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Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Showing who's boss Print E-mail


Aug 27th 2009 | TEHRAN
From The Economist print edition

Iran’s hard men purge opponents and line their pockets

AFP God and mammon

On August 24th state television broadcast the fourth show trial of prominent reformists in as many weeks. Between the prosecutor’s dramatic accusations and the defendants’ clearly coerced confessions, it looked as if the point was to destroy the reformist opposition for good and to broaden the purge to include powerful centrists, too. The fulsome confessions inculpated Iran’s two main reformist parties, as well as Muhammad Khatami, a reformist who served as president from 1997 to 2005, as actors in an alleged plot to discredit the June elections. Such charges chime with a chorus of calls by Mr Ahmadinejad’s allies, including the IRGC chief, to ban the parties outright and jail their leaders.

Some testimony also implicated close relatives of Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president and a pragmatic conservative who has long straddled Iran’s complex power structure, playing off its factions to his advantage. The attack on Mr Rafsanjani’s family signalled an intention to go after one of the great remaining obstacles to Mr Ahmadinejad, whose chief supporter is none other than Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He lowered the temperature only slightly this week by declaring on television that he had seen no proof that the opposition leaders are linked to Britain and America, as the hardliners like to presume.

Meanwhile, Mr Ahmadinejad has forwarded a cabinet list for parliamentary approval that reflects the influence of his IRGC cronies. The ex-guardsmen and spooks down for ministerial posts include a petroleum minister with no experience of the oil industry (but a background in an IRGC think-tank) and an intelligence minister who used to represent the Supreme Leader inside the IRGC command. Some 20 staff have already been sacked from the intelligence ministry for being too moderate. Critics of Mr Ahmadinejad are expected to mount some parliamentary opposition to his choices. But with the chief posts pre-anointed by the Supreme Leader, the arch-conservative, militaristic tone of the next cabinet is ensured.

The IRGC leaders have united behind Mr Ahmadinejad not only to defend their shared idea of an Iran that is less of a republic but more stridently “Islamic”. They also want to protect a moneymaking machine. The IRGC controls a big chunk of the 70% or so of Iran’s economy that is state-run, with stakes in everything from dental and eye clinics to car factories and construction firms. Even “privatised” assets seem to fall into its hands or those of friends. The real private sector has grown hoarse crying foul, as recently when the state privatisation agency quietly passed ownership of Tehran’s main convention centre to an army pension fund.

Because their accounting is off-the-books and the ownership of these businesses is notoriously opaque, it is difficult to gauge their value. But in his first term Mr Ahmadinejad steered billions in uncontested oil, gas and large-scale infrastructure contracts to the IRGC. Its main construction firm, Khatam al-Anbya, could barely keep up with the workload. In 2006 alone the subsidiary received $7 billion to develop gas- and oilfields and for the refurbishment of the Tehran metro system. “It’s got much worse in the last four years,” says one local market analyst. “They’ve become a mafia. They undercut bids by abusing their access to free labour and exploiting their intelligence capabilities [to spy on competitors].”

The IRGC is also widely rumoured to control a near monopoly over the smuggling of alcohol, cigarettes and satellite dishes, among other things in great demand. One MP reckons these black-market deals net it $12 billion a year. This creates not just a drain on state coffers but an incentive to radicalise the regime; the IRGC’s commanders personally profit from Iran’s isolation, since it creates more demand for contraband. Some American congressmen have called for an embargo on petrol imports if Iran does not come to terms over its controversial nuclear programme. The IRGC might even relish that.



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