With the latest allegations from the United States that Iran's Revolutionary Guards are implicated in Iraq, Tehran and Washington are inching ever closer towards a full-scale confrontation.
On October 7, the top US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, accused the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, of being a member of the Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force, which the US believes is implicated in operations abroad. Iran's foreign ministry denied the charge.
This latest exchange reflects the US focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, IRGC - the largest branch of the Iranian military - against the backdrop of Washington's plummeting relationship with Tehran.
On September 26, the US Senate overwhelmingly approved a "non-binding legal amendment" calling for the Revolutionary Guards to be placed on the government's list of "specially designated global terrorist" organisations. The idea has been floated but not yet pushed through by the US administration.
All the signs are that the Revolutionary Guards are galvanising in response to the pressure. Senior commanders in the force have described US moves to blacklist the group as an attempt to deprive Iran of its military deterrent capacity, and ultimately to topple the regime.
On September 1 - two weeks after leaked reports first emerged in the US media that the Bush administration planned to blacklist the Revolutionary Guards - IRGC commander Yahya Rahim Safavi was replaced by Mohammad Ali Aziz Jafari, the former head of the Guards' Strategy Centre.
Safavi, who had held the post for a decade, is now special military advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The timing of Jafari's appointment -announced quite suddenly, on the eve of a holiday - led observers to interpret it as a move to reorganise the Guards both in terms of structure and direction ahead of any US-led hostilities.
The change of leadership was only the start of a restructuring process, which accelerated after the US Senate vote.
The biggest change is that the Basij Resistance Force - a volunteer paramilitary force which was previously affiliated with the IRGC but operated under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader - has been merged with the Revolutionary Guards.
The Basij, which maintains a formal presence in all government offices, schools, universities, trade associations, hospitals and factories - has an estimated ten million members. The movement is drawn from the young, and includes school pupils, students, civil servants and other workers. Many join to benefit from the organisation's cultural and welfare facilities.
The incorporation of the massive Basij membership has meant a massive increase in the Revolutionary Guards' numbers. This broadens the base for anti-US sentiment in the event that Washington goes ahead with plans to blacklist the IRGC, since all these people could potentially be designated "terrorists" by the US.
As well as undergoing this structural change, the Revolutionary Guards are also altering their profile. Incoming commander Jafari announced on September 29 that on the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei, the IGRC's long-term strategy had been changed so as to respond to the current threats facing Iran.
"The Revolutionary Guards' main mission at present is to counter domestic threats, while in the event of a foreign military threat, it will rush to the support of the army," said Jafari.
Some observers read this as a kind of conciliatory message to the West, the subtext being that the Revolutionary Guards would curtail their activities abroad in the hope of avoiding the blacklist. However, this analysis pre-dated both the Senate vote and a number of substantive changes made to the IRGC.
Critics of the government, however, offered a different interpretation, saying Jafari's remarks signalled an intention to make the IRGC a more active player in domestic politics, and to put greater pressure on the opposition and civil rights activists.
Recent statements from IRGC leaders also suggest the organisation is beefing up its defence capacity as a reaction to the intensification of US pressure. Since Saddam Hussein's conventional military forces were resoundingly defeated in the initial US attack on Iraq in early 2003, the Revolutionary Guards have replaced their classical military strategy with one of asymmetric warfare. In recent months, it has repeatedly stressed that it is ready and able to counter any US or Israeli aggressive action.
Talk of the US blacklisting the IRGC has, for once, united the warring political factions in Iran, with reformers joining the conservative "principalists" to condemn the decision.
Three major reformist parties - Mosharekat, Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Islami and Etemade Melli - have individually issued statements criticising the US stance. On August 20, Mosharekat leapt to the defence of the Revolutionary Guards, underlining that they formed part of the armed forces of a sovereign state, and describing the Americans' behaviour as "alarming" and "warmongering".
If their support for the IRGC was unequivocal, the reformers still took the opportunity to attack the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After criticising the US position, Mojahedin-e Enqelab-e Islami party's August 28 statement went on to warn that "provocative domestic confrontations, the fact that some seem to welcome increased tension and crisis, and the irresponsible and simplistic remarks that have been made do not further the cause either of national defence, or of defending the IRGC". Instead, the party recommended "a prudent, cautious approach made through diplomatic channels".
In an article the same day in the Etemad-e Melli newspaper, the former Iranian ambassador to Jordan [ Nosratollah Tajik] urged the Revolutionary Guards to avoid getting entangled in domestic political squabbles, saying that in the current delicate situation the organisation needed to maintain popular support as a way of countering US pressure.
The IRGC's recent record is not one of passivity when it comes to Iranian politics- despite appeals from the reformers, it has launched vociferous attacks against them. In recent years, the Revolutionary Guards and Basij have been accused of working against the the government of former president Mohammad Khatami, as well as supporters of Expediency Council Chairman and ex-president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.
In spite of this fraught relationship, the reformers still have good reasons for supporting the Revolutionary Guards against the US.
First, they generally enter into a tactical alliance with the principalists whenever Iran is pressured from outside. This was exemplified during President Ahmadinejad's visit to the US in September, during which he spoke at Columbia University. The university president Lee Bollinger's description of him as a "petty and cruel dictator" caused an outcry in Iran.
The reformers are deeply concerned that the standoff between "neo-cons" in the US and hard-line principalists in Iran is going to precipitate a military conflict, in which pragmatic technocrats would have little political role to play.
At the same time, the reformers hope that by standing up for Iran in times of difficulty, they will show the principalists that monolithic rule must ultimately fail in the face of international threats, and that a modicum of pluralism is a necessity if the country is to survive.
A final point is that many of the reformers of today were themselves members of the Revolutionary Guards at one time, and have little interest in seeing the organisation's reputation tarnished.
As the principalist website Baztab, which is connected to former IRGC commander, warned on August 20, "Most of the people in charge of the Islamic Republic are, or have been, members of the Revolutionary Guards."
Thus, a mixture of political nostalgia and current concerns about the implications of the IRGC being branded a terrorist group is motivating today's pragmatists, technocrats and reformers - the revolutionaries of yesteryear - to stand firm on the issue.
Hassan Yousefi is a Political observer and commentator in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
... Payvand News - 10/27/08 ... --