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The rise and rise of Iran's Guards

Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressing a Revolutionary Guard rally
The rise of the Guards may mean a more hardline Iran

It has hardly been the most exciting election campaign in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

With many of the more liberal or reformist candidates disqualified, the conservatives look certain to consolidate control in the parliament.

But this election could mark an important change in Iran. A crucial marker in the rising power of the military.

And that could have important implications for the world, as hardliners tighten their grip on policy.

As an institution I think that the Revolutionary Guards are really now the X-factor in both the political scene and the economic scene
Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment

The Revolutionary Guards (full name Islamic Revolution Guards Corps) have been steadily gaining power since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power nearly three years.

Former Guards commanders, including the president himself, have many of the top jobs in the government.

Now former members of the Revolutionary Guards are expecting to win many seats in parliament, eclipsing the power of the Shia Muslim clergy.

Changing guard

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says that the rise of the military is the single most important current development in Iranian politics.

"As an institution I think that the Revolutionary Guards are really now the X-factor in both the political scene and the economic scene," he said.

I can tell you that military forces are impatient to have more political power and impact
Saeed Leylaz
Former Revolutionary Guards officer

"Whereas 10 or 15 years ago people used to say 'well I have a contact who is very powerful because he is related to such-and-such clergyman', these days in Iran people say 'I have a contact, he is very powerful because he is related to such-and-such Revolutionary Guardsman'."

Powerful and rich, quite possibly. Over the last few years, the Revolutionary Guards have been awarded government contracts worth billions of dollars.

In fact the parliament recently ruled that they should have first refusal on all government contracts.

They are building dams and roads and they are becoming the largest single force in the oil industry. They even run Tehran's new international airport.

Saeed Leylaz, a former Revolutionary Guards officer himself, says that this has just made them hungry for more power.

When a government strongly supported by its people, it is not afraid of critics, and has a high tolerance for dissent. This is a government that is not popular as it wishes
Shirin Ebadi
Nobel peace prize winner

"I can tell you that military forces are impatient to have more political power and impact. They have enough economic power, administration power. They have good experience level in administration or executive issues.

"Maybe they believe that they are better people to manage the country than the classic politicians. For example if Mr Ahmadinejad is not successful [as president], it seems that we have no very clear future for the country. Who will be the next manager?

"We tested liberals through Mr Rafsanjani, we tested democracy through Mr Khatami, and we tested social justice through Mr Ahmadinejad. Who will be the next?" wonders Mr Leylaz.

Growing authoritarianism

As part of that trend, Iran is becoming a more authoritarian country.

Dissent is being ruthlessly suppressed. Anti-government demonstrations are almost unheard of.

Revolutionary Gurads on parade

The human rights lawyer and Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi, says it is a symptom of an unpopular government.

"When a government strongly supported by its people, it is not afraid of critics, and has a high tolerance for dissent. But a weak government is usually afraid of its critics. This is a government that is not popular as it wishes."

The West also has plenty to fear from the rise of the Iranian military.

The Revolutionary Guard, after all, are the ones who captured the British sailors last year, and are blamed by the Americans for supporting insurgents in Iraq, and supplying weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas.

So as the military tighten their grip on the Iranian government, expect an ever more uncompromising line on the nuclear issue, and even more active intervention across the Middle East.

More hardline

Much of this has become apparent since the election of President Ahmadinejad. Yet he may be as much symptom as cause - puppet as much as puppet-master.

Real power in Iran is held by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and those around him.

Building up the power of the military may be his way of consolidating control, or building a new power base, to reduce his dependence on the senior ayatollahs who have sometimes questioned his religious credentials.

Certainly in the short term it appears that Ayatollah Khamenei will be the big winner in this election, as this new generation of ex-military leaders comes to power, all directly owing their positions to him.

Above all Iran is likely to see a more uniformly hardline government.

Any dreams the West had of moderates regaining power in Tehran, are surely over.

And that is a major development Washington, London and other Western governments will have to work out how to deal with.



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