Understanding Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

      FRED WEHREY, an expert on the domestic influence of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a Senior Policy Analyst at RAND, spoke at Wagner on October 30, 2009.  His lecture, “The Rise of the Pasdaran: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iranian Politics and Implications for the U.S.,” emphasized the domestic role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and highlighted potential policy options for the United States.

     Wehrey described how the Revolutionary Guard, a branch of Iran’s military, became more assertive in Iranian domestic life after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Guard rose to its current position of power primacy after violently quelling the Green Revolution, and changed Iran from a theocracy into what he called a military dictatorship. The Guard’s presence is now pervasive, and cuts across the social, economic and political life of the nation; it cannot be challenged by other without fear of violent reprisal. Even so, there are political fissures in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, he said, giving the U.S. opportunities to understand and influence its future direction as it relates to U.S. strategic interests.

     For, in addition to preserving its political power, the Revolutionary Guard has to be concerned with its long-range financial stability, Wehrey said – namely its continued ability to generate revenues. Wehrey believes that the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran by the international community would only play into the Revolutionary Guard’s hands, allowing its leaders to keep their stranglehold over the Iranian market and black market. Isolating Iran economically would also give the Revolutionary Guard an opportunity to stoke fears of external interference and forced regime change. As long as Iran and the Guard can participate in the world economy, economic pressure applied through the business sector can be effective in forcing it to act responsibly and rationally vis-a-vis Iranian society and the world.

      Wehrey, meanwhile, said he sees the Iranian nuclear program as more domestically focused than has been portrayed. Since the Revolutionary Guard is the only state entity capable of maintaining and expanding the country’s nuclear program, the issue of the program’s sustainability in the face of external opposition has become a measure and a symbol of the Guard’s power – a power that even Iran’s powerful clerics cannot equal. The nuclear program has taken on a life of its own and a symbolism that prevent its easy discontinuation.

     Wehrey laid out four U.S. policy options that he believes should drive American relations with Iran from now on: Highlight the opportunity costs of the nuclear program to other elites in Iran; stress the positive economic effects that the discontinuation of the nuclear program can bring; indicate the negative effects of the Revolutionary Guard’s extremist positions and policies; inform the merchant, bazarri class of the effects of the Guard’s no-bid contracts.