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Aug 8, 2014 | 09:09 GMT

11 mins read

Iran's Elite Military Force Faces Limitations

(L) Head of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, appears at a gathering in Tehran on Nov. 26, 2007. (R) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in Tehran on June 14, 2014.
(STR/AFP/Getty Images, ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran's elite military body, can influence the scope and direction of talks with Washington over Iran's nuclear program, but it cannot derail them. The corps has several options for leverage as it tries to limit the policy changes that would diminish its power, including an economic opening brought about by an agreement between Iran and the United States. However, it has to operate within the constitutional parameters that limit its influence over Tehran's policy-making process or else risk damaging the Islamic republic it is sworn to defend.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by virtue of its performance in the 1980-1988 war that guaranteed the survival of the Islamic republic, has unique influence in the Iranian government. The situation is similar in Turkey, where the army founded the state, and in Israel, where the military has a history of defending the country against existential threats. However, in Israel and Turkey there is strong civilian control over the military, and the armed forces influence policy largely through constitutional mechanisms. Iran's political system is more complicated, enabling the military to play a more direct role.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has played significant, if not critical, roles in domestic security and national defense, commerce and illicit trade, finance and banking, heavy industry, civil engineering and the energy sector. However, pragmatic conservative Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seeks to assert the supremacy of the government's civilian bodies in accordance with the constitution, and his efforts have the clerical establishment's support. This unprecedented transformation within the Islamic republic threatens to weaken the power and influence concentrated in the hands of the corps.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has played significant, if not critical, roles in domestic security and national defense, commerce and illicit trade, finance and banking, heavy industry, civil engineering and the energy sector. However, pragmatic conservative Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seeks to assert the supremacy of the government's civilian bodies in accordance with the constitution, and his efforts have the clerical establishment's support. This unprecedented transformation within the Islami

Rouhani knows that diminishing the corps' position will be extremely difficult and, in some cases, impossible or undesirable given the state's dependence upon the corps in certain key areas. He is relying on policy making — fixing the economy, advancing social reforms and improving Iran's international relations — to enhance the government's power and give the corps less clout. However, the corps will not immediately lose its privileged position, and not all of its interests are being threatened, as is evident from Rouhani's seeking the corps' help to improve the economy.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps knows that Rouhani's plans, if unfettered, would lead to its subordination. The military body knows that it has to reorient itself to survive when its political and economic interests are inevitably threatened by an opening of the country enabled by a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. However, these shifts will not happen immediately, and in the meantime, the corps is trying to limit the extent to which Rouhani's policy changes will adversely affect its institutional interests.

Stratfor has learned that there is currently no consensus among the corps' top brass on a strategy of resistance. This is to be expected, given that the corps is explicitly forbidden to interfere in politics and thus options for managing the government's reform agenda are limited. This means that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has to resist the government's efforts through policy debates and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Despite its current amount of influence, the corps cannot act outside the constitution without rupturing itself or the Islamic republic it is so committed to preserving.

The Corps' Options

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is channeling its resistance in both formal and informal ways. Informally, it has a number of tools at its disposal, including its pervasive influence in the political economy of the Islamic republic. Not only does it play a critical role in implementing internal and external security measures, it is also deeply involved in the policy-making process. Most notably, it has a direct link to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who can shape policy by influencing the top cleric. The corps eventually could use its strong influence and ties with Khamenei's clerical network inside the corps to pressure him into supporting policies and practices he would otherwise not favor. The corps could use this influence — along with payments of some of the proceeds from the corps' considerable economic activities to Khamenei's secretariat — to influence Iran's foreign policy before Tehran and Washington reach a final agreement.

The elite military force also has membership in the Supreme National Security Council, the highest policy-making body in the country. The corps' commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, plays a key role in steering the council's debates. Additionally, the corps represents the core of Iran's security sector and holds influence over intelligence, law enforcement and defense matters. Moreover, the corps' links to the clerical establishment and its position as the vanguard of the republic's founding ideology give it influence over the council.

Some members of the council — the minister of intelligence and security, the defense minister and the council's secretary — along with Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli — represent the government and are competing with the corps for influence in the Supreme National Security Council. It should be noted that Defense Minister Brig-Gen. Hossein Dehghan and Supreme National Security Council Secretary Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani are retired Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and are part of a large group of corps veterans who hold positions throughout the state. This group is another key lever the corps could use in resisting the government's efforts, although the president often has more influence over some of these former commanders. The corps has sought to expand its political influence with this veteran class, which since the early 1990s has provided the state with experienced bureaucrats.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps also has influence in Iranian society. By means of corps-controlled electronic and print media organizations as well as those that are independently operated by figures aligned with the corps, the elite body can influence the public and policy debates. There is also no shortage of political and social groups that champion the corp's policy positions. A key body linking the state with society is the approximately million-strong ideological militia called the Basij, which since the 2009 Green uprising has also come under the direct control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Basij personnel, through their kinship and friendship networks, provide the corps with extensive social support. The corps also has massive influence in civil society via the clerics appointed in different mosques around the country. In terms of the security and clerical establishments, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shares influence with the Supreme Leader, especially via his representatives within the corps.

Constraints on the Corps

The current government and its self-described agenda of moderation are the chief constraints on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Rouhani camp makes full use of its constitutional powers, backing from the supreme leader and the clerical establishment, and support among civil society that revolves around the country's second most prominent cleric, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In addition to Rafsanjani's massive pragmatic conservative political-economic machine, Rouhani has deep ties to the reformist civil society structures. Moreover, the Larijanis — a prominent pragmatic conservative clan — control the parliament and judiciary, giving Rouhani a greater ability to limit the corps' influence. Also, Stratfor has learned that there is widespread support for Rouhani's policies among the clerics in Iran's religious capital, Qom.

Rouhani also has sought to weaken the corps by replacing the corps veterans who gained executive posts under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with civilian and technocratic officials. Rouhani has made sure the oil, finance, energy, industry and transportation portfolios — among other positions — are held by civilians and technocrats. When the Iranian economy began to buckle under the weight of the latest U.S.-led sanctions targeting Iran's crude export capability, Rouhani was able to gain support for these appointments.

The IRGC is not a monolith in terms of opposing the government.

More important, the corps faces challenges among its own ranks. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is not a monolith in terms of opposing the government. Many officers and commanders have great respect for Rouhani, and Armed Forces Joint Staff Command Chief Maj. Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi has openly supported the president and called for corps media outlets to refrain from criticizing the government, especially on the nuclear talks. Additionally, some former corps commanders who are in the government share the government's pragmatic conservatism. In fact, the appointment of Shamkhani, the former head of the Artesh's naval forces and a key commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ground forces during the Iran-Iraq war, as the Supreme National Security Council secretary allows Rouhani to counter the corps' influence in the policy-making body because Shamkhani is a Rouhani ally.

Moreover, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is much smaller than the regular armed forces — known as the Artesh — whose leadership tends to be far less ideological. The corps numbers 125,000, while the Artesh has 500,000 members. Not only is it larger, but the Artesh is always struggling for influence, which makes it a natural ally of the government.

The Continuing Struggle

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tries to compensate for its limitations by exploiting the ideological fears of various stakeholders as well as international crises to ensure that the government's policies do not weaken its material and ideological interests. By doing this, the corps has been able to pose a challenge to the president.

Issues such as the inability of Iranian negotiators to extract sufficient concessions from their U.S. counterparts on the nuclear issue, the Islamic State-led Sunni insurrection in Iraq and the Israel-Gaza conflict give the corps ammunition against the Rouhani government. The corps is directly involved in issues such as support for Hamas and Iran's Shiite allies in Iraq through its overseas operations arm, the Quds Force. This makes the government dependent on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The corps has tried to highlight its role in these matters. In a rare statement, Quds Force chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani called the efforts to disarm Hamas a "daydream." The remark, Stratfor has learned, was meant to counterbalance the efforts of Shamkhani, who, in his communications with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders, urged the groups to negotiate a cease-fire. The agendas are not mutually exclusive, but the corps wanted to secure its input into the government's policy on the issue. Meanwhile, Shamkhani has taken the lead on forming Tehran's policy regarding Iraq — a field previously dominated by Soleimani and the Quds Force. In his recent visit to Iraq, Shamkhani sought to forge new power-sharing arrangements within the Shiite community and at the inter-communal level.

These issues remain guided by Iran's underlying national ideology, an area where the corps has the upper hand. Rouhani is struggling to make the case that his policies are in keeping with the foundational ideals of the Islamic republic. It is much easier for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to argue that any change is a departure from those ideals than for the president to show that change does not undermine the continuity of the founders' intent. This made more difficult by all the stakeholders in the Iranian political establishment's concern about normalizing relations with the West while retaining the revolutionary character of the republic. 

Ultimately, the outcome of the struggle between the corps and the government will depend on how much influence either side has over Khamenei, whose career has been characterized by striking a balance among Tehran's various factions. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps can use Khamenei's dependence on the elite force to shape his behavior, but if they go too far they risk contradicting their allegiance to the Iranian political system's governing principle and the core Shia concept of following a religious scholar. These constraints, along with the geopolitical perils facing Iran, provide Khamenei with a great deal of leverage to steer the corps toward pragmatism. Therefore, the corps is limited to exploiting the clerics' fears about those pragmatic policies in an effort to keep the government in check.

Until the time comes for a new supreme leader to be elected (in the event of Khamenei's incapacitation or death), the corps will be limited to the current tools at its disposal to block Rouhani's agenda. The selection of a new supreme leader would be a major inflection point at which the entire Iranian system would be in flux. Before that happens, Rouhani and his camp want to strengthen themselves in order to prevent the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from benefiting from the change.

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