Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the military force that has served as the main pillar of support for the Islamic republic, is seeking to play an independent role in the country's domestic political life. The entry of the Revolutionary Guards into the political fray can have many unintended consequences, including the rearrangement of Iran's policy-making process.
Iran's conservative clerics created the Revolutionary Guard Corps to defend the 1979 Islamic revolt from both foreign and domestic enemies. Before his death in 1989, the spiritual leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, prohibited the Revolutionary Guards from becoming actively involved in politics, which for much of the Islamic republic's history has been marked by factional infighting. In addition, the Iranian constitution prohibits members of the armed forces from direct engagement in politics.
However, recent domestic and regional developments enabled the Revolutionary Guard commanders to break the taboo on political activity. Conservative clerics became increasingly reliant on the country's security forces as they went about re-establishing their firm grip on power.
On the domestic front, hard-liners relied heavily on the Revolutionary Guards to manage get-out-the-vote and other activities that helped secure a conservative landslide victory in the controversial February parliamentary elections. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
At the same time, the Revolutionary Guards domestic prestige has been significantly enhanced by the fact of its management of Iran's nuclear program. The program, under intense international scrutiny because of its arms-making potential, is a source of tremendous national pride in Iran.
On the security front, the US-led war on terrorism -- specifically the presence of US troops in two neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq has enhanced the Revolutionary Guards' clout in defending Iran's national interests. Indeed, the Revolutionary Guards reportedly dominate Iran's embassy in Iraq, and have garnered praise in Tehran for running effective intelligence and diplomatic operations that stifled Bush administration talk of promoting regime change in Iran.
Prior to taking on a higher political profile, the Revolutionary Guards established itself as an economic force in the country, launching a vast array of financial and economic enterprises. In large part, the businesses were seen as needed to finance Revolutionary Guard security programs. At the same time, the ventures were intended to build the guards' independence. In this, guard commanders sought to mimic their military counterparts in Pakistan and Turkey. In both those countries, the army acts as far more than an instrument to protect national interests: they both play high-profile political roles and often define what the respective nations' security interests are.
Signs of the growing political clout of the Revolutionary Guards are abundant. For instance, on May 18, a former guards commander, Ezatullah Zarghami, was named to the key post of national television and radio chief.
In addition, in apparent exchange for its help during the parliamentary elections, the Revolutionary Guards were permitted to field its own slate of candidates. Thus, when the new parliament convenes later in May, about one dozen legislators will be under the effective control of the Revolutionary Guards. Political observers note that this is the first time in the Islamic republic's 25-year history that the guards have had such a parliamentary presence.
By far the greatest demonstration of the Revolutionary Guards' political influence occurred in early May, when the military abruptly closed down Tehran's new Imam Khomeini International Airport. In justifying its action, Revolutionary Guard representatives said the fact that a Turkish consortium, TAV, was in charge of operating the airport terminal posed a threat to Iran's "security and dignity," the official IRNA news agency reported. Accordingly, the guards have demanded that the TAV airport deal be voided before the airport reopens.
Some observers suspect an economic motive is behind the Revolutionary Guards' action in the airport row. When TAV won the tender to operate the airport, the losing bidder was reportedly a company with close ties to the Revolutionary Guards.
TAV in a statement said it had already expended $15 million to fulfill its airport operation obligations. The statement also asserted that a memo of understanding governing TAV's management of the airport was still valid.
The Iranian student news agency, ISNA, described the May 8 closure of the airport as illegal, going on to blame the action on "irresponsible elements." IRNA, meanwhile, quoted the lame-duck Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi as characterizing the incident a "disaster and disgrace for the country." Nevertheless, the new airport which was 30 years and $465 million in the making remains closed while the issue is decided at the highest levels of Iran's government.
Given the opaque nature of Iran's political system, it is difficult to determine the attitude of the country's conservative religious hierarchy towards the guards' rising political profile. Some observers suggest the guards' efforts to become more politically active are simply a reflection of changing geopolitical conditions that have rewritten the rules governing domestic Iranian politics. Others believe the Revolutionary Guard commanders may be overplaying their hand, and thus could soon be subject to action designed to curb their political ambitions.
An important indicator of the Revolutionary Guards' future in politics should come in 2005, when the Guardian Council will vet candidate for the presidential election. If the candidate favored by the guards current Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad is allowed to run in the election, many observers will take it as a sign of conservative acceptance of a Revolutionary Guard role in politics.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.