The Revolutionary Guards creeping coup in Iran

Amir Taheri:

IRAN'S President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has moved to consolidate his hold on key organs of economic policymaking. He has replaced the Central Bank of Iran Gov. Ibrahim Sheibani after he criticized the president for policies that fuel inflation. Sheibani's forced resignation came only days after Ahmadinejad fired the oil minister, while the minister for industries also resigned in opposition to the projected sale of state-owned companies to members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The departing officials have all been replaced with Guard members. These moves confirm what many Iranians see as "a creeping coup d'etat" by the Guard against the ruling mullahs and their business partners. It's now safe to say that the IRGC is the dominant force in the ruling establishment.

This, perhaps, is one reason the Bush administration is mulling the possibility of declaring the Guard a "terrorist organization." America would thus be labeling as "terrorist" the principal force that ensures the Islamic Republic's survival.

But the Guard is not a monolith. To label all of it as "terrorist" may make it difficult to make deals with parts of it, should that opportunity arise.

Note, too, that the IRGC is not a revolutionary army in the sense of, say the Vietcong in Vietnam: The Guard was created after the revolution had succeeded. Those who joined up came from all sorts of backgrounds; the majority were opportunists, jumping on the bandwagon.

By joining the IRGC, one obtained not only revolutionary credentials (often on fictitious grounds - many who had cooperated with the Shah's regime secured a new "revolutionary virginity"), but also a well-paid job at a time that economic collapse made jobs rare. Membership also ensured access to rare goods and services.

Over the years, Guard membership proved a fast track to social, political and economic success. More than half Ahmadinejad's Cabinet ministers are IRCG members, as is the president himself. Members hold nearly a third of seats in parliament, and serve as governors for 20 of Iran's 30 provinces.

The IRGC also acts as a business conglomerate, with interests in many sectors of the economy. By some accounts, it's Iran's third-largest corporation after the National Iranian Oil Company and the Imam Reza Foundation. In 2004, a Tehran University study estimated the annual turnover of IRGC businesses at $12 billion.

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The Guard also controls the lucrative business of "exporting the revolution," estimated at $1.2 billion a year. It finances Hezbollah branches in at least 20 countries, and provides money, arms and training for radical groups with leftist backgrounds. It has also emerged as a major backer of Hamas' armed wing and of both Shiite and Sunni armed groups in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Islamic Republic is believed to have invested some $20 billion in Lebanon since 1983. Lebanese Hezbollah is nominally in control of these enterprises, but most of the Lebanese companies are fronts for Guard-controlled Iranian concerns. Hezbollah's business empire, the source of much of its power in Lebanon, thus could collapse with an adverse breeze from Tehran.

The crown jewel of the Guard's business empire is Iran's nuclear program, which has cost the nation over $10 billion so far. It is part of a broader scheme of arms purchases and manufacture, accounting for almost 11 percent of the national budget.

For all that, the IRGC is more of a franchise chain than a corporation controlled by a board of directors. It is divided into five commands, each with a direct line to "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei. Of the five, two could be regarded as "terrorist" according to the U.S. State Department's definition.

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In someways it sounds like the Baath party in Iraq before the war, where membership was required for certain jobs. It is clearly an instrument for projecting the power of the true believers of Iran's brand of religious bigotry. It is an organization that needs to be destroyed if there is going to be peace in the Middle East. Its growing power within Iran will make conflict more likely.

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