The Iranian Revolutionary Guard
Babak Yektafar Pt2: IRGC defended Iran against Saddam’s attacks but has turned into a repressive force
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. Joining us again is Babak Yektafar, editor of Washington Prism Magazine. Thanks for joining us again.
BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Thank you.
JAY: So in the first segment of the interview, we talked about the big student demonstrations last week, and ended talking about the Revolutionary Guard. And, of course, the Revolutionary Guard is the one that had threatened the students, and the students defied them in enormous numbers, which was rather surprising, given how tough the Revolutionary Guard can be when they want to be.
YEKTAFAR: Very surprising, yeah.
JAY: But out of this whole story, from the elections and what’s happened afterwards, the one thing that’s clear is the Revolutionary Guard is in power, and they seem very firm in their position. Give us a sense of how this came to be, ’cause that’s not how it originally—this revolution wasn’t supposed to be about something like the Revolutionary Guard.
YEKTAFAR: No, it wasn’t. And, in fact, Ayatollah Khomeini, again, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, was very specific about that. He did not want any kind of military apparatus or security apparatus getting involved in politics. Having said that, though, he was also aware that it was very difficult for him to trust the clerics that he knew, to entrust to them the survival of the regime and the management of the country into their hands. So when this Guardians of Revolution, or IRGC, we call them (or Pasdaran in Farsi), when they were formed, essentially they were formed to protect Khomeini himself. They were afraid that the Shah’s agent would go after him and assassinate him. But beyond that, it became this entity as a [inaudible] entity military to check the power of their regular army, which was still known as the Imperial Army at the time. But then, beyond that, of course, what I think really changed the nature of this unit was the Iran-Iraq War. After the Revolution, the high brass of the military were basically executed by the revolutionaries for a number of different reasons, and essentially you had this vacuum at the upper echelon of the Army. And in essence some of these people, the IRGC members who did go to the war front, they had to build armies on their own. And, again, we’re talking about a country that was at the time in confrontation with the United States. It was scaring the pants out of a lot of countries, not just out in Europe, but the neighboring countries—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, so on. So there were a lot of nations that were opposing Iran. And once that war took place, you’re talking about a nation that had massive population but not a proper army, and particularly not proper equipment, compared to what Saddam Hussein at the time had.
JAY: Now, one of the roots of the early history of the revolution—and the Revolutionary Guard certainly was involved in this—was the arrest and imprisonment and large-scale executions of political opposition, including many people on the left of the political spectrum.
YEKTAFAR: And that’s the time where the Revolutionary Guards, the IRGC, actually moved—or changed, rather, its identity in some shape or form from being this unit that’s protecting Iran from external invasion into an internal force to beat down the opposition. I mean, we’re talking about what’s taking place right now. I think your point is—should be taken that in 1980-81, we’re talking about thousands of opposition members who were basically assassinated, executed, killed in so many different ways. And, again, the regime throughout its history of 30 years has shown on a number of occasion that it’s not afraid to bloody its hands. But right at the end of the war, another thing that happened was that the country needed to be rebuilt, and at the time, after eight years of war, this particular entity, IRGC, was the only entity that had the means, the equipment, and so on, that could get involved into rebuilding and construction work—the roads and schools and buildings and things of that nature. And, oddly enough, one of the so-called opposition figures right now, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a very powerful kingmaker, if you will, within the IRGC who’s now being threatened, pretty much, was very instrumental in throwing a lot of jobs and a lot of contracts in their way, in IRGC’s way. And the financial might that came out of that really propelled IRGC into this self-governing and—.
JAY: So that’s an important point that I don’t think gets talked about very much is the extent of the economic power of the Revolutionary Guards.
JAY: They just own a lot of stuff.
YEKTAFAR: Yes. And more than anything, that really allowed them to feel that they should have a say in the future of the country, more importantly to compete with a lot of bazaar merchants and other pragmatic players within the regime. Again, we mentioned people like Hashemi Rafsanjani, who were involved, had a hand in just about every economic aspect of the country, and a major competition started growing at that point. It was interesting that one of the high-level members of the IRGC recently had an interview where he said that that group, that entity, IRGC, is probably the only entity in Iran that has shown competence in management. And he was saying that to justify why members of IRGC should be involved in politics and they should be running the country, because at the time, of course, everybody was saying that this is not what Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Republic, had in mind, and he was basically justifying by saying that. So what we see right now taking place, this kind of control that IRGC has, it’s a sense of entitlement that they have. They feel that they have shown their competence in management, that they have had many people die within their ranks defending the country from Iraq and other "Western threats", as they usually put it, and also from internal threats. And the reason that we do have an Islamic Republic standing up right now, it’s solely because of their existence and what they did.
JAY: Now, when the students protest, do they have some level of understanding that they have allies within the elite that will protect them from the Revolutionary Guard? Do they have any allies within the Revolutionary Guard? Because, you know, in theory here, if they had a unified Revolutionary Guard and ruling elite, they could crack down on them [inaudible]
YEKTAFAR: I think it’s very important to point out the dynamics of these power points that we’re talking about. Even within the clerical regime, obviously, there are different power points that are at play here. It’s the same thing with the IRGC, even at a higher level. I mean, granted, those who are in control right now are probably in the same alignment with the supreme leader, and some very hard-line, hardcore clerics and some other members, let’s say, within the parliament and such. But even within, at that level, and particularly if file and rank of IRGC, and also the regular military, you have people who are not happy with this particular situation, who are not happy with the fact that those few high-level member of IRGC have such influence and such control. I think the students know that. I think originally, right after the election, when millions, literally millions of people poured out for first time in the 30-year history of the regime, they did feel that they had allies within the regime. Again, we mentioned some of these names: former president Khatemi, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and some other high-level clerics, but also some members within the security apparatus and IRGC. I think that opening allowed them to feel comfortable enough to come out. But then, after the second third day, when they actually poured out, particularly with the so-called Basij Militia—these are the volunteer militia of about a million in number. They’re more of a thuggish or the sort of—.
JAY: These are the ones we see running around with clubs on motorcycles.
YEKTAFAR: Batons and such. Once they came out, then, again, a lot of them just decided that maybe it’s not worth going out. And now we see that the students [inaudible]
JAY: In the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard, given that the Revolutionary Guard owns so much, but are they accumulating personal wealth? Or is it in the ownership of the Revolutionary Guard itself?
YEKTAFAR: A combination of it. I mean, they feel that their personal gain is very much dependent on the wellbeing of the entity itself, and not just the whole entity, but those few who are like-minded in particular. A good example that comes to mind is that during the presidency of Khatami, when they were opening this brand-new international airport called Ayatollah Khomeini International Airport, far from Tehran, about an hour from Tehran, and there is such a big deal about it, and they had given the shops, the running of the shops within the airport to this Turkish company, that did not sit well with IRGC members. They wanted more dough, if you will, out of this deal. And the night before it was supposed to open, they poured in the IRGC members, they shut everything down, and the next thing you know they were accusing the Turkish company that was running the concessions stands at the airport with dealing with Israel, which, of course, in Islamic Iran, it’s an absolute no-no, and the whole thing was shut down. And it just opened up a year after that with IRGC being in control of the concession stands at the airport. So they feel that, you know, if the entity as a whole is well endowed, then, obviously, they can (A) keep control on just about everything and also enrich themselves. And it’s also important to point out, when we talked about sanctions against—’cause they’re talking about targeted sanctions against IRGC, and you hear a great deal of debate that that still is going to hurt Iranian people, because IRGC is such a huge entity that it employs such a large number of Iranians that regardless if you’re targeting them, it’s still going to impact Iranian as a whole. And as a last note, I do want to mention about this [inaudible] we do have to remember that their claim is to some extent true—I mean the fact these people actually went out there in defense of Iran. And it’s a shame that the name of Basij, as well as the IRGC, has been sinking to such a low and they’re reacting in such a way, because the original Basij and the original IRGC were the people who not only defended Iran but were heavily involved, as volunteers in some cases, in rebuilding the country after the devastating eight-year war that they had with Iraq. But now they have become this [inaudible] agent of oppression, and that’s regrettable.
JAY: So in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk just a little bit more about the structure of the Iranian elite, which essentially in the elite we’re seeing segments of multi-multibillionaires in one way or the other there’s an enormous amount of wealth at stake. And then the question is: does this elite really want a nuclear weapon, or do they just want to be on center stage? So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Babak Yektafar.