In recent weeks leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the powerful force tasked with guarding the revolution, and their allies in the regular army have promoted their definition of the recent uprisings in the Middle East: The events signal the beginning of a new era, one that has resulted from and is characterized by the decline of U.S. power, the growth of the power of Islam, and a more expansive role for the Islamic Republic in the Middle East. In the process, IRGC officials have stated what they must do to ensure Iran a dominant position in the new environment: maintain the unity of the Iranian people under the mantle of vilayat-i faqih (guardianship of the jurist, the principle underlying the government of the Islamic Republic) while increasing Iran’s hard and soft power.
The IRGC was formed shortly after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Since that time it has steadily expanded its power in all sectors of Iranian politics and society. It controls the Basij, a militia also tasked with guarding the Islamic Republic, as well as an army, navy, air force, and a wide array of economic, cultural, and educational institutions. IRGC commanders strive to maintain and expand their power as the vanguard of the revolution. Their reactions to the recent uprisings in the Middle East and Iran, and those of their allies in Iran’s regular armed forces, reveal how they hope to shape Iranian policy in the region.
On March 3, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, declared that the uprisings sweeping through the Middle East represent a “new era” in the region in which the United States has no place. Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces and a former member of the Basij, said the uprisings against corruption, dictatorship, arrogance, and the Zionist regime have caused American power, which rested on “the shoulder of dictators,” to tremble. He likened the current situation to a noose around America’s neck that is becoming tighter by the day. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the IRGC-controlled Basij force, predicted that “Middle Eastern Muslim nations will soon turn off oil and gas taps to the United States.”
Eliminating the influence of outside powers, especially the United States, in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East has been one of the central tenets of Iranian foreign policy since the revolution. The reactions of Iranian leaders to recent events indicate that they perceive the unrest as an opportunity to pursue that goal.
IRGC officials argue that the dawn of a new order is evidence that the United States failed to prop up the old one, most evidently in Iran. In comments that were publicized in several Iranian news sources, Hussein Ta’ib, head of the IRGC’s intelligence department, announced that his organization had thwarted several American attempts to support the seditionists (Iran’s Green Movement), overthrow the Islamic Republic, and take control of the uprisings in the Middle East.
IRGC commanders have highlighted the most powerful forces in the region in the wake of America’s exit: Islam and the Islamic Republic. “Without doubt, the conditions that exist today for the expansion of Islam and its values existed in no other time and today, despite the efforts of the enemies, we witness the spread of the soft power of Islam in many areas of the world and especially in the Middle East,” said General Jafari. Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that the current uprisings are the result of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, that “Islam is the axis” of the protests, and that the Middle East is experiencing “an Islamic awakening.”
And who better to lead the Islamic awakening than the Islamic Republic? IRGC commanders have presented Iranian leadership of the region as an obligation rather than an opportunity, as if protestors had asked specifically for Iran’s help (they have not). Because, as IRGC leaders assert, the new Middle East is the product of the Iranian Revolution, Iran should take a leading role. “Naturally, more is expected from the Islamic Revolution within this context,” said General Jafari. General Naqdi added that Iranian engineers should aid the countries struggling to gain independence from the yoke of colonialists so they can achieve economic self-sufficiency.
Iranian leaders have already become proactive in defending their new power in the region. Both General Firouzabadi and General Ismail Gha’ani, a senior IRGC commander, recently warned the United States not to interfere in Libya. The former stated that if it did so it would “suffer a great blow.” General Naqdi declared that the time had come for “the United States to withdraw its warships and fighter jets from the Islamic states in the Middle East.” He indicated that the nature of power in the region had changed. “Today, the bullying of arrogant powers, nuclear bombs, battleships, and fighter jets are ineffective,” he said.
Iranian leaders also directed their warnings to other states in the region. General Yahya Rahim Safavi, former IRGC commander and current senior aide for military affairs to the Supreme Leader, warned the United Arab Emirates that moving forward with plans to build artificial islands in the Persian Gulf would “darken Iran-UAE relations.” Cooperation between Iran and the UAE was particularly important, he said, because “regional tensions could result in a longer presence of the extra-regional powers in the Persian Gulf and their intervention in the regional countries’ affairs.”
The Iranian leadership understands that they must strengthen their own power in order to ensure their leadership of the region. Doing so, they say, requires the unity of the Iranian people under the mantle of vilayat-i faqih and the continued growth of Iran’s soft and hard power. In comments delivered to a ceremony commemorating martyrs of the Iran-Iraq War, commander of the IRGC Quds Force Qasim Suleimani asserted that “allegiance to the concept of vilayat-i faqih will guarantee Iran’s national unity.” Iran’s enemies understand that vilayat-i faqih is the source of Iranian power, said one of the Supreme Leader’s representatives to the IRGC, which is why they try to degrade the position of vilayat-i faqih in society. “Today the most important mission for all of us,” he said, is to increase the power of the Basij so that it can confront such efforts.
The strengthening of vilayat-i faqih and repelling the enemies’ attacks on Iran’s religious government require that Iran build its soft power, a concept of central importance to the IRGC. The force believes that Iran’s enemies are constantly trying to infiltrate the Islamic Republic by corrupting it intellectually and culturally. Hussein Ta’ib, the head of IRGC intelligence, declared, “the thing that has protected our revolution and has caused its continuation in the face of various threats is its soft power and the presence of people who rely on the eternal power of God.” In short, “the power of the revolution is soft power.”
Iranian leaders also understand that they must strengthen their traditional bases of power as well. The most conspicuous example of that assertion was the recent passage of two Iranian ships into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. The trip marked the first time Iran’s navy had crossed the Suez since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, shortly after which Iran and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations. However, since the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February, Iran and Egypt have begun to amend relations. “The pharaoh of Egypt has gone…and the Suez Canal is at the disposal of Muslims [so] we can [now] cross it with honor and respect,” said General Firouzabadi.
Iran has also been touting its military hardware and strong defensive position. Commander of the Navy, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, recently “lauded Iran’s high military and missile capability” and said that “the country enjoys an impenetrable line of defense along its coasts.” In a lengthy report in Fars News, an Iranian daily with ties to the IRGC, Sayyari described Iran’s naval capabilities, which, he said, “are increasing on a daily basis.” A few days later, Iranian Defense Industries, which is part of the Ministry of Defense, unveiled a new piece of home-made artillery. Establishing self-sufficiency in weapons production has been a goal for Iran since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
The actions and declarations of the IRGC and regular military leaders indicate that they are working diligently to take advantage of the unrest in the Middle East. They understand that the uprising is ongoing and far from being resolved. They are therefore trying to steer events so the outcome is in Iran’s favor while shoring up their own power, which reflects the pattern of behavior established by the IRGC shortly after the victory of the Islamic Revolution. As events in the region progress, keeping an eye on the IRGC will expose how a powerful segment of the Islamic Republic envisions Iran’s role in the new Middle East.
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