When Iran's parliament confirmed 18 of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 21 candidates for his Cabinet in early September, only those who sift the tea leaves of Iranian politics noticed the confirmation of Haidar Moslehi, a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as Minister of Intelligence and Security. For decades, the ministry represented a check on the IRGC's rise toward becoming Iran's most powerful institution: domestic intelligence was out of the guards' reach. With Moslehi's appointment, there is nobody left to guard the guards.
The guards' ascendance, likened by some to a bloodless military coup, has been one of the most striking aspects of Iran's recent development. It has come largely at the expense of the Islamic clergy; while Iran remains a theocratic state, the men in turbans now perhaps wield less temporal power especially over the economy than those in uniform.
Formed in 1979 as Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini's personal militia, the IRGC acquired a reputation for suicidal human-wave attacks in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. After Khomeini's death in 1989, the government of then President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani sought to channel the guards' fervor into reconstruction projects, allowing them to dip into the coffers of massive religious and charitable foundations known as bonyads; in time, the guards came to control the foundations themselves.
Khomeini's successor as Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, continued to show the guards love, ensuring they got the latest military hardware and best facilities. They even set up their own university. Now the guard sepah in Farsi has evolved into what a study by the Rand Corp.'s National Defense Research Institute describes as an "expansive socio-political-economic conglomerate whose influence extends into virtually every corner of Iranian political life and society." Its commercial interests run into the billions of dollars and range from massive infrastructure projects to laser eye surgery. And in addition to the Intelligence Ministry, guardsmen control the ministries of Defense, Oil and the Interior.
For the U.S., the IRGC's rise presents both threats and opportunities. The sepah is responsible for the very things that most concern Washington: Iran's drive for nuclear weapons and its support of terrorism. Guardsmen hold several key positions in the Supreme National Security Council, through which they are thought to control the levers of Iran's nuclear and missile programs. And an IRGC unit known as the Quds Force provides training and weapons to Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Mahdi Army in Iraq. But some analysts think that growing commercial interests may have taken the edge off the guards' religious zealotry, which, if true, might make them open to dialogue one day. "They are pretty practical; they use ideology as a tool," says Mark Fowler of Persia House, which monitors Iranian developments. "They support the Islamic revolution because it has been good to them, but they are not raving fanatics." Says Hillary Mann Leverett, a former director of Iran and Afghanistan affairs in George W. Bush's National Security Council: "These people are not just shock troops for the regime. They are a much more sophisticated organization."