For a quarter of a century, the regime established by Khomeini has been labelled a “mullahrchy”, a theocracy dominated by the Shi’ite clergy.
Now, however, those familiar with the Iranian situation know that a majority of Shi’ite clerics never converted to Khomeinism and did not endorse the Islamic Republic. In the past few years, especially since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President in 2005, those mullahs who had converted to Khomeinism have lost some of their power privileges.
Today, it is safe to say that the dominant force within the ruling establishment in Tehran is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This is, perhaps, one reason the Bush administration in Washington is mulling the possibility of declaring the IRGC a “terrorist organisation”.
Were this to happen, the US would be labelling as “terrorist” the principal force that ensures the survival of the Islamic Republic.
The trouble, however, is that the IRGC is not a monolith, and to label all of its as “ terrorist” may make it difficult to make deals with parts of it when, and if, an opportunity arises.
Any analysis of the IRGC must take into account a number of facts.
First, the IRGC is not a revolutionary army in the sense that the ALN was in Algeria or the Vietcong in Vietnam. Those two were born during the so-called revolutionary wars in which they became key players.
The IRGC was created after the Khomeinist revolution had succeeded.
This fact is of crucial importance.
Those who joined the IRCG came from all sorts of backgrounds. The majority were opportunists who wanted to jump on the bandwagon. By joining the IRGC, an individual would not only obtain revolutionary credentials, often on fictitious grounds, but would also secure a well-paid job, at a time that economic collapse made jobs rare.
Joining the IRGC enabled many who had cooperated with the ancien regime to re-write their CVs and obtain a new “ revolutionary virginity”, so to speak.
Membership of the IRGC ensured access to rare goods and services, from colour television sets to more decent housing.
As the years went by, IRGC membership provided a fast track to social, political and economic success. Today, more than half Ahmadinejad’s Cabinet ministers are members of the IRCG, as is the president himself. IRCG members hold nearly a third of seats in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis), the ersatz parliament Khomeini created in 1979. Twenty of Iran’s 30 provinces have governors from the IRGC.
IRGC members have also started capturing key posts in the diplomatic service. Today, for the first time, the Islamic Republic’s ambassadors in such important places as the United Nations in New York and embassies in a dozen Western capitals are members of the IRGC.
More importantly, perhaps, the IRGC acts as a business conglomerate with interests in many sectors of the economy. By some accounts, the IRGC is Iran’s third corporation after the National Iranian Oil Company and the Imam Reza Foundation in Mash’had.
In 2004, a Tehran University study, estimated the annual turnover of IRGC businesses at $12 billion. The privatisation package prepared by Ahmadinejad is likely to increase the IRGC’s economic clout. Almost all of the public sector companies marked for privatisation, at a total value of $18 billion, are likely to end up in IRGC hands or its individual commanders.
The IRGC also controls the lucrative business of “exporting the revolution” estimated to be worth $1.2 billion a year. It finances branches of the Hezballah movement in at least 20 countries, including some in Europe, and provides money, arms and training for radical groups with leftist backgrounds. In recent years it has emerged as a major backer of the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas and both Shi’ite and Sunni armed groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Islamic Republic is believed to have invested some $20 billion in Lebanon since 1983. In most cases, the Lebanese branch of the Hezballah nominally in control. But a closer examination reveals that in most cases the Lebanese companies are fronts for Iranian concerns controlled by the IRGC. Hezballah’s business empire, the source of much of its power in Lebanon, is like a house of cards that could collapse with an adverse breeze from Tehran.
The crown jewel of the IRGC’s business empire is the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme that has cost the nation over $10 billion so far. This is part of a broader scheme of arms purchases and manufacture, accounting for almost 11 per cent of the annual national budget.
For all that, IRGC is more of a franchise chain than a corporation controlled by a board of directors. This is why a more sophisticated approach may be needed in dealing with it.
The IRGC is divided into five commands, each of which has a direct line to the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi, a mid-ranking mullah, himself one of the earliest members of the force in 1980.
To minimise the risk of coup d’etat, IRGC’s senior officers of are not allowed to engage in “sustained communication” with one another on “sensitive subjects.”
Of the five commands in question, two could be regarded as“terrorist” according to the US State Department’s definition that, needless to say, is rejected by the Islamic Republic.
One, which includes the so-called Jerusalem (Quds) Corps, is in charge of exporting the revolution. Apart from Hezballah and Hamas it runs a number of radical groups across the globe.
The second command that could be targeted deals with internal repression. It operates through several auxiliary forces, including the notorious Karbala brigades charged with crushing popular revolts in Tehran. Many Iranians see these as instruments of terror.
The IRGC’s officers’ corps, including those in retirement, numbers around 55,000 and is as divided on domestic and foreign policies as the rest of the society.
Some IRGC former commanders who did not share the Islamic Republic’s goals have already defected to the United States. Hundreds of others have gone into low-profile exile, mostly as businessmen in The United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Turkey. An unknown number were purged because they refused to kill anti-regime demonstrators in Iranian cities.
Many prominent IRGC commanders may be regarded as businessmen first and military leaders second. Usually, they have a brother or a cousin in Europe or Canada to look after their business interests and keep a channel open to small and big Satans in case the regime falls.
A few IRGC commanders, including some at the top, do not seek major military conflict with the United States that could wreck their business empires without offering victory on the battlefield.
There is no guarantee that, in case of a major war, all parts of the IRGC would show the same degree of commitment to the Islamic Republic. IRGC commanders may be prepared to kill unarmed Iranians or hire Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi radicals to kill others. But it is not certain they would be prepared to die for Ahmadinejad’s glory.
These concerns persuaded Khamenehi to announce a Defence Planning Commission last year, controlled by his office.
A blanket labelling of the IRGC, as opposed to targeting elements of it that do mischief against the Iranian people and others in the region and beyond, could prove counterproductive.
It could unite a deeply fractious force by leaving it no door through which some of its members could walk out of the dangerous situation they have helped create.