March 07, 2008
They were once the storm troops of the Iranian revolution, the fanatical young men who spearheaded Ayatollah Khomeini's campaign to overthrow the Shah and establish an Islamic Republic where the rule of law was based on a strict interpretation of the Koran.
Nearly three decades have passed since the ayatollah returned in triumph to Tehran from exile in Paris, but many of those who were the original founders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards today hold positions of great power and influence, to the extent that many Iranians are now openly questioning whether there is any point in voting in next week's parliamentary elections.
By far the most famous graduate of the Revolutionary Guards' corps is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who served as a senior officer in the Guards' Special Brigade during the Iran-Iraq war, although his contemporaries believe he is more suited to politics than military affairs. One of his former commanders from the 1980s recently lamented that Mr Ahmadinejad was not much use as a commander because he was too frightened to be sent to the front line.
This has not prevented Mr Ahmadinejad from using his power base in the Revolutionary Guards to support his rise to the top of Iranian politics, and he is now relying on them to ensure that the elections produce a new parliament that will be subservient to the wishes of the presidential office.
Nearly all of the estimated 2,000 candidates contesting the 290 seats in the new parliament must first be vetted by senior members of the Revolutionary Guards, who take great care that anyone with any history of supporting the reformist instincts of former president Mohammad Khatami, or showing any sympathy with Iran's strong-willed student bodies, has their name quietly removed from the candidates' list.
Nor is Mr Ahmadinejad's reliance on the Revolutionary Guards confined to fixing the results of next week's elections. A body that was once regarded as a rag-tag collection of Islamic die-hards has developed into an organisation that rivals the official organs of government in terms of the day-to-day power and influence it exerts throughout the country
The Revolutionary Guards' primary responsibility for many years has been to take care of the regime's main defence, security and intelligence operations. The 125,000 men who form the main body of the Guards have their own army, navy and air force, and also have control over significant areas of weapons development, including Iran's nuclear, unconventional and missile programmes.
Their pre-eminent role in defending the principles of the Iranian revolution, as enshrined in the constitution drawn up by Khomeini, means they get the pick of the latest military equipment available.
The Guards, though, are not just an over-indulged paramilitary organisation. For years, they have had their own university to develop their skills on a wide range of subjects, from engineering to economic development and, as the young firebrands of the 1979 revolution have moved into middle age, so they have radically diversified their range of interests and activities.
In particular, Guards' commanders have a voracious appetite for taking on ambitious - and potentially lucrative - economic projects. In the past year, for example, the Guards have won a $2.09 billion contract to develop one of the country's largest gas fields, a $1.3 billion gas pipeline construction contract and another deal worth $2 billion to renovate and extend the Tehran metro. In all, the Guards are estimated to be running nearly 250 economic development projects worth billions of dollars.
Part of the explanation for the Guards' interest in taking on these projects is the vast fortunes that can be made from Iran's under-developed energy resources. Corruption in Iran is as rife as in any other Third World country, but the protection afforded by the Guards' security apparatus means that the culprits are rarely prosecuted.
But the other reason the Guards are so keen to expand their business portfolio is that it provides them with the resources to fund their ambitious weapons programme, especially the development of long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, which do not come cheap.
For this reason, Mr Ahmadinejad is now preparing to give the Guards overall responsibility for running the country's banking sector, which had serious difficulties under the UN's economic sanctions. Some big Iranian banks have had to close branches in Europe because many companies there are under pressure not to do business with them, and Washington has accused some of the banks of financing terrorist activities and Iran's nuclear programme.
Mr Ahmadinejad has set up a "privatisation committee" to examine the implications of handing control of the country's banks to the Guards, which will only confirm the fears of ordinary Iranians that the Guards are fast developing the attributes of a state within a state, with the ability to run the country irrespective of the policies adopted by the new crop of Iranian parliamentarians elected next week.
But radical changes in the way the country is run are necessary if Mr Ahmadinejad is to persevere with the uranium enrichment programme, which the International Atomic Energy Agency last month reported had made significant progress in developing the technology to enrich uranium to weapons grade.
In addition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) - which first revealed the existence of the underground enrichment plant at Natanz - has uncovered fresh evidence that Tehran is working on plans to develop missiles that can be armed with nuclear warheads. The NCRI says the Iranians are using a missile research site on the outskirts of Tehran to develop a nuclear warhead that can be fitted to medium-range missiles.
Which means that the international pressure on Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment is likely to increase in the months ahead, even if the UN remains divided over whether the Iranian programme constitutes a threat to world peace.
There are many Iranians who would prefer to suspend the nuclear programme and restore relations with the outside world to something approaching normality. But their voices are unlikely be heard in next week's elections, which will only serve to confirm the stranglehold Mr Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard cohorts now have over the country's political, economic and military infrastructure.
Friday, March 07, 2008
March 07, 2008