The Regime's Shadow Warriors Revolutionary Guards Keep Stranglehold on Iran

By and Erich Follath

Part 2: 'One of the World's Most Powerful Cartels'

Mohsen Sazegara, 55, is a former close associate of Khomeini who was one of the original Pasdaran leaders. Today, from his exile in the United States, he is one of the organization's harshest critics. The original plan was to establish a group of 500 officers who were to lead about half a million volunteers, Sazegara says. But today the Revolutionary Guards are much more than just a militia. "The Pasdaran is a unique mixture of army and militia, terrorist organization and mafia -- a state within a state," he told SPIEGEL.

The Pasdaran's rise to become what Sazegara calls "one of the world's most powerful cartels" began in 1981, under the command of Mohsen Rezai, who led the Revolutionary Guards for 16 years. The general took advantage of the war Iraq had instigated against Iran to expand the militia into an extremely well-armed auxiliary army. The organization soon had its own intelligence service, which collected information about regime critics and took action against suspected subversives.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Targeting the Revolutionary Guards

The Quds Force, named after the Arab name for Jerusalem, became legendary, and it is still responsible for operations in enemy territory today. President Ahmadinejad was a member of the Quds Force in the war against Saddam Hussein, and he is believed to have led operations in the Kurdish region. Members of the Quds Force are also believed to have later been involved in the murders of opposition members abroad. The group cooperates with other extremist organizations, including Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Iran's Most Powerful General

From the beginning, one man oversaw the Pasdaran and promoted its rise to power: Ayatollah Khamenei, Khomeini's personal representative and successor who has been Iran's supreme leader for the last 20 years. He recognized early on that the Revolutionary Guards could become his most important source of support, and he made sure that it received privileges right from the start of his time in office.

The Pasdaran now counts 125,000 men, making it about a third the size of the regular army. Nevertheless, its leader, Mohammad Ali Jafari, is indisputably the most powerful general in the country. He also controls 300,000 reservists and, more important, the fanatics of the voluntary Basij militia, which has an estimated 100,000 members. In times of crisis, however, the Basij is believed to be able to muster up to 1 million activists. It is these "moral police" who, under the command of the Pasdaran, have been most active in violently assaulting the opposition since last summer.

The general has become the backbone of the regime. Unlike his counterparts in the regular army, Jafari also controls a gigantic economic empire. The Pasdaran has ruthlessly hijacked the economy of its own country, with the support of its leader Khamenei. No one knows how many companies the Revolutionary Guard has already taken over, but co-founder Mohsen Sazegara estimates that it "controls more than 100 different businesses" -- from export companies for household goods to producers of automobile spare parts. The Pasdaran is believed to have established more than 500 offices of Iranian companies worldwide.

According to the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, which opposes the regime from abroad, the Revolutionary Guard controls more than half of the entire import business and close to a third of Iran's export business -- which doesn't include its holdings in the lucrative oil business, with estimated annual profits of $5 billion. Conveniently, it also controls the country's biggest container port, Bandar Abbas, and the airport in the capital Tehran.

Lucrative Business Interests

A profit center of the Pasdaran conglomerate of trading companies and industrial plants is Khatam al-Anbiya, a construction company that employs and pays 55,000 members of the Pasdaran and Basij. The company began its business by expanding roads and military positions in the war, and then it built barracks for the army and runways for the air force. Today Khatam is a mixed conglomerate with about 800 holdings and subcontractors, and estimated annual sales of $7 billion. On Wednesday of last week, the United States expanded its existing sanctions against Khatam to include four subsidiaries.

To penetrate into the highly lucrative oil business, the Pasdaran has not shied away from waging small private wars. Iranian business owners in Tehran still remember how, in August 2006, Revolutionary Guards, their weapons at the ready, took a military boat out to the Orizont drilling platform and boarded the platform. A short time later, the largest privately owner Iranian oil producer abandoned the well, and from then on the proceeds from Orizont's oil went directly into the coffers of the Pasdaran.

Last fall, the militia leaders discovered the communications industry as a profitable area of business. A consortium affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard acquired a majority stake in Telecom Iran. As a result, the Guard now controls the fixed network, two mobile telephone companies and Internet providers, and it is now expanding its role in one of the country's biggest growth markets.

Most of all, however, the Guard has taken over politics, in what Tehran-based political scientist Davoud Bovand calls a "gradual military coup." While many Iranians were pinning their hopes for liberalization on reformist Mohammad Khatami, who was president of Iran from 1997 to 2005, the Guard, with the blessing of its patron Khamenei, prepared to strike back -- and in 2005 helped Ahmadinejad become president. In his first administration, five of the 21 cabinet posts went to members of the Pasdaran, and the group received lucrative contracts from the government, including the construction of a pipeline to Pakistan. In Ahmadinejad's new government, Revolutionary Guard members received 13 cabinet posts.

Nuclear Responsibilities

The manager of the world's third-largest oil reserves is Oil Minister Masoud Mir-Kazemi, the Revolutionary Guard's former head of logistics, who had already exhibited little aptitude during his previous four-year post as trade minister. The Pasdaran is believed to have recently diverted $7 billion from oil revenues.

The Pasdaran also controls a third of the Iranian parliament, the Majlis. Ali Larijani, speaker of the parliament and previously Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, was formerly a high-ranking officer in the Revolutionary Guard, as is his successor as chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. It makes sense that both men are former Pasdaran members, because the organization has a particularly large stake in the nuclear projects.

Its companies are charged with building the hidden tunnels, such as those at the planned enrichment facility near Qom. Its scientists are enriching the uranium, its elite troops are protecting the nuclear plants and its leaders are warning the United States and its ally Israel against attacks. "If their fighter jets manage to evade the Iranian air defense system," the head of the Pasdaran air force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said, "our surface-to-surface missiles will destroy their bases before they land." Iran's secret nuclear program, the subject of a recent SPIEGEL report based on classified documents, is run by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who is a high-ranking officer in the Revolutionary Guard.

New Sanctions

The UN sanctions could go beyond previous punitive measures by personally affecting senior members of the Revolutionary Guard -- in the form of travel bans for Western countries and the freezing of bank accounts. Sanctions against Pasdaran-owned companies could put a stop to urgently needed investments in the oil industry, while a general freeze on banks could even cripple the country. Many Iranians are already emptying out their accounts, and inflation is apparently as high as 25 percent.

In the past, neither new threats of sanctions nor mass protests and street battles could deter the zealots surrounding Khamenei and his supporters. In his propaganda speech on the anniversary of the Revolution, Ahmadinejad defiantly announced new successes: "Thanks to the grace of God," he said, the first batch of uranium had already been enriched to 20 percent.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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