Home Revolutionary Gaurds The Revolution Will Be Mercantilized by Ali Ansari
The Revolution Will Be Mercantilized by Ali Ansari Print E-mail


SOME YEARS back on a research trip to Iran, I met a young man who had been conscripted into the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Commenting on his obviously secular upbringing, I was both intrigued and sympathetic. Yet contrary to all expectations, I found him not only sanguine but also somewhat relieved. He explained that the Guards were not what he had expected. For all their very public piety, they were by far the most relaxed and laid back of the military organizations in the Islamic Republic. The Guards had even implemented a form of flexible work hours. God forbid, had he gone into the regular military he might have been expected to adhere to a strict work regimen. It was all highly unorthodox and reassuringly Iranian. The IRGC wasn’t a disciplined military organization in the Western sense of the term; it was a network, a brotherhood, in which personalities and connections mattered far more than structures. This did not make it necessarily less effective or indeed less dangerous as an instrument of coercion—the lack of transparent rules might, in fact, make it more so—but it was certainly a different type of beast.

Though the IRGC started its life as a defender of the revolution, over time the organization has become increasingly involved in commercial interests. Divisions within the Revolutionary Guard, particularly between its veterans and their heirs, have deepened. Now in bed with an increasingly radicalized elite in Iran, the IRGC seems to be less about protecting the people of the country and more about protecting its own material interests. Iran is rapidly becoming a security state.


THE IRGC was formed in the heat of the Islamic Revolution; a voluntary paramilitary force of revolutionary devotees dedicated to the defense of the ideals of this uprising against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was to be dethroned in favor of an Islamic republic. The Guards were intended to provide a popular counterweight to the regular armed forces, which were widely seen as a creation of the shah’s government and loyal to his cause. Ironically, Mohammad Reza Shah never fully trusted the senior officers within his armed forces and took measures to ensure they could not launch a coup—with the consequence that when he failed to provide leadership, the ranks of the military found themselves adrift in the turmoil of the revolution. Though they were never quite the threat that either the shah or the revolutionaries perceived them to be, for the Guard Corps, the armed forces were an alien being, organized as it was with all the accoutrements of a tightly run military structure.

The new “military” organization of the IRGC was to be something quite different: a brotherhood of the Iranian sansculottes, an organic military force that shunned all the normal paraphernalia of the regular armed forces. It was a haphazard entity, making up for its lack of organization with revolutionary zeal. And indeed, when the Iran-Iraq war started, the IRGC was largely responsible for blunting Baghdad’s attack and providing bitter resistance in the early months of the conflict. It was this image of resistance that soon translated into the mythology of the Revolutionary Guard both among the guardsmen and the public alike: defenders of a country at war, the only barrier between victory and defeat. Like their French revolutionary predecessors, this people’s army became intimately identified with battle. It is a mythology the Guards have enthusiastically preserved and extended—for good reason.

As the war fighting went on, the IRGC and the regular military had to work increasingly closely with one another. The Guards undoubtedly conducted themselves with great courage during the initial stages of that bloody conflagration, and were essential to the defense of the country at a time when the regular armed forces were in disarray following the desertion, purges and execution of many senior officers as the new Iranian state looked to free itself of the shah’s sympathizers, but it soon became clear that the war could not be conducted effectively with the Guards alone. And this was true in spite of the fact that they were supported by Basij militia (composed of additional volunteers who, being either too young or too old, were not technically eligible for service in either the Guard Corps or the army).

Eventually, even the IRGC had to resort to conscription, which continues to refill their ranks to this day. And successful military operations against Iraq ended up coming from a growing collaboration between the two military wings and their newly drafted membership. While every effort was made to emphasize the role of the Revolutionary Guard, the truth had to be increasingly acknowledged that the regular military had a skill set which was both necessary and useful. At the same time, for the duration of the war, the Guards jealously protected their independence and grew in time to become a parallel military structure complete with their own naval and air-force section.

The end of the war for the Guards, as for much of Iran, was something of an anticlimax. Iran had not been defeated, but despite the best efforts of the authorities, it proved difficult to convince people that Iran had achieved a victory. This naturally rebounded on the mythology of the fighting forces, who responded to such social ambivalence by stressing that it wasn’t the winning that mattered, but the taking part. The process of fighting itself was invigorating and purifying, highlighting, as it did, all the best qualities of the austere Muslim fighting man. Such mythologies were to become even more important in light of the changes that were to be imposed during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997).


RAFSANJANI INCORPORATED the Revolutionary Guard into the regular military structure, and ranks were introduced. The changes were bitterly resisted; many veterans felt it detracted from the whole point of the Guards, which was supposed to be a volunteer organization lacking the professionalism and ideological detachment of a uniformed military. Yet like many of Rafsanjani’s reforms, the long-term consequences were in direct opposition to his intentions. There is little doubt that Rafsanjani wanted to bring the Guard Corps within the military structure, so that the organization could no longer continue in its revolutionary mind-set, standing outside government control and scrutiny, and professing loyalty to the supreme leader rather than the president. Over the following decade, however, the Revolutionary Guard and their radicalized political ethos began to increasingly permeate (however incompletely) the regular military.

BE THAT as it may, it was Rafsanjani’s other key reform that ultimately proved more transformational to the IRGC. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s economy was in disarray. Accordingly, the Rafsanjani administration focused on economic reconstruction. Iran may not have been bankrupt, but neither was it awash with money. The economy had obviously contracted, and the state had to contend not only with a burgeoning population in search of employment but also with a bloated military and state sector. The government could no longer afford, and had no need, for such an extensive military and civil service. But its revolutionary ideology and the imperative to provide a home fit for heroes precluded any possibility of simple demobilization. There was no private sector to speak of, and while economic diversification had been a mantra of successive Iranian governments—even before the revolution—the truth was that the Iranian economy was growing increasingly dependent on its one great natural resource: oil. Rafsanjani’s solution to this crisis was to encourage entrepreneurship among various state organizations. Some key institutions, such as the Revolutionary Guard, were provided with a cut of oil income as seed money to catapult them into commerce and private enterprise. This should have allowed them to make enough money to provide for themselves, rather than looking to the government for funds. But such start-up costs became a regular feature of the off-kilter relationship between the state and its subsidiaries. The Revolutionary Guard was about to open for business.


FOR ALL their elite pretensions, the Guard Corps has always tended to reflect wider social developments. As commercialization and a mercantilist attitude increasingly dominated Iranian society in the aftermath of the war, so too did the IRGC reflect this sea change, acquiring a taste for business and trade. The oil income provided by Rafsanjani gave the IRGC access to hard currency (dollars) and the Guards, along with others in similarly privileged positions, were able to make a hefty profit by simply taking advantage of the subsidized exchange rates, and the cheap dollars this afforded them, to import goods and sell them to the Iranian public at the market rate for a huge profit. When this was coupled with political access and a network that spanned the entire Islamic Republic, competition proved increasingly easy to sideline and profits easier to make. Further, Rafsanjani’s plan to promote entrepreneurship placed members of the IRGC in senior management positions at major Iranian businesses. Mohsen Rafiqdoost, one of the IRGC’s former senior commanders, for example, was appointed head of the Foundation of the Oppressed. Ostensibly a charitable trust linked to the Iranian state, the foundation controls a number of private companies, making it one of the largest (and most profitable) commercial institutions in Iran.


NOW, IT took some time for this process to dominate all other activities, but the IRGC was well on the way to a corrupt and endemic profiteering habit. And there were early warning signs of the problems to come. In a disturbing bit of irony, when the Ministry of Intelligence was sent to investigate corruption, it suddenly realized how easy it was for a well-placed, unaccountable state organization to make money, and thus it promptly fell to temptation.

When Rafsanjani left office in 1997, he was indeed succeeded by a reformist, Mohammad Khatami, who briefly attempted to clean up the racket with an extensive purge. But many of those undesirables simply transferred into other emerging intelligence organizations within the judiciary and, crucially, the Guards.

In fact, to cut costs, the Basij, who were themselves incorporated into the IRGC command structure, were instructed to make their money from fines on people breaking sumptuary laws. It soon became apparent that basijis were becoming dependent on this income and, by extension, on a regular supply of misguided and “corrupted” individuals. If everyone became a “good Muslim” overnight, who on earth would they fine? The trick was to constantly change the rules, at times relaxing them until a sufficient quota of women painted their nails, for instance, before abruptly tightening them up. This cycle became as regular as the seasons in Iran, and the butt of many jokes, more so because the authorities pretended that this annual scam was prompted by religious adherence.

The Guards themselves became involved in similar schemes to do with satellite dishes, which were periodically outlawed because of the access they allowed to corrupting influences from the outside world. The Guards, however, took matters to another level entirely. It was widely suspected that they were involved in the illegal importation and even production of satellite dishes, which they would then sell, seize and resell. Similar suspicions abounded about the distribution of drugs, in particular opium, the traditional leisure drug of choice in Iran.

Such activities did little to enhance the Guards’ reputation among Iranians. Since many of the younger generation had no particular memory of the battle scars and war stories of the ’80s, they had nothing to judge the Guards by other than their corrupt and manipulative thievery. Even Revolutionary Guard veterans were increasingly critical of a corps which seemed to have become so smitten with material profit that they had forgotten the ideals for which the revolution had been fought. It is indeed a moot question whether the Guards have become a business conglomerate, more eager to defend their vast investment portfolio than the ideals of the revolution, and by extension, whether we can accurately talk of the militarization of Iranian society, rather than the mercantilization of the revolution.

 IN AN odd turn of events, however, the IRGC was slowly to become re-radicalized in its politics, even as it continued to ratchet up its involvement in Iran’s commercial sector. A change was made at the top of the IRGC command structure. Though the intention was to liberalize the Corps, moving it away from the habits of old, the result was exactly the opposite. In 1997, Yahya Rahim Safavi replaced Mohsen Rezai as commander of the IRGC. Rezai had occupied the post since 1981, commanding the Guards through the war and overseeing the changes to the ethos of the group, which started with Rafsanjani’s reforms and were solidified by the will to profit. He had become a fixture on the political landscape, regarded by many as a staunch conservative and something of an anachronism. As Rezai moved sideways into the Expediency Council, his replacement was seen as a breath of fresh air. And Safavi was even described in some accounts as an “intellectual” who could oversee the reform of the IRGC. But Rezai’s replacement in actuality signified a more deleterious change to the substance of the Guards.

The new commander had neither the authority nor the political will to resist the shift to the Right, which was being imposed on the IRGC by conservative elements within the Iranian government. This development took place against the grain of the body of the Guards themselves—conscripts as they were—who had voted overwhelmingly for Khatami in 1997. Indeed, many veterans went on to become the vanguard of Khatami’s reform movement. But the conservative leadership, coalescing around Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, felt threatened by the energetic reformers and decided to consolidate its control over key institutions to prevent further reformist advances. The judiciary and the Guardian Council were already bastions of conservative power. The Revolutionary Guard and the Basij were to be purged of any reformist sympathies and become guardians, not so much of the revolution, but of a particularly hard-line interpretation of that revolution personified by the supreme leader.

The leadership of the Guards was increasingly dominated by those whose loyalty was first and foremost to the concept of the velayat-e faqih, or the guardianship of the jurist, which serves as the legal foundation of Iran’s constitution and the source of the supreme leader’s authority. Safavi, the onetime intellectual, was no exception. He jumped aboard the hard-line bandwagon to survive and perhaps even prosper, and his response to student protests at the end of the nineties gave an inkling of the menace to come. Increasingly anxious about the demonstrations and the verbal attacks on Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guard commanders issued a barely veiled threat to Khatami that he ought to restore order, or otherwise they would. This was an extraordinary intervention and one that Khatami publicly dismissed, but privately took very seriously. He pointedly reminded the Guards that the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, had explicitly stated that the military should never interfere in politics, and whatever the wishes of the current supreme leader may be, this overstepped their bounds. The crisis was averted. The reformists went on to win a landslide in the parliamentary elections in 2000, but this only reinforced conservative convictions that they must do more to prevent what they regarded as the corruption of the revolution.

Biding their time, the Guards expanded their portfolio of economic enterprises in order to increase their financial independence from the government and to avoid any unnecessary scrutiny of their activities. Tiring of the old system of commissions, the Guards turned to establishing front companies through which they could actually take ownership of different sectors of the economy. By the end of the 1990s, there was a clear shift in gear. The IRGC was in business—big time—and it was protecting those interests with increased political muscle and influence on the right.


THE RIGHT provided the IRGC with the opportunity to get further into profitability, and gave the Guards political and ideological cover. The price was that the IRGC would align with the right wing in Iran. As reformism faltered, and the new conservatism, known domestically as “Principle-ism,” began to take shape, the Guards likewise benefited from dramatic changes in the international arena, most obviously the catastrophe of 9/11 and its aftermath. Khatami’s “dialogue of civilizations” now seemed dangerously incongruous with the more aggressive American posture in the Middle East. President Bush’s fateful decision to label Iran as part of the “axis of evil” effectively sealed the fate of Khatami’s attempts to build bridges and opened the way for the Guards, who consequently even attempted to impose martial law.

Further opportunities came along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Finally, the Guards, and more specifically their external division, the Quds Brigade (which was long involved in developing Islamist networks abroad, including Hezbollah, which it was instrumental in establishing), now had something concrete to do. The problems of demobilization that had affected the Iranian state since 1988 now seemed irrelevant. Iran was feuding with America and fighting to gain influence in Iraq, and the Guards now appeared to have a function which most Iranians could appreciate. With the election of Ahmadinejad, their grip on power became firm indeed.

 MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD was the hard-line conservative (Principle-ist) answer to Khatami; a man who would exploit the same popular tools (most obviously, the mass media) to mobilize the electorate around a radically new interpretation of the Islamic Republic. And central to the overall strategy were the Guards. While Khatami had always sought to limit their reach, whether in Iran or beyond its borders, Ahmadinejad effectively let them off the leash. Claiming to be a simple basiji who served with the Guard Corps during the Iran-Iraq conflict, Ahmadinejad championed the war mythology of the Guards while reinforcing their economic position. Most importantly, at least for the West, he gave them free rein in their foreign activities, and Iraq, far from being a civilian concern, effectively became an extension of the burgeoning IRGC military-commercial complex.

The IRGC benefited, in very simple terms, from a largesse of money and a proximity to power. Under the shelter provided by a perceived American threat, the Guards began to take increasing control not only over foreign-policy and security concerns (Iraq), but also, more damagingly, over domestic issues through a calculated and largely constructed fear of a velvet revolution. The exaggeration of perceived dangers at home and abroad ensured that domestic criticism remained muted, though a number of commentators, including the influential reformist thinker Saeed Hajjarian, warned about the dangers of an emergent “garrison state.”

The argument that Iranian politics have become militarized makes the issue far too black and white. In fact, the IRGC has come to be in bed with a hard-line establishment made up of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and his clique, and even some journalists and clerics, meaning that the Right has coopted the IRGC as much as the IRGC has coopted them. This relationship between the hard-liners and the IRGC is long in the making, though it has been made far worse by Ahmadinejad’s arrival on the scene. We must remember this was started by Rafsanjani, when the moves into the political economy of the country were not initiated by the Guards though they have undoubtedly become enthusiastic participants. But what this means is that the IRGC is not a military junta. The Iranian state does not face a military coup in the traditional sense of the term. A more accurate categorization of Iran might be to call it the securitization of the state around the needs of an increasingly bloated business conglomerate, which confuses its own interests with those of the nation. This was in effect not the garrison state Hajjarian had warned about, but instead a mafia state writ large.

 EMPOWERED BY a war mythology, reinforced by a largely constructed fear of foreign subversion and given free rein by the Ahmadinejad administration, the IRGC effectively indulged itself in an extensive extortion racket. A good example is the IRGC’s intervention in and seizure of the Imam Khomeini airport project. The airport had been developed as a replacement for the old Tehran Mehrabad airport and was intended to provide the capital with an international airport worthy of its stature. Like many projects in Iran, its construction was long overdue and eagerly anticipated. However as it neared completion, the Guards suddenly decided the company overseeing its construction, and particularly the internal communications networks, was suspect and needed investigating. The company and its Turkish partners were alleged to have some connection with Israel that the Guards argued was contrary to national security. They thus proceeded to tear up the entire communication network of the airport, and consequently, to much general embarrassment, delayed the opening of the facility by some months. Few believed the security argument, suggesting instead that the reason behind the preemptory intervention was far more mundane; the Guards had been excluded from a share of the project and took umbrage.

If traditional arguments proved increasingly incredible to the public, the Guards resorted, as did their political allies, to an ideology of religious authoritarianism that brooked no scrutiny and required no justification. This shift required another change at the top. Safavi was replaced by Mohammad Ali Jafari, a field commander rather than an “intellectual,” and one who could be relied upon to act on his convictions. The consequences of all these developments were to become brutally apparent in the run-up and aftermath of the tenth presidential election on June 12, 2009.

 THE HARD-LINE establishment, of course whose most controversial leader is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—as he is supposed to refrain from interfering in the electoral process—had made it quite clear that its preference would be a second term for Ahmadinejad. Although Khamenei found it prudent to qualify his comments, the military brass saw no reason to be so shy. There was considerable sensitivity among the Iranian electorate over the role of the military, in particular the IRGC and the Basij, and there were widespread allegations that the IRGC and the Basij had manipulated the vote that had brought Ahmadinejad to power in 2005. This time, Ahmadinejad’s challengers noted, they would be vigilant. Despite the mounting controversy, as election day approached and the prospect of an Ahmadinejad loss loomed, statements of intent became even more explicit. Jafari warned that a “velvet revolution” would not be tolerated. One suspects that the motivation for such comments came as much, if not more, from a fear of economic exposure as it did from any perceived foreign-inspired threat.

True to form, when the unprecedented demonstrations erupted after the disputed election, the IRGC and the Basij were unleashed upon an increasingly irreverent public. Yet what remains striking about this repression (to date) has been the unsystematic and eclectic manner in which it has been implemented. The aim appears to have been to inculcate a sense of fear and anarchy rather than order (as evidenced by the widespread destruction of property by security forces), the idea apparently being that a widespread fear of anarchy will itself lead to order as ordinary Iranians grow anxious about the consequences of chaos. But this is not a military strategy born of a disciplined organization. On the contrary, this is a strategy born of paranoia. It is also a tactic which seeks to maximize the real limitations on power through the use of terror. It does not reflect an organization that is either cohesive or united, but one in which pockets of ideological fanaticism exist. Moreover, where this fanaticism has wavered, it has been reinforced by large amounts of money; money which, as on previous occasions, is tied to performance and which can only be paid in times of crisis. This perverse paradox has not gone unnoticed. Such are the realities of the mafia state.

 THE GUARDS are increasingly taking control of Iran and seeking to shape the direction of the revolution they were sworn to protect. No longer satisfied that its civilian masters are up to the task, the IRGC has marginalized those who it judges to be weak or infected with the materialism of the West. The irony of this position, given its own extensive business interests, is not lost on the Iranian population. Nor, more importantly, is it lost on many of the IRGC’s own veterans and members of a conservative establishment who are critical of reform, but equally aghast at what the IRGC has become.

There is a deep contradiction within the Guard Corps between those who support a conservative notion of the state and those who support such an ideology more as a means of protecting their own interests—and violently when necessary. Nobody represents this dilemma better than the former commander of the Guards, Mohsen Rezai, who ran against Ahmadinejad as a conservative candidate in the 2009 presidential election. His acute criticism of Ahmadinejad’s (former basiji that he is) foreign and economic policies, both during the campaign and the crisis that has followed the dubious election, reminds us that the contemporary Guards, for all their apparent political success, remain a fractured, divisive and controversial institution. It indeed remains unclear how many Guardsmen voted for Rezai and his conservative beliefs, Mir Hussein Moussavi and his reformist views, or Ahmadinejad the Principle-ist.

Much as with the last shah, who doubted the loyalty of his army and worried about a coup, the reliability of the Guards in a prolonged crisis is questionable. If it is not a coup that concerns the ruling elite, there are undoubtedly fears of a countercoup led by Revolutionary Guard commanders who dislike Ahmadinejad and do not buy into a confrontational foreign policy which would certainly place them on the front lines of any conflict. Because of the divisions within the Guards themselves, should they rise up against Ahmadinejad (certainly a plausible scenario), it is unclear whether he will be deposed by those within the Guard Corps who do not find him conservative enough, or by those who do not support his aggressive approach to international affairs.

And even further splits within the IRGC are clear. Will they remain a force that safeguards the people, or instead look after their own interests? The repression that has followed the election crisis, and the apparent zeal with which senior Guard Corps commanders have spoken of their willingness to exercise maximum force has only increased the divergence between this “people’s army” and the people. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri—Khomeini’s former heir and the leading dissident cleric in Qom—bluntly summed up the state of affairs thusly: the Basij (and by extension their IRGC commanders) are no longer serving God, but Satan.

But for all their threats to exercise maximum force, much of the government-sponsored violence over the last few months—although possibly directed and supported by the IRGC—has been implemented by elements within the Basij. The IRGC has yet to exercise a systematic use of force, reflecting the Guards’ awareness that this would signify the crossing of a redline, and one which could well bring about unsustainable tensions within the organization itself. Many of the old-generation Guards object to crude force used against the people.

Because of these fissures within the IRGC, which are of course clear to all those involved, the hard-line clique now removes and marginalizes anyone who is considered of dubious loyalty to the wider (theological) project. Safavi, the former head of the IRGC and current special adviser to the supreme leader, for example, recently reinsured his safety by categorically supporting the notion that Ayatollah Khamenei is the Hidden Imam’s representative and in his absence can effectively exercise absolute power. Though seen as dangerous nonsense by most senior clerics (including Montazeri), statements of this nature are intended to show loyalty and commitment to, and complicity in, a particular idea of power. Those who do not adhere to this view are being purged, and recent indications are that many of the remaining old-generation Guards are being retired and replaced with new believers. This creates a dangerous polarization of views in the wider society, with a governing establishment made up of clerics, politicians and the IRGC poised on a pyramid whose base is becoming increasingly narrow and unstable. The Guards are but one aspect of a broader hard-line seizure of power. And these hard-liners are surrounded by a newly disenfranchised and discontented “ex-elite.”

The immediate consequence for the Iranian state is the reinforcement of a self-perpetuating paranoia, enhanced and exaggerated by the development of a security apparatus dependent on informants, and fueled by the extensive distribution of money and largesse through a tightly controlled patronage network. This is a security state, not a militarized state. All the flaws and weaknesses in the political-economic structure of the Islamic Republic are being reinforced and extended. And this is coupled with a governing elite of “true believers” that is not only shrinking but also has no desire or inclination to accommodate or compromise.

Faced with an increasingly belligerent opposition, its instinct will be to turn inward, using money and repression to keep society in line—tried and tested methods that the elite will have convinced themselves will work again. Of course, this is not a long-term, or indeed a medium-term, solution to the crisis of the Islamic Republic. With economic difficulties mounting (the impeding removal of subsidies due to prove a major shock to the system), the governing elite will turn increasingly to foreign policy and a nationalist cause (e.g., the nuclear crisis) to rally the people. Unfortunately for them, Iranians are no longer so easily convinced of their credentials. Crisis within the Iranian state will only grow.

 Ali Ansari is the director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews.



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