CAIRO — As Iran’s political elite and clerical establishment splinter over the election crisis, the nation’s most powerful economic, social and political institution — the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — has emerged as a driving force behind efforts to crush a still-defiant opposition movement.
From its origin 30 years ago as an ideologically driven militia force serving Islamic revolutionary leaders, the corps has grown to assume an increasingly assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society.
And its aggressive drive to silence dissenting views has led many political analysts to describe the events surrounding the June 12 presidential election as a military coup.
“It is not a theocracy anymore,” said Rasool Nafisi, an expert in Iranian affairs and a co-author of an exhaustive study of the corps for the RAND Corporation. “It is a regular military security government with a facade of a Shiite clerical system.”
The corps has become a vast military-based conglomerate, with control of Iran’s missile batteries, oversight of its nuclear program and a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching into nearly every sector of the economy. It runs laser eye-surgery clinics, manufactures cars, builds roads and bridges, develops gas and oil fields and controls black-market smuggling, experts say.
Its fortune and its sense of entitlement have reportedly grown under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2005, when he took office, companies affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards have been awarded more than 750 government contracts in construction and oil and gas projects, Iranian press reports document. And all of its finances stay off the budget, free from any state oversight or need to provide an accounting to Parliament.
The corps’s alumni hold dozens of seats in Parliament and top government posts. Mr. Ahmadinejad is a former member, as are the speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, and the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. And the influence of the Revolutionary Guards reaches deep into the education system, where it indoctrinates students in loyalty to the state, and into the state-controlled media, where it guides television and radio programming.
“They are the proponents of an authoritarian modernization, convinced that the clergy should continue supplying the legitimation for the regime as a sort of military chaplains, but definitely not run the show,” said a political scientist who worked in Iran for years, but asked not to be identified to avoid antagonizing the authorities.
They are so influential partly because they present a public front of unity in a state where power has always been fractured. By contrast, clerics have many different agendas and factions. Nonetheless, there are glimmers of fractures under the corps’s opaque and disciplined surface.
Political analysts said that behind the scenes there were internal disagreements about the handling of the election and the demonstrations against disputed results that gave a second term to Mr. Ahmadinejad.
“I have received reports, at least part of the top commanders in the Revolutionary Guards are not happy with what is going on,” said Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, who says he has a network of contacts around the country. “There are even reports of some who have protested.”
Even a former commander in the corps, Mohsen Rezai, who served for 16 years, decided to challenge the status quo by running for president this year, and he openly complained of the government’s failure to investigate accusations of vote-rigging.
One political analyst said that many of the rank and file were known to have voted for Mohammad Khatami, an outspoken reformer, when he was first elected president in 1997.
The corps is not large. It has as many as 130,000 members and runs five armed branches that are independent from the much bigger national military. It commands its own ground force, navy, air force and intelligence service. The United Nations Security Council has linked its officials to Iran’s nuclear program. The West suspects Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons, an allegation the government denies.
The corps’s two best-known subsidiaries are the secretive Quds Force, which has carried out operations in other countries, including the training and arming of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon; and the Basij militia. The Basiji, who experts say were incorporated under the corps’s leadership only two years ago, now include millions of volunteer vigilantes used to crack down on election protests and dissidents.
Members of the Revolutionary Guards and their families receive privileged status at every level, which benefits them in university admissions and in the distribution of subsidized commodities, experts said.
Mr. Nafisi, the RAND report co-author, said a former commander in the corps estimated that all the corps and Basiji members, together with their families, added up to a potential voting bloc of millions of people. “This new machinery of election was quite important in bringing Ahmadinejad forward,” Mr. Nafisi said.
Within this bloc is a core of military elites who have displaced — and at times clashed with — the clerical revolutionaries who worked beside Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in founding the Islamic republic. They are the second generation of revolutionaries, ideologically united and contemptuous of first-generation clerics like former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and of reformers and those eager to engage with the West. The corps has even trained its own clerics.
In an essay describing the rise of the Revolutionary Guards phenomenon, Professor Sahimi drew a portrait of the new elite: leaders in their mid-50s who as young men joined the corps and fought two wars: one against Iraq in the 1980s and another to force out the Mujahedeen Khalq, which the United States considers a terrorist organization and which is now based in Iraq.
The corps then split into two groups. One believed that Iran needed a chance to develop politically and socially; the other, which emerged the victor, was intent on maintaining strict control. Mr. Nafisi said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was close to that second group.
“He went to the war front several times, more than any other commander,” Mr. Nafisi said. “He made personal contact with many commanders, got to know them and earned their loyalty. Now all the people in charge were basically assigned to him at the time of war.”
Today, the corps has expanded its role and reach. Its financial interests have, for example, been linked directly to the government’s foreign policy. Iran may well have remained silent on the attacks on Uighur Muslims in China this month in part because Beijing is one of the main trading partners with the corps.
Shortly after the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Rafsanjani, then the president, encouraged the corps to use its engineers to bolster its own budget and to help rebuild the country. Since then, a Revolutionary Guards company, Khatam al-Anbia, has become one of Iran’s largest contractors in industrial and development projects, according to the RAND report. Its contracts with the government, including projects like the construction of a Tehran subway line, hydroelectric dams, ports and railway systems, are carried out by the company’s subsidiaries or are parceled out to private companies.
What is less quantifiable is the corps’s black-market smuggling activity, which has helped feed the nation’s appetite for products banned by sanctions, while also enriching the corps. The Rand report quoted one member of Iran’s Parliament who estimated that the Revolutionary Guards might do as much as $12 billion in black-market business annually.
In his will, Ayatollah Khomeini asked that the military stay out of politics, and senior Revolutionary Guards officials have been careful to defend themselves against accusations of political meddling after the June 12 election. But Gen. Yadollah Javani, director of the corps’s political arm, warned the public that there was no room for dissent.
“Today, no one is impartial,” he said, according to the official news agency IRNA. “There are two currents: those who defend and support the revolution and the establishment, and those who are trying to topple it.”
Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Toronto, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.