Iran’s IRGC using Trump victory to claw back power
Ankara - Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections and the war on the Islamic State (ISIS) have given Iran’s hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) what it sees as a unique opportunity to claw back economic and political power it had lost.
Sidelined after a nuclear deal was reached with Iranian reformist leaders and the administration of US President Barack Obama and major countries, the IRGC is determined to regain its position in Shia Iran’s complex governing structure.
Trump said in the campaign that he would abandon the 2015 deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. His tough stance, in contrast to Obama’s olive branch, is expected to empower hardliners who would benefit from an economy that excludes foreign competition.
In addition, the Quds force, which conducts IRGC policies overseas, has played a successful and key role on the battlefields of Iraq, increasing the IRGC’s kudos at home.
“Trump and the Islamic State militants were gifts from God to the IRGC,” said a senior official within the Iranian government, speaking on condition of anonymity like other figures contacted within Iran.
“If Trump adopts a hostile policy towards Iran or scraps the deal, hardliners and particularly the IRGC will benefit from it,” a former reformist official said.
Elected in a landslide in 2013 on a promise to end Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation, pragmatist Iranian President Hassan Rohani has struggled to reconnect Iran’s economy to world markets and to attract foreign investment.
Uncertainty over the nuclear deal, unilateral US sanctions, political infighting in Iran alongside complex regulations, labour issues and corruption have hampered a post-sanctions economic revival, causing concern to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who blames the government.
Deeply loyal to Khamenei, the IRGC was created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution. The IRGC secured a foothold in the economy after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war when the clerical establishment allowed it to invest in leading Iranian industries.
Involved in a wide range of businesses, from energy and tourism to car production, telecom and construction, the IRGC’s empire grew by taking billions of dollars in projects vacated by Western oil companies because of sanctions imposed to curb the nation’s nuclear ambitions.
Trying to limit IRGC influence, Rohani’s government stalled or cancelled major projects with the IRGC, including a $1.3 billion deal with National Iranian Gas Company in March 2014.
Under the nuclear deal, international sanctions were lifted in January, opening the Iranian economy, thereby threatening the IRGC power base. Now the IRGC sees an opportunity to lever back its position in the Iranian hierarchy.
Anxious about losing economic power, the IRGC accused Rohani of favouring foreign firms rather than domestic ones, demanding a bigger role in the economy and calling for implementation of Khamenei’s vision for a self-reliant Iran.
“The IRGC-linked companies cannot compete with the foreign firms. Therefore, they will want a limited presence for foreign firms in Iran,” said Tehran-based trader Mohammad Ali, adding: “Money means power.”
Foreign companies need an Iranian partner to do business in Iran, which for big projects often means firms controlled by the IRGC. Most of IRGC front companies are not formally owned by the corps but by individuals and firms linked to it.
The IRGC remains opaque to outsiders.
“The Guards have different layers. The roots of the IRGC are seasoned and senior commanders who idolise the supreme leader and are ready to sacrifice their lives for pillars of the revolution and have influence in political and overseas activities of Sepah (IRGC),” a retired IRGC commander said, declining to be named.
The future of the nuclear deal will have a direct bearing on IRGC military, political and economic ambitions and it is unclear whether Trump will carry out his threat to abandon it.
During the campaign, Trump dismissed the deal as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen negotiated”. Trump, however, has in the past made contradictory statements so foreign governments are unsure how much of his rhetoric will be translated into policy.
Middle East political analysts expected the powerful clerical establishment’s political backing of the IRGC to harden in reaction to the uncertainty concerning a Trump presidency.
“The IRGC will gain more power at least until the dust settles after Trump’s win… The atmosphere in Iran will be militarised because of more power that will be provided to the IRGC,” political analyst Hamid Farahvashian said.