December 23, 2013 | Quote

Rouhani Takes On Revolutionary Guards in Iran Power Test

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, a business empire as well as the country’s most powerful military force, have been a vocal critic of recent nuclear diplomacy. President Hassan Rouhani is fighting back, setting up a contest that may shape his presidency.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps expanded under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, benefiting from multi-billion-dollar contracts to build Iran’s nuclear facilities and develop the world’s biggest natural-gas field at South Pars in the Persian Gulf. Former officers, who made up more than half of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, are down to four out of 18 ministerial jobs under Rouhani.

Guards leaders, in their role as defenders of the Islamic revolution, have denounced the new president’s breakthrough phone call with Barack Obama and sniped at Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as he negotiated a nuclear accord with world powers in Geneva last month.

Rouhani, in turn, is seeking to ease them out of politics and the economy. He’s curbing the Guards’ role in industries from road-building to petrochemicals and cutting the budget of their paramilitary Basij force, used to suppress protests in 2009. The contest may determine whether the president gets to enact the platform he was elected on, which includes loosening religious and political restrictions, or is thwarted by opponents of change.

‘Dirty Work’

“One of the two will be defeated,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and author of several studies of the Guards.

The Guards report directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who encouraged their participation in politics to counter the reformist movement that emerged around President Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

Khamenei typically plays different factions against one another to ensure no group gets too powerful, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He may use the Guards to put the brakes on Rouhani’s plans, Sadjadpour said.

“Khamenei doesn’t want to be seen blocking Rouhani but he’s betting Sepah will do his dirty work for him,” he said, referring to the Persian name for the Guard Corps.

Equally, the supreme leader will sometimes back the president because “he wouldn’t mind seeing Rouhani roll back some of the influence of the Guards,” Alfoneh said.

“I expect escalation of the conflict,” said Alfoneh, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I’m not capable of predicting the outcome.”

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