Q&A with former member of IRGC: Guards Could Negotiate with U.S. and Turn Against Khamenei in a Crisis

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Editor’s Note: Amid the escalation of tensions between Iran and the West and the upcoming parliamentary elections, InsideIran’s Reza Akbari conducted an interview with Dr. Seyed Ahmad Shams, a former IRGC political adviser. This is the second part of the interview. Click here to read the first part.

Q: Is there a possibility that the United States government could leave Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei out of the equation and instead negotiate directly with the Revolutionary Guards, just as it negotiated with the Egyptian army before former President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall?

A: The dominant segment in the Revolutionary Guards includes a spectrum of forces with diverging tendencies. I think what some commanders of Revolutionary Guards refer to as “velayat” (Guardianship of the Jurist) does not originate from a deep-seated belief but stems from personal and economic interests that ensure inclusion in the pyramid of power. It is possible that if serious problems arise, this impassioned support will collapse; any threat to these interests can even lead to confrontation with the Supreme Leader. The behavior of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in recent years and his struggle with Khamenei over conflicting interests mirrors perfectly the behavior of other members of Revolutionary Guards in the future if serious problems break out. As Mohammad Nourizad has asserted in one of his letters to Khamenei, “At a time when the country’s system experiences probable changes, individuals such as Hussein Shariatmadari and some chiefs of Revolutionary Guards will be the first to denounce you.”

Among the commanders of Revolutionary Guards, a notable number are supporters of Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani who, in the event of a serious confrontation between Rafsanjani and Khamenei, will side with him. Military chiefs, including Ali Fazli, Morteza Ghorbani, Gholamreza Jaffari, and past commanders, such as Ahmad Kazemi who was apparently a follower of Ayatollah Montazeri, are critical of Khamenei’s policies, but for various reasons have remained silent so far. As general Alaee, a former senior commander of the IRGC, showed perfectly, this condition can alter under special circumstances. In an article he drew an analogy between the rule of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rule and the last days of the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted from power in the 1979 revolution. If the chiefs of the Revolutionary Guards feel the heat, they will certainly refuse to support the Guardianship of the Jurist. On the other hand, we cannot separate the rank and file in the Revolutionary Guards from the masses of people. In fact, we can find in the structure of Revolutionary Guards precisely the same sentiments and viewpoints that exist in the majority of people in society. Activities in economic arenas, interest in leisure, and distance from years of war, spirit of sacrifice and martyrdom are the factors to which we must pay careful attention. Today, the sons of many senior and well-known generals in the Revolutionary Guards are the major critics of the system; even the way they look or dress contrasts sharply with the appearance of their fathers. Wearing western clothes and “fashioned” hair among the daughters and sons of high-ranking generals is a common phenomenon.

In the area of Shahrak-e Shahid Mahalati in northern Tehran, which is owned by the Revolutionary Guards and Intelligence Ministry, the children of military chiefs took the side of the masses of people and surprised everyone completely by their gatherings in support of Mir Hussein Mousavi and against Ahmadinejad during the tenth presidential election. All this, along with the presence of Revolutionary Guards at the top of the pyramid of power and its entry into political sphere, especially in the last eight years, counter the demand that Ayatollah Khomeini had made in his will (he had warned the Revolutionary Guards against the danger of getting mixed in politics).

This reinforces the undeniable truth that the Revolutionary Guards Corp is not absolutely obedient to the Guardianship of the Jurist or in the service of its whims. On the other hand, the extreme attitude to confront the clergy and the absence of the need for spiritual enrichment by the clergy’s instructions is a tendency that has existed in the Revolutionary Guards since its inception. According to some clerics, some members of Revolutionary Guards regard themselves as jurists and do not feel any need for the clergy.

When in the early days of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Madani was criticized by some people for his warm relations with the Revolutionary Guards, he responded: “I have been able to transform an independent body of decision makers into followers.” Today, this policy still prevails in the Revolutionary Guards. In every military unit, alongside every military chief, a center exists which represents the Supreme Leader. This center monitors the activities of military chiefs and their personnel and manages their religious and spiritual affairs. But unit commanders are not usually on good terms with the administrators of these centers who are clerics.

The impulse to confront and eliminate the clergy from executive positions is so strong in the structure of IRGC that, after its initial signs in the ninth and tenth governments, it has now resurged in the political scene as many former members of Revolutionary Guards have become ministers, members of Parliament, governors, chief executive officers, etc. Their effort to oust the clergy from executive positions has been so blatant that Seyed Ahmad Khatami has described it as even more dangerous than the challenges of Participation Front and 2nd of Khordad Movement. A confidential letter by Hashemi Rafsanjani to Khamenei, which was published recently, is notable in this respect. In this letter, Rafsanjani revealed the existence of some spies in the Revolutionary Guards who were working for foreign intelligence services. He also emphasized that the blueprints of many new weapons, before being finalized or used, have ended up in the Pentagon and foreign intelligence offices.

In this letter, Rafsanjani uncovered the inefficacy and oldness of the weapons which are said to be used as long-range and defensive weapons against a probable foreign attack. He pointed out that these weapons could not function effectively in a real war and their only use was for military exercises. All of these factors reinforce the idea that, in critical circumstances, the Revolutionary Guards may be prepared to negotiate directly with the United States Army or even denounce Khamenei in order to control the country.

Q: What role will the Revolutionary Guards play in the elections of the future Parliament? Do they support any particular political group?

A: With the revolution’s victory, many opponents of former regime who entered the Revolutionary Guards also became members of political parties. Ayatollah Khomeini opposed this situation from the beginning and advised them to either join the Revolutionary Guards or engage in political activity. This recommendation even appeared in Ayatollah Khomeini’s will as he forbade the Revolutionary Guards and armed forces from participating in political and electoral activities. This trend existed for a year after his death during Khamenei’s leadership, but after the issuance of an executive order the members of Revolutionary Guards were invited to take part in political and electoral affairs in a limited form during the fifth parliamentary elections and in a much serious manner during the eighth presidential election in which Mr. Khatami had entered as a candidate.

At the time, the cores of the Basij had not yet formed in the way we see them today. I myself witnessed the presence of a vast spectrum of forces, which had created 2nd of Khordad Movement, in the Basij in 1997 and 1999. After the arrest of Tehran’s mayor, the Revolutionary Guards begin to duplicate the strategy of Hezb-e Kargozaran-e Sazandegi-e Iran (Executives of Construction Party of Iran) in political and electoral affairs by increasing its members in branches, guilds and urban and rural areas while purging the Basij of individuals who had different mindsets. At times, the Revolutionary Guards attracted new forces by offering financial incentives and other privileges.

During these years, the activists of 2nd of Khordad Movement remained unaware of these moves as a garrison party gradually came into being. During the second election for city councils and the ninth presidential election, the Revolutionary Guards’ support shifted from Qalibaf to Ahmadinejad. In the last days of campaigns for the presidential race, the function of the garrison party and the extent of its power became clearer as Ahmadinejad, the candidate at the bottom of opinion polls, suddenly became the winner in the second round of the election. Today, almost ten million Basijis, with all needed facilities, are in the service of Revolutionary Guards. They are transported from one province to another by buses during election time, when repression of protests are needed, and provincial trips of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. Out of this number, five million Basijis are always active and ready for service. Transported from one area to another and constantly on the move, these Basijis stage demonstrations to create the impression that all Iranians support the regime in the streets. But many members of this crowd, whose number is no more than five million, would not remain loyal to the system and discontinue these activities if they lose their prerogatives. Naturally, like previous elections, the Revolutionary Guards wish to ensure the election of the candidates it endorses to the Parliament. But considering the existence of several lists of candidates and the dispersal of fundamentalist forces in different directions, a situation that has also affected the ruling segment in the Revolutionary Guards, it is not clear which list was supported by the Revolutionary Guards.

Born in a clerical family, Dr. Seyed Ahmad Shams has been an active member of various political, social and academic circles in Iran. Shams served as a member of the 17th Brigade of the IRGC Qom Corps from 1987 to 1989 and also as the Assistant to the IRGC’s Political Director of the 3rd Brigade-7th Army of the of the Khuzestan Corps from 1997 to 1998. Dr. Shams also served as the Managing Director of the Iranian Political Parties House from 2007 to 2009 and as the Deputy Director of the Social Department of the Interior Ministry from 2001 to 2003. Shams is also a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and was wounded during the Karbala 5 Operations in 1986.

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