Elite Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Broad­ens Its In­flu­ence in Iran

Unit That Cap­tured Bri­tons Has Sway In Pol­i­tics, Econ­omy

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Robin Wright

Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, the elite unit at the heart of the latest Mid­dle East cri­sis, has greater power to­day than at any point since the revo­lu­tion’s early days to ex­port Is­lamic mil­i­tancy and chal­lenge the West’s pres­ence in the re­gion, say U.S. of­fi­cials and Iran ex­perts.

Its naval forces ab­ducted 15 Bri­tish sailors and marines nine days ago. Its spe­cial forces unit is op­er­at­ing deep in Iraq, pro­vid­ing mili­tias with deadly road­side ex­plo­sives used against Amer­i­can troops, U.S. of­fi­cials say. It sup­plied mis­siles used by Hezbol­lah last sum­mer in the long­est war Arabs ever fought with Is­rael. And it now plays the largest role in Iran’s am­bi­tious mil­i­tary in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing at­tempted ac­qui­si­tion of nu­clear weapons and sur­face-to-sur­face mis­siles, ac­cord­ing to an up­com­ing book by An­thony Cordes­man of the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

But al­most three decades af­ter the 1979 revo­lu­tion, the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard has also be­come a lead­ing po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic force in Iran. One of its vet­er­ans, Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, be­came Iran’s pres­i­dent in 2005. The force and a net­work of cur­rent and for­mer com­man­ders have also moved into Iran’s oil and gas busi­ness, won bids on ma­jor gov­ern­ment con­struc­tion con­tracts, and even gained lu­cra­tive fran­chises such as Mercedes-Benz deal­er­ships, the sources say.

“The Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards are quickly emerg­ing as the most prom­i­nent ac­tor in Iran,” said Karim Sad­jad­pour of the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace. “They’re play­ing an in­creas­ingly ac­tive role on the do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal scene, have enor­mous eco­nomic as­sets and in­ter­ests, are a key player in the nu­clear pro­gram, and are es­sen­tially run­ning Ira­nian ac­tiv­i­ties in Iraq and Le­banon.”

The Guard’s high profile is one of the rea­sons that the as­sets of its top of­fi­cials were frozen, be­cause of ties to sen­si­tive nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams, un­der two U.N. res­o­lu­tions passed on March 24 and Dec. 23. Among the of­fi­cials cited were the Guard’s top com­man­der, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, and deputy com­man­der, Brig. Gen. Morteza Rezaie, as well as the heads of the Guard’s ground forces, navy, Quds Force and Basij (Mo­bi­liza­tion of the Op­pressed) vol­un­teers.

The widen­ing pres­ence of its Quds Force in Iraq is the rea­son U.S. troops launched two raids in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary on Iran’s op­er­at­ing bases, de­tain­ing seven men in Bagh­dad and Ir­bil. Five are still held, al­though Ira­nian of­fi­cials ex­pected them to be re­leased on the Ira­nian new year, March 21.

Al­though nei­ther Tehran nor Lon­don has linked the events, the 15 Bri­tons were cap­tured two days af­ter Tehran ex­pected the five in Iraq to be freed and the day be­fore the U.N. vote freez­ing the as­sets of seven top Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard com­man­ders.

In his first pub­lic com­ments on the mat­ter, Ah­madine­jad said yes­ter­day that the Guard had demon­strated “skill and brav­ery” in de­tain­ing the Bri­tons.

Ah­madine­jad, who was a mi­dlevel of­fi­cer, mir­rors the evo­lu­tion of the Guard, formed to pro­tect the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and pre­vent a mil­i­tary coup. The Guard is sep­a­rate from Iran’s con­ven­tional mil­i­tary — and less than one-third the size, ac­cord­ing to Cordes­man. Iran’s reg­u­lar army, navy and air force to­tal more than 400,000 troops. The Guard num­bers about 125,000. But its num­bers be­lie its power.

The Guard gained stature dur­ing Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq, when it fought some of the tough­est bat­tles, pro­vided hu­man minesweep­ers and took huge ca­su­al­ties. That gen­er­a­tion has now come of lead­er­ship age, said Ken­neth Katz­man of the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice, the au­thor of “War­riors of Is­lam,” a book about the Guard.

“They fought as young men, and now they’re mid­dle-aged. They have gone from the bat­tle­field to may­oral­ties, gov­er­nates and man­age­ment of min­istries,” Katz­man said. Tehran Mayor Mo­ham­mad Bagher Ghal­ibaf was a se­nior Guard com­man­der.

The Guard is now a less ef­fec­tive con­ven­tional fight­ing force than it was dur­ing the Iran-Iraq war, Cordes­man said. But it con­trols the dead­li­est arms, in­clud­ing adapted Scud mis­siles with ranges up to 1,200 miles, along with a chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons pro­gram and mis­sile pro­duc­tion. The Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard re­mains “the cen­ter of Iran’s hard-line se­cu­rity forces,” he said.

The most se­cre­tive Guard unit is the Quds Force, which con­ducts op­er­a­tions be­yond Iran’s borders us­ing prox­ies such as Hezbol­lah, Ha­mas and the Pales­tinian Is­lamic Ji­had, Cordes­man says in the book. It has sev­eral di­rec­torates — for Iraq, Le­banon, the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries and Jor­dan; Afghanistan, Pak­istan and In­dia; Turkey and the Ara­bian Penin­sula; North Africa; and Europe and North Amer­ica, Cordes­man writes. It has op­er­a­tives in many em­bassies abroad, he says, and runs Iran’s train­ing camps for un­con­ven­tional war­fare.

In Jan­uary, Cordes­man says, Iran’s Supreme Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil gave the Quds Force con­trol of Iran’s op­er­a­tions in Iraq and ex­panded it from 5,000 to 15,000 troops. Af­ter its men were cap­tured in Iraq, the force has low­ered its vis­i­bil­ity and changed its style of op­er­a­tions, U.S. of­fi­cials say.

The Quds Force is led by Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and re­ports di­rectly to the of­fice of Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei. Many se­nior Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard of­fi­cers have close fam­ily ties to top mem­bers of the clergy, ac­cord­ing to a study of the Guard by Michael Eisen­stadt of the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

The Guard’s ties and the widen­ing cor­rup­tion in Iran have in­creas­ingly led its com­man­ders, com­pa­nies and con­nec­tions to bid on and win gov­ern­ment con­tracts, in­clud­ing for re­cent oil and gas projects, for which they are not qual­i­fied, U.S. of­fi­cials say. The re­sult, they add, is that key projects are ei­ther poorly done or farmed out to other con­trac­tors, for a com­mis­sion.


Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, left, head of Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, re­viewed troops in 2005 along with Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, a for­mer Guard of­fi­cer. The Guard’s power now ex­tends be­yond its mil­i­tary roots.


The Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard con­trols Iran’s most po­tent weapons, in­clud­ing long-range mis­siles. It test-fired some of them last fall.

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