* Revolutionary Guard hardliners criticise talks with West
* Rouhani uses nuclear thaw to cut Guard presence in economy
* Tensions limited by Khamenei support for nuclear talks
By Babak Dehghanpisheh
BEIRUT, Feb 9 The article on Iran's
semi-official Fars news agency appeared routine: the minister of
roads and urban development said the ministry does not have a
contract with construction firm Khatam al Anbia to complete a
major highway heading north from Tehran.
Two things made it stand out: Khatam al Anbia is one of the
biggest companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps (IRGC) and company head Ebadollah Abdullahi had said just
three days earlier that it did have the contract.
The December report was one of a series of signs that
President Hassan Rouhani, who came into office last August, is
using the political momentum from a thaw with the West over its
nuclear programme to roll back the Guard's economic influence.
Existing government contracts with the Guards have been
challenged by ministers and some, like the highway contract,
that were left in limbo when Rouhani succeeded the more hardline
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been rebuffed.
Senior commanders in the Guards, established 35 years ago
this week to defend the clerical religious system that replaced
the Western-backed Shah, have criticised the nuclear talks but
been more muted over the curbs on their economic interests.
Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in December that
Ahmadinejad's government had insisted the Guards get involved in
"But we have told Mr. Rouhani that if he feels the private
sector can fulfil these projects, the Guards are ready to pull
aside and even cancel its contracts," he said, according to the
Iranian Students' News Agency.
In the same speech, Jafari lashed out at the nuclear
negotiations, saying Iran had lost much and gained little and
took aim more directly at Rouhani. "The most important arena of
threat against the Islamic revolution - and the Guards have a
duty to protect the gains of the revolution- is in the political
arena. And the Guards can't remain silent in the face of that,"
Fars quoted him as saying.
Mohsen Sazegara, one of the founding members of the Guards
who now lives in the United States, said that was no surprise.
"It was predictable that the Guards would have a cold and harsh
response," he said.
"It's because they see themselves as running things. And
more importantly they're not happy that their hands have been
cut out of some oil, energy and road projects. And they've shown
this displeasure in a number of ways."
IDEOLOGY UNDER THREAT
The interim nuclear deal agreed with the West in November
threatens the ideological basis of the power of the Guards, set
up to counterbalance the military and protect the 1979 Islamic
revolution from external and internal interference.
The nuclear programme, which Guard commanders call a source
of national pride, is being curbed in return for sanctions
relief and a diplomatic thaw with the country the Guards have
long said is their biggest enemy, the United States.
Despite the criticism from the top, the Guards are not a
monolithic organisation and there are elements within it which
have reacted more pragmatically. At least one senior commander
has spoken publicly in support of the nuclear deal.
For now, backing for the nuclear talks from Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest power in the country which
the Guards, at least in public, must defer to, has kept the
hardline elements within their ranks in check.
There is also a realisation that the dismal state of the
economy, largely brought about by sanctions, leaves the country
"Khamenei himself is supporting the talks," said Sazegara.
"And from another side the Guards don't have much choice given
the situation with the economy which has scared everybody."
The Revolutionary Guards control broad sections of the
economy and are also involved in political and cultural
activities. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has said in
imposing sanctions that the IRGC controls "billions of dollars
At times, Guard businesses, which include a share in the
country's largest telecommunication company and construction
firms, overlap and work closely with an organisation controlled
by the Supreme Leader that Reuters estimates is valued at
approximately $95 billion.
In November, the news agency published a three-part series
examining how the organisation, called Setad Ejraiye Farmane
Hazrate Emam in Farsi, has become one of the most powerful
entities in Iran. here
During former president Ahmadinejad's two terms in office,
the Guards expanded their economic interests as sanctions ramped
up. Now, Rouhani is using the unique opening presented by the
nuclear deal to decrease their economic presence and, as a
result, their broader influence in the country.
Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation For Defense
of Democracies and an expert on the Revolutionary Guards, said
the government used two main arguments to cancel the contracts.
"The government can't afford the contracts, and the state is
no longer subjected to the sanctions regime and there is no need
[for a] state of emergency where IRGC participation in the
projects is needed," Alfoneh said by email.
While Rouhani's use of the nuclear negotiations to decrease
the economic influence of the Guards has heightened tensions,
the ongoing talks over the country's nuclear program are more
contentious for the Guards, analysts say.
Some senior Guard commanders have pointed out that stopping
uranium enrichment altogether could be a slippery slope toward
the dismantling of the country's nuclear programme, which
Western leaders say they fear has military aims.
Guard commanders and senior Iranian government officials
maintain that the country's nuclear program is peaceful. They
argue that enrichment, a controversial point in the talks with
the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany,
is necessary for medical and energy purposes.
Rasoul Sanai-Rad, the political deputy of the Guards, warned
against giving too many concessions, pointing to Libya where
Muammar Gaddafi agreed to dismantle his nuclear programme but
was later attacked by a coalition of Western countries.
"Libya gave up all of its facilities but what
result did they receive?" he said in an interview with Fars, one
of almost daily attacks on the deal by Guard commanders.
Rouhani has fought back: in a speech last Tuesday, he said
that only a few "ignorant" people have been speaking out against
the deal and asked for academics to express their support
But if Rouhani pushes too far in negotiations due to start
this month on a long-term deal, Khamenei could withdraw his
support which would allow hardliners among the Guards to step
"The public statements of the IRGC commanders against the
United States and allies clearly indicate attempt of the
IRGC commanders to sabotage Rouhani's opening to the West,"
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)