Over the past decade the fluid relationship between the Revolutionary Guards and the government has been an important gauge for measuring the depth and breadth of political crises in Iran. Two recent examples illustrate this point clearly.
On July 9, 1999, college students in Tehran demonstrated against the closing of Salaam, an independent newspaper critical of the Islamic establishment. That night a shadowy paramilitary force close to the regime, called Ansar-e Hezbollah attacked the students dormitories. That night, now fabled as one of the darker moments in the Islamic Republic's history of repression, the commandos beat students and set fire to their belongings. Some jumped off balconies to escape and some were killed. Instead of confronting the attackers, the state's official security forces arrested hundreds of students.
Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president at the time, claimed to regret the attack. In response, 24 commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, whose membership overlaps with that of Ansar-e Hezbollah, wrote a letter that condemned the students and implicitly threatened Khatami with direct intervention to safeguard the Islamic system. Many saw the letter as a threat of coup d’état or at least an unprecedented attempt for the Guards to bully their way into formal executive power.
On May 15, 2004, the new Imam Khomeini International Airport near Tehran was to be inaugurated by President Khatami. Many Iranian and foreign dignitaries were present to witness the event, but before the first commercial flight touched down, members of the Revolutionary Guards invaded the airport and closed it down. The Guard’s MIG fighters also intervened and escorted the commercial flight to the old airport at Mehrabad. The Guards' invasion ultimately arose from commercial tensions, but it was also seen as a humiliation of the reformist president who was approaching the end of his last term in office.
The Guards were particularly supportive of the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and were undeniably instrumental in his victories in the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections. But eventually a rift emerged between the Guards and the government. In 2010 some hardliners who had supported Ahmadinejad until then labelled some of his allies a “deviant current” for their nationalistic views and directed the Revolutionary Guards to go after them. In turn Ahmadinejad sarcastically referred to “brother smugglers,” a reference to the Guards’ business and economic activities.
Given the intimate relationship between the Guards and previous administrations, the question arises as to how the government of President Hassan Rouhani will interact with the military force whose economic clout has also grown dramatically in the past decade. This relationship has proved to be one of the most critical and crucial factors in the Iranian political scene.
The Brawn Behind the Uniform
The Revolutionary Guards Corps not only enjoys the strong, continuous and focused support of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader in the four cultural, social, political and economic domains, it also owns the most active network inside Iran. The following provides a good summary:
—The volume and scope of print and online media outlets associated with the guards is so vast that it has even provoked some hardline criticism.
—The Guards have claimed that they have 20 million organized members in the Basij, an associated paramilitary organization.
—They have taken steps to activate 300 thousand Salehin (“Righteous”) Circles which aim to provide ideological, cultural and political training to the young members of the Basij organization.
—They control hundreds of major commercial companies with contracts that increased three-fold in value from $40 million in 2011 to more than $120 in 2012.
The volume of business activities by the Guards in recent years has ballooned so significantly that some prominent hardline MPs like Ahmad Tavakoli, the director of the parliament’s Research Center, has called for the exclusion of the military from the economy. According to Ali Motahari, another conservative MP, the Guards are the biggest competitor to the private sector and the people. One harldline media outlet has called the situation the “mother of all ills”.
To the Guards’ economic might we must add the relative dominance of its intelligence arm in Iran, the free hand of its Quds Force in foreign relations and regional entanglements in Syria and in Lebanon, the special role of the Guards in carrying the nuclear program forward and their attempts to bypass Western sanctions.
In a Tight Spot
Crucial to locating the relationship between the Guards and the Rouhani government is understanding the position the military found itself in preceding the election that brought the president to power. Before the elections the Guards were facing open accusations of widespread interference in recent parliamentary elections, effectively accused of shaping the vote's outcome. Previous to this they also faced accusations of interference in the disputed presidential elections of 2009, and officials did concede some of these allegations.
The Guards were also charged with the violent crackdown on the opposition that followed the election, arresting critics and creating a suffocating political climate that endured virtually to the very end of Ahmadinejad's term in office. Some Guards officials acknowledged being actively involves in this suppression and that some members of the corps opened fired on protestors.
In addition to this tarnished public image, a number of inter-party style conflicts emerged within the Guards' ranks. That they were unable to agree on a single presidential candidate exposed these internal divisions. The commander of Quds Force supported the candidacy of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran and a former commander of the Corps’ air force. Fars News Agency (close to the Basij organization) promoted Saeed Jalili, the former nuclear negotiator. Tasnim News (close to the cultural vice-president of the Guards) backed Ghalibaf. And so on.
Following the elections Khamenei reminded the Guards in a public speech that the nation did need them to be political guards, which created even more pressure on the institution to re-define its political ambitions and role. In the area of economy, in addition to widespread opposition to the Guards’ involvement in major business ventures, the international sanctions against its commanders, managers and companies created serious bottlenecks for the Guards. This was especially visible in technical sectors such as the petroleum industry, where the Guards had tried to nudge out foreign contractors despite its own firms lacking the requisite technical experience.
For the Guards, of course, sanctions had their bright side as well. Eight months ago the website Baztab—which is now filtered out and unavailable to Iranians—put it this way: “The revenue for ‘brothers’ and ‘pseudo-brothers’ from evading sanctions is about $16 billion a year which makes it the biggest business in the country.”
From a security point of view the Guards had a difficult period too. They were increasingly drawn into border clashes in the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan to the east and Kurdistan to the west. They were charged with breaking up a speech by Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament, in Qom, where the protesters threw objects at him. And they had to fight in secret alongside the forces of Bashar Assad in Syria while awkwardly denying their presence on the ground.
We're All Getting Along
The Revolutionary Guards and the government of President Rouhani have put on a show of mutual understanding. After the elections and during the week of “Sacred Defense,” the Guards showed the government some green lights. They declared in a statement that they were ready to help the government’s development projects and that they supported the overall performance of the government in foreign policy. In turn the government signaled its own receptivity as well. The Guards’ budget for the next year will increase, the government declared support for its large business activities and the Guards were called a democratic organization innocent of interference in politics although, on the last point, some considered it preventive rather than descriptive.
This show of mutual understanding, however, was a high-level event. On the lower levels we see clear signs of conflict between the hardliner elements within the Guards and the moderates active in the government: figures close to the Guards have criticized the dismissal of some of the middle managers appointed by the Ahmadinejad’s government; the Guards’ have opposed the appointment of cabinet positions for ministers close to reformists; they have advised against the appointment of reformists as middle managers; some government institutions have sought to remove the Khatam al-Anbia Defense Base, a large industrial complex controlled by the Guards for development contracts; a decrease in the budget of Basij organization has been discussed.
With the approach of the next parliamentary elections, the expected expansion of reformist presence and activities in the government, especially at provincial levels, and the increase of government control over executive decisions, we can predict that low-level conflicts between the Rouhani’s government and the Guards will grow.
Political Red Lights
Despite Rouhani’s campaign slogans and the promises of his foreign policy officials to facilitate the return of Iranians living abroad, Guards-affiliated media have strongly opposed their return, especially the political activists. While the Rouhani government's has espoused a gentle liberalisation in public life and access to information, the Guards have responded by opposing any media softening, defended the importance of morality police patrols, and refused to unblock
online social networking sites, despite their now widespread use by Rouhani officials themselves.
The Guards have also tried to block any effort for the release of the Green Movement leaders from house arrest by repeatedly giving prominence to the violent aftermath of the 2009 elections. They have put out literature likening the events of 2009 to the some distasteful events at the dawn of Islam, comparing the Movement's symbolic green color to the dung of a famous villain’s camel, have accused the protesters of distributing alcoholic beverages from free refreshment stands financed by charity, and have highlighted the foreign aspects of the events—all of which shows that the Guards are are keen to maintain the events of 2009 as a tool of suppression and justification for keeping a locked down political climate.
What completes the picture in the fraught encounter between the Guards and Rouhani’s government are the efforts to keep the reformists out of the government. The Guards’ advisors and media analyze the “plans” of the reformists to use the Rouhani government as a “bridge” to get back into power and warn the government against deviating from the present course and forming a coalition with the reformists. They have also explicitly criticized the “Western tendencies” of Rouhani’s government by comparing Mahmood Sariolghalam, a professor of international relations and a prominent advisor to Rouhani, with Hasan Taqizadeh, a well-known politician under monarchy whom many accused of serving the interests of England.
Even Rouhani came to power, the Guards identified the political re-integration of the reformists as their “red line.” In this regard a change in the organzation’s position is unlikely, especially when they have the support of parliament. The clear response of Khamenei to the governor of the Qom province who had asked for keeping away critics from the government, shows that the Guards have necessary support and license to express their opposition.
In recent months Rouhani’s administration has tried to steer away from exhausting battles over this issue. At least until new parliamentary elections, this approach will continue and the scale is tilted towards the Guards and hardliner forces.
Another point of contention between the Guards and Rouhani’s government is the negotiations with the United States. The Corps has declared its complete mistrust of the West and has defined negotiation as another red line. On Rouhani’s return from New York some student organizations affiliated with the Guards gathered at the airport and protested his phone conversation with Obama. It has been repeatedly called a mistake by the commander of the Guards, his deputy and the commander of the Basij. When Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, declared that extremists in Iran and the U.S. wanted to kill the Geneva nuclear agreement, both the representative of Khamenei in the Corps and the commander of the Basij harshly criticized him.
As an indirect criticism the Basij commander declared repeatedly that Iran must follow models such as “economic resistance” and concentrate on domestic production instead of trying to resolve problems by negotiating with the West and establishing ties with Western countries. They also denied that sanctions have affected Iran's economy and maintained that the underlying reasons for negotiations are the West's loss of footing in the region, the defensive might of Iran and the “resistance discourse”.
Guards commanders and officials have been also very active in expounding the idea of “heroic flexibility” put forward by the Supreme Leader as a justification for the negotiations. They have rejected the idea of compromise and by reissuing literature on resistance, struggle and confrontation have tried to keep the Iranian foreign policy on an extremist path.
Officials have actively reacted to the negotiation text and its side issues, with the Guards' Commander issuing grouchy, disapproving comments, warnings that Iran may retract the accord and declaring opposition to positions taken by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
It would appear that the rumors about the formation of a Supervisory Board over the work of the Nuclear Negotiating Team is a result of these criticisms. As a first step they have succeeded in infusing Khamenei with their own fears and in creating a more difficult environment for the forward movement and the management of the negotiating team. Nevertheless when it comes to big picture policy issues, they will follow Khamenei and will go forward or backward as he commands.
In the security domain, especially on the Internet, the Guards have hardened their treatment of non-political sites, have arrested some activists who work on Facebook and have hacked sites that oppose the Islamic Republic. This aspect of their agenda has been given publicity by the Guards-affiliated media to promote the Guards’ dominance in Iran’s security environment. If such security encounters persist, if the Basij is strengthened in government organizations or even in the private sector, if the conservative or almost hardline approach of Rouhani’s Intelligence Ministry remains unchanged, and if the judiciary continues its support, we can predict that, in the future, the intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guards will function not as a parallel institution but as the main engine of dealing with the critics and the opposition.
Still Flush With Cash
In the past four months, besides promoting the narrative of resistance and struggle, Guards commanders and managers have defended their presence in the economic arena and talked about their forward-looking projects in organizational, economic and technical areas. These include the addition of a marine base to the Khatam al-Anbia Defense complex, continued activity by the Guards in large projects and the expansion of missile production.
Predicting how the relationship between the Guards and Rouhani’s government will evolve is more difficult. The Iranian economy, and the executive arm of the government which is suffering from sanctions, is not in a position to demand the Guards to pull back from their economic activities. An early exit at this juncture with the accompanied shrinking of economic benefits could aggravate the conflicts between the Guards and the government. On the other hand, the inability of the private sector to replace the Guards and its ability in pushing some projects forward can help the government. So while there are conflicts, one can predict that as far as the economy is concerned, the Revolutionary Guards will have the last say for now.
The Way Ahead?
Moving ahead, the central question that emerges is this: can the Rouhani government reach a stable accommodation with a mighty institution which claims it can deal with any threat and says it seeks to have the Basij occupy key positions in the system? The realistic answer is that, even now, Rouhani must move in such a direction. The president cannot and does not want to start a war of attrition against the Guards, and the Guards have no appetite for open conflict either. They appear satisfied with Rouhani's treatment of them and his relationship with Khamenei. Such satisfaction, however, cannot remain limited to the person of Rouhani; they want the whole government to behave this way. If this does not come to pass and the Guards come to regard Rouhani’s administration as a threat to the Supreme leader, they will act—the same way that they acted against the Khatami and Ahmadinejad administrations. While is not certain that their intervention and actions will succeed, act they will.