Iran: The rise of the state within

19 September 2011

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has extended its influence across the country’s economy and politics. Questions surround how unified the group is towards its outlook for the Islamic republic

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has come a long way since it was formed in 1979 to protect the embryonic new government of Tehran from its opponents. After three decades as a primarily military organisation, the IRGC now has interests across Iran’s economic spectrum and its influence has extended into the country’s political sphere.

With little effective opposition within Iran, the IRGC has been able to grow and the response of the international community – isolating the republic to counter its nuclear ambitions – has removed any real competition.

After evicting European oil majors, Shell and Repsol, the oil ministry awarded the development of the several phases of the vast South Pars gas field to a consortium of local firms, including Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Base, the IRGC’s most important business arm.

That a consortium so close to the IRGC has been awarded phases on the South Pars scheme highlights concerns over the corps’ increasing power in the country, as well as undermining any hopes of progress.

The new Oil Minister, Rostam Qassemi, himself a former commander of the group, has urged the IRGC’s construction arm to take a greater role in the oil and gas sector, which is the most important part of the Iranian economy. As international oil companies have fled, the country has had little option but to turn to its powerful domestic conglomerate, without so much as a tender being launched.

How unified the Revolutionary Guards are in their outlook for Iran is open to question. The group is far from monolithic, but under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they have seen their role in politics expand as much as in the economy. This summer, the IRGC picked sides in a conflict between Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC’s veiled criticism of the president is perhaps a sign that the group is preparing to show its hand as it assumes more and more control of the country.

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