- (AP) -- They own car factories and construction firms,
operate newspaper groups and oil fields and increasingly, serve in parliament
or become provincial governors. To supporters, the Revolutionary Guards
are the cream of Iran's talent.
- To the United States, they are simply terrorists.
- Either way, the group formed to safeguard Iran's 1979
Islamic revolution has pushed well beyond its military roots: Current and
former members now hold a growing role across the country's government
and economy, sometimes openly and other times in shadow.
- The election of a hard-line president two years ago sharply
accelerated that influence, recent interviews here suggest. Supporters
of supreme leader Ali Khamenei and his protege, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,
have sought to consolidate power by putting allies in key positions, potentially
shaping Iran for years to come.
- "We don't support it," Mohsen Mirdamadi, who
leads Iran's largest pro-reform party, said of the guards' spreading influence.
"It can be reversed with a change of government - but slowly."
- Publicly, the guards now own or control numerous companies
that receive lucrative, often no-bid government contracts in the oil and
gas industry, farming, and road and dam construction. Their winning of
deals is often announced outright in Tehran newspapers.
- Other times, the group's business deals are shrouded
in mystery and merely whispered about.
- In one example, the guards are thought to run a network
of unauthorized docks and trading firms importing consumer goods, tariff-free,
into Iran, said Mehdi Khalaji, a researcher at the Washington Institute
for Near East Policy.
- That would be a lucrative business in Iran, where Western
goods are harder to obtain.
- In addition, an Iranian company that manufactures Japanese
cars inside Iran is also thought to be owned by the guards, said Khalaji.
- The guards have gained a particularly big role in the
country's oil and gas industry in recent years, as the national oil company
has signed several contracts with a guards-operated construction company.
Some have been announced publicly, including a $2 billion deal in 2006
to develop part of the important Pars gas field.
- Often, firms owned by Revolutionary Guards will get noncompetitive
bids for major oil or construction projects and then outsource the project
to others, operating essentially as a "private mafia," said Karim
Sadjadpour, an Iranian-American who works at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace in Washington.
- Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign
Relations in New York, said the guards also have gained lucrative telecommunications
contracts, and have known links with university labs, weapons makers and
firms linked to Iran's nuclear program. All are industries with clear dual-use
- civilian and military - potential, giving the guards firm links to many
vital military-related industries.
- The business deals also make the guards less reliant
on Iran's more democratic and transparent institutions, such as parliament,
for their funding. The no-bid government contracts often lack any independent
oversight such as from parliament's budget process, meaning money from
them can be diverted into overseas operations with little notice, other
- At least 80 former guards also are in parliament out
of a total of 290 seats. Others serve as mayors and provincial governors.
Former commanders also make up about two-thirds of the current Cabinet,
according to some estimates, and Ahmadinejad himself is a former guards
commander who went on to Tehran's mayor before being elected president.
- That influence is a far cry from the group's original
roots: It was founded in 1979 in the revolution's wake to provide a counterbalance
to the U.S.-trained military at a time when Iran's new Islamic leaders
feared the army might remain loyal to the deposed shah.
- The Revolutionary Guards won widespread admiration and
even public reverence in the 1980s when they defended Iran from Saddam
Hussein's regime during the long, devastating Iran-Iraq war.
- Now numbering about 125,000 members, they report directly
to the supreme leader and officially handle internal security. The small
Quds Force wing is thought to operate overseas, having helped to create
the militant Hezbollah group in 1982 in Lebanon and to arm Bosnian Muslims
during the Balkan wars.
- The Bush administration accuses the Quds Force of sending
fighters and deadly roadside bombs, mortars and rockets to kill American
troops in Iraq in recent years - allegations that Iran denies.
- The United States pressures U.S. and European banks to
do no business with Iranian banks, such as Bank Sedarat that the Bush administration
believes help finance guards' business operations. But the United States
is also considering naming the entire group as a foreign terrorist organization,
presumably allowing wider financial crackdowns.
- Hard-liners within Iran generally both downplay and defend
the guards' role.
- Hossein Shariatmadari, a former guard member himself
who is close to Khamenei, now runs the large Kayhan group of newspapers
and magazines in Tehran. He said the prominence of former guards in business
and politics is understandable because they often have the engineering
training and management skills to run many industries. The group's primary
focus remains safeguarding the country from outside threats, especially
from the West, he said.
- Even some outsiders wonder how much a terrorist designation
would really do. Takeyh called the guards' business enterprises "murky
and ambiguous" and said it would thus be difficult to target them
- In addition, not all former guards are hard-liners. Many
members of the country's reform movement and democratic opposition are
also former guards, Takeyh noted, "making a terrorist label even more