* Revolutionary Guards' influence appears to be growing
* Engineering unit head says upstream oil sector a priority
* Says foreign firms "afraid" of being replaced
TEHRAN, Dec 15 Iran's Revolutionary Guards have
replaced of foreign firms in some projects in the major oil
producer, a senior commander said in comments published on
Tuesday, a sign of the elite force's growing economic clout.
But Rostam Qassemi, who heads the Guards' Khatam al-Anbia
engineering unit, dismissed claims that it controlled most of
the Islamic Republic's construction and other development
projects, business daily Donya-ye Eqtesad reported.
"We are witnessing a ballyhoo these days, both inside and
outside the country, over the Guards economic activities," he
was quoted as telling a news conference, adding "foreign firms
were afraid of being replaced by local companies" in projects.
But Qassemi added: "the volume of projects run by Khatam
al-Anbia is only four percent of all projects in the country."
Analysts say the political and the economic influence of the
Guards appears to have grown since hardline President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad, himself a former Guardsman, came to power in 2005.
The force played a key role in quelling street unrest that
erupted after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June.
In September, Iranian media said a consortium affiliated to
the Guards bought 50 percent plus one share in the state
telecommunications company for around $7.8 billion.
Qassemi said his unit has replaced big foreign firms such as
Total (TOTF.PA) and Shell (RDSa.L) in some projects, the
newspaper reported. It did not make clear whether this was
because they had pulled out or because of other reasons.
Western firms are becoming increasingly wary of investing in
Iran, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, due to an
international row over its nuclear programme. The West suspects
Iran aims to develop nuclear bombs. Tehran denies this.
OIL SECTOR TOP PRIORITY
Qassemi said Khatam al-Anbia had won 10 percent of the some
200 tenders it had taken part in since last March. "The oil
industry's upstream projects are our top priority to enter
because the private sector has not entered yet."
"Over 99 percent of our projects were gained through
official tenders, such as South Pars phases 15 and 16," Qassemi
said, referring to a major natural gas field in the Gulf.
"The other projects were given by the government to Khatam
al-Anbia because of either security reasons or because of high
risks in the projects."
Earlier this month, an Iranian official denied a report that
Tehran had stopped talks with France's Total over investment in
another section of South Pars, phase 11.
The Guards was heavily involved in reconstruction after the
1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and expanded its work to cover areas such
as import-export, oil and gas, defence, transport and
The force has become a major contractor, with ties to firms
controlling billions of dollars in business, construction,
finance and commerce, the U.S. Treasury has said.
Qassemi cited security issues as the main reason why Khatam
al-Anbia was involved in a planned pipeline transporting Iranian
gas to Pakistan, saying four staff had been killed in a volatile
region. But, he said, "we have not entered into the field of
atomic energy yet."
(Writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Samia Nakhoul)