last June. This combined with people’s fear of another Ahmadinejad-type hardliner being elected, caused the conservatives’ candidates to lose to Hassan Rouhani, who was considered a moderate and was endorsed by reformists and Rafsanjani. 

Possible exits

The problem with the IRGC’s involvement in economic activities is that, they do not operate transparently and are not monitored and audited by the Majles or any other part of the government. IRGC’s political and economic might has made so powerful that no one can compete with it; and being simultaneously involved in military, political, and economic affairs can only lead to corruption.

The IRGC cannot continue to play an active role in all three. It will leave politics and economic activities when either its commanders recognise that their foremost duty is to protect Iran’s national security and territorial integrity, not be involved in the national economy and political process, or if Khamenei’s political determination for pushing the IRGC out of the economy and politics is materialised.

A third way may be if Iranians can unify themselves in political and civic organisations in order to create a balance between the government and society, without which there will be no democracy. The IRGC’s exit from the political process and the economy depends to a large extent on the existence of such a balance.

Akbar Ganji is one of Iran’s leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is the author of The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a non-violent transition to democracy in Iran.