As Iran elections loom, Khamenei unleashes the Guards

Friday 08/01/2016
An Iranian woman walks past a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, last November.

Beirut - As Iran’s clerical lead­ership strives to turn the country into the paramount state in the Middle East, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been increasing the powers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), giving it primacy over the intelligence establish­ment and internal security to an unprecedented degree.
Add this to the IRGC’s military supremacy over the regular armed forces and its control of the nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, its growing economic clout and its emerging influence as the cutting edge of Tehran’s expansionist for­eign policy and it is clear the corps has become the regime’s — and Khamenei’s — enforcer.
This many-tentacled organisa­tion is answerable only to Khame­nei, who as supreme leader is elected by regime insiders and is the ultimate power in Iran, leaving the president, elected by popular vote, with little real authority.
The current president, Hassan Rohani, who seeks to liberalise Ira­nian politics and society and who was the driving force behind the landmark July 14th nuclear agree­ment with US-led global powers that he hopes will achieve that aim, is in Khamenei’s cross hairs — as witness a recent round-up of reformists, intellectuals and others by the IRGC’s intelligence branch that is widely seen as shot across Rohani’s bow.
The IRGC was formed by Aya­tollah Ruhollah Khomeini in May 1980 as the ideologically sound praetorian guard of the clerical re­gime that would eschew politics. However, since Khamenei became supreme leader in 1989, following Khomeini’s death, it has become highly politicised.
Khamenei has steadily consoli­dated the power of the supreme leader and his plans were acceler­ated in 1997 with the election of a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, whom he saw as a dire threat to the Islamic regime.
The IRGC’s Intelligence Organi­sation (IRGC-IO) is Khamenei’s se­cret weapon and one he has sharp­ened since he established it in 1997 after Khatami was elected in a landslide victory and took control of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), a cabinet agency.
The IRGC-IO was intended to supplant the MOIS and soon after the Guards’ intelligence wing was up and running, Khamenei used it to crush student uprisings in 1999, the first real eruption of open de­fiance against an increasingly re­pressive regime.
But a countrywide wave of protests by dissidents after the disputed June 2009 presidential elections, widely seen as rigged by the regime to defeat reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi and give the hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term, con­vinced Khamenei that the greatest threat the regime faces is internal dissent.
He ordered a major reorganisa­tion of the security services after the upheaval, during which thou­sands of reformists were rounded up. Hundreds were killed. Many were reportedly tortured. Others were put on trial for corruption, widely seen as a state ploy to dis­credit the reformist movement.
The IRGC-IO was given wider se­curity powers and these have con­tinued to grow, to the point where the corps now effectively controls domestic security while the au­thority of the civilian-led MOIS has been reduced.
American analyst Geneive Abdo said at the time that Khamenei’s appointments gave “hardliners un­precedented powers. The appoin­tees included some of the most feared and brutal men in Iran, im­plying that the IRGC will become an even stronger anti-democratic tool in the state’s hands and mak­ing any… dissent from its ranks far more unlikely.”
Among those men was Kha­manei’s close confidant, Hoj­jatoleslam Hossein Taeb, who became director of the IRGC-IO. Taeb, a middle-ranking cleric, had been Khamenei’s student during the 1978-79 Islamic revolution, was deputy head of MOIS counter-intelligence in 1989-97 and head of the Basij, the regime’s sprawling paramilitary force, in 2008-09.
During his time at the MOIS, Taeb, 52, became notorious as one of the regime’s harshest interroga­tors. The US Treasury Department blacklisted him in 2010 for human rights abuses. The European Union followed suit the following year because “forces under his com­mand participated in mass beat­ings, murders and detentions and tortures of peaceful protesters”.
Khamenei’s continued empow­erment of the IRGC-IO “will result in continued intimidation of Irani­ans who support domestic reforms and improved relations with the West,” observed Nima Gerami of the National Defense University.
“In such a political climate, the intensity of the IRGC-IO’s activi­ties send a strong message that the conservative camp will wield blunt force to resist attempts at moder­ating the Islamic Republic,” she wrote in a November 25th analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The fate of the IRGC is linked with the fate of the Iranian the­ocracy,” observed Udit Banerjea of John Hopkins University in an Autumn 2015 Journal of Strategic Study analysis.
“Internal dissent remains the IRGC’s greatest threat and the dan­ger of a Green revolution coming to pass in full is ever-present. The IRGC was able to mobilise the Basij to disrupt the movement in 2009 but as social media and other po­tentially socially disruptive tech­nologies continue to evolve… it may be more difficult to contain it the next time.”