Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Iran defends the Revolutionary Guards

Iran has hit back against the accusation its Revolutionary Guards are terrorists by claiming it is the US military and the CIA that deserve the label. The Iranian foreign minister has backed a statement on Saturday by 215 members of the Majlis (parliament) which branded the US military and the CIA as “terrorists because they support terrorism”. Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters at his weekly press conference he supported their stance. He also condemned the recent US Congress approval to declare the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) terrorists. “Placing the armed forces of the UN member states on the list of terrorist groups is unprecedented,” he said.

On Wednesday last week, the American Senate voted 76-22 in favour of a resolution that urged the State Department to designate the IRGC a terrorist organisation. Iran’s biggest concern is that the move could affect businesses linked with the Guards, as it could allow the US. Treasury Department to move against them. The Guards are the elite defenders of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and it gained considerable popularity and power during the eight year Iran-Iraq war that followed.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard was formed in May 1979 in the immediate wake of the Islamic revolution. It was set up by the then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to be the “guardian of the revolution”. Former CIA analyst Bruce Reidel said the ayatollah wanted protection against threats from Iran's regular army, who may still have had loyalties to the Shah and his foreign backers such as the CIA. The group was originally intended to be a popular people's army but was bloodied in the eight year war with Iraq. The Guards acted as human waves in some of the toughest battles and hundreds of thousands of fighters perished.

According to Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Revolutionary Guards are not just a major military force, they are the spine of government. Religious leader and commander-in-chief of the armed forces Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed many former commanders to top political positions, blurring the line between military and civil authority. Former Guards senior officers holding significant positions in government include the secretary of National Security, the head of state television and radio services, several cabinet ministers and the president himself Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Guards are also a major economic force. They not only operate legal businesses, but they also register as foreign companies, and engage in illegal smuggling. After the Iran-Iraq war the country passed legislation to allow the IRGC use its “engineering capability” to rebuild the economy. However there is no oversight organisation and corruption is rife. The IRGC control billions of dollars of Iranian oilfield contracts and automotive industry on a no-bid basis. According to Washington based Iranian exile, Rasool Nafisi, that is one reason why the private sector is unable to function well – “because the juiciest part of the economy was swallowed up by the IRGC”.

Known in Farsi as the "Pasdaran", the guards were established by a Khomenei decree with a mandate to defend the revolution. By 1986, the Pasdaran consisted of 350,000 personnel organized in battalion-size units that operated either independently or with units of the regular armed forces. In 1986 the Pasdaran acquired small naval and air elements. By 1996 the ground and naval forces were reported to number 100,000 and 20,000, respectively. It has a massive intelligence unit to monitor the regime's domestic enemies. It also has strong links to overseas organisations such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad through the Quds (Jerusalem) Force.

The shadowy Quds Force led by Qassem Soleimani reports directly to Ayatollah Khamenei. While the Quds and the US have found themselves on the same side in the past (they both supported the Northern Alliance in the Afghan war against the Taliban), they are now deemed to be enemies. In January this year, US President Bush accused the Quds of assisting the insurgency in neighbouring Iraq. Afterwards, the White House backed away from the implication that Iran is complicit in the war across its border. Some of the evidence linking Quds to weaponry found in Iraq is also dodgy. Asked why the writing on the weapons allegedly made in Iran was in English, one U.S. intelligence official responded: “That’s a very good question.”

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