TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Saturday replaced the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, a force U.S. officials have said Washington may label a terrorist group.
Guards commander-in-chief Yahya Rahim Safavi was replaced by Mohammad Ali Jafari, who has been a commander in the Guards, Khamenei said in an order reported by state television. No reason was given for the move.
"Regarding your valuable experience and shining background at different times, and varied responsibilities in the Guards, I appoint you (Jafari) ... as the commander-in-chief of this revolutionary service organization," Khamenei said.
Khamenei said Safavi, who commanded the Guards for 10 years, would become his senior adviser on armed forces affairs.
The Guards are an ideologically driven force set up shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution to act as guardians of the Islamic Republic. The force has a separate command structure from the regular military and answers directly to Khamenei.
The Guards include sea, land and air forces.
As well as being a fighting force, the Guards have growing business interests, including an engineering subsidiary Khatam al-Anbia which has taken on several oil and gas projects in Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer.
U.S. officials have said Washington might brand the group a foreign terrorist group, a move that would enable Washington to target its finances. Tehran has brushed off the threat.
Analysts see Washington's threat as part of efforts to isolate Iran over its atomic plans, a program U.S. President George W. Bush has said put the region "under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust".
The United States is seeking to push Iran to heed a U.N. demand to suspend uranium enrichment, the part of Iran's atomic program that most worries the West because the process can be used to make fuel for power plants or material for warheads.
Iran says it will not stop the atomic work which it considers legal. It says its program it entirely peaceful and aimed a mastering atomic technology to generate electricity.
The United States says it would prefer a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff but has not ruled out military action.