As Iran elections loom, Khamenei unleashes the Guards
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.”