CAIRO — The Revolutionary Guard tightened its already powerful hold over Iran during the post-election turmoil, raising alarm among some Iranians that it is transforming the Islamic Republic into a military state.
The elite force and an affiliated volunteer militia, the Basij, led the crackdown against street protesters who claim mass fraud in the June 12 election after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in a landslide. At least 20 protesters have been killed in clashes and hundreds detained.
The Revolutionary Guard weighed in at key moments of the crisis.
Two days before the election, with the reformists' Western-style campaign at its zenith, the Guard warned it would crush any attempt at a popular "revolution." A few days after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei admonished demonstrators in a Friday prayer sermon to stop protests or face the consequences, the Guard followed up with its sternest warning to prepare for a "revolutionary confrontation" if protesters take to the streets again. A harsh crackdown followed.
Guard created after revolution
The Guard was created following the 1979 Islamic revolution as an ideological force to defend Iran's clerical rule and root out the enemies of the newly born Islamic Republic. The 120,000-strong force has its own ground, naval, air and missile units and is believed to be better armed and equipped than the far larger regular military.
On top of its enormous military power, the force in recent years has amassed a network of economic and political power extending to virtually every aspect of life in Iran. Now some fear it has gone beyond protecting the system to dominating it. Even Khamenei may have become overly dependent on the Guards, some experts say.
The Guard is also believed to be the vanguard for Iran's ties with militant groups abroad, providing training for Hezbollah in Lebanon and, the U.S. says, Shiite militants in Iraq. That has led Washington to brand the force as a supporter of terrorism.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he won the presidential election, and other pro-reform leaders appealed to Iran's top Shiite religious figures over the weekend to speak out against the growing crackdown. They warned of "the spread of tyranny in the Islamic Republic system."
Last week, Mousavi warned Iranian society was becoming "more militarized" and being pushed into a "near coup d'etat atmosphere." He said security forces must adhere to the constitution to guarantee the voice of the people in decision-making.
But the Guard's power has been building for a long time and isn't likely to stop, Iran expert Frederic Tellier said.
"The current crisis is less a coup d'etat than the final phase of their conquest of power and a likely foretaste of a far more ruthless and systematic political purge to come," said Tellier of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
New political model in the future?
He predicted the force's final grab of the reins of power in Iran may come after the death of 70-year-old Khamenei, when they can impose a new political model: a collective leadership or outright military rule.
In recent years, the Guard has extended its power far beyond the military. It controls a multibillion dollar business empire, built up during reconstruction from the devastation of the 1980-88 war with neighboring Iraq.
Guard's companies now routinely land lucrative construction contracts in oil, gas and farming industries. They run networks of clinics and are believed to also control unauthorized docks to bring in much sought-after consumer goods to be sold on the black market.
Service in the Guard has become a stepping stone to national politics. Ahmadinejad and at least five members of his first term Cabinet are thought to be former Guard officers — including defense, energy, justice and interior. The parliament speaker, many parliament members, Tehran's mayor and the head of the state radio and TV network also are thought to have served in the Guard.
"They are the breeding ground of a second generation of Islamic leaders who seek to preserve, if not radicalize, the revolution's ideals, master advanced technology such as nuclear energy, ensure Iran emerges as a regional power and acquire greater financial and political assets within the system," said Tellier.
Khamenei too dependent on Guards?
Perhaps even more important is their bond with Khamenei, who stands at the top of Iran's clerical hierarchy and directly appoints Guard's commanders.
"The Guards and Khamenei have a symbiotic relationship. In return for their support of Khamenei, the Guards have become one of the most powerful political and economic institutions in Iran," said Alireza Nader, an Iran expert with the RAND. Corp., a Washington-based research center.
"But it appears that Khamenei may have become too dependent on the Guards," Nader said. "The recent presidential election dispute showed that Khamenei must rely on the security forces, especially the Guards, to keep his political opponents out of power."
Along with its own forces, the Guard governs the Basij, a sprawling volunteer civilian force that some estimate to number a million members. Basijis include plainclothes militiamen who have been seen and taped beating and shooting protesters. But others also volunteer in government offices, companies and other institutions, keeping an eye on the ideological loyalties of co-workers.
Like hard-line clerics, Guard commanders have depicted the protest movement that erupted in support of Mousavi as a plot to foment a "soft revolution" backed by foreign enemies and aimed at toppling Iran's clerical leadership.
In a speech earlier this month, Guard chief Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari opened the door for even more aggressive Basij action.
"Basij efforts should not be limited to the military dimension," he said. "This force must be prepared to neutralize the soft threat and a range of plots by the enemy on the political, economic, cultural and social levels."
He also said government officials must help Basijis in their mission.
Other Guard commanders have been fanning out across the country spreading their message.
Gen. Mohammad Ismail Saeedi told university students in Tabriz this week they should be trained on resisting a "soft revolution."
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