AP: They are the shock troops of Iran's Islamic Revolution, the men who helped seize the U.S. embassy a generation ago
and bore the brunt of their country's eight-year war with Iraq.
The vast and well-funded Revolutionary Guards are still the most potent force available to the regime. The Associated Press

By BRIAN MURPHY

TEHRAN, Iran — They are the shock troops of Iran's Islamic Revolution, the men who helped seize the U.S. embassy a generation ago and bore the brunt of their country's eight-year war with Iraq.

The vast and well-funded Revolutionary Guards are still the most potent force available to the regime. And their network of soldiers and vigilantes may be hungry for even more clout as Iran faces new pressures over its nuclear ambitions, the war in Iraq and the approach of Iran's critical presidential election next year, analysts say.

A vivid example is Tehran's new international airport. It was supposed to showcase a new, more outward-looking Iran. Flights should have begun months ago. Instead, it's empty and controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, who shut it down because they suspected the company hired to help operate it could have business ties to their archenemy, Israel.

Those terminals gathering dust on Tehran's desert outskirts may be a sign that Iran's theocracy is loosening the reins on the guards at a sensitive time, some analysts think. This could mean a retrenching of hard-line positions rather than a move toward compromise with the West on pivotal issues such as Iran's nuclear program.

"The climate is ready for the Revolutionary Guards to play a bigger role," said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Ale Agha.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle feel buffeted from many directions.

The United States is warning Iran to keep its distance from Shiite Muslim brethren in neighboring Iraq. Iran also is facing an uphill struggle to convince the West its nuclear programs are for energy, not arms. Presidential elections next year to replace the exhausted reformist camp of Mohammad Khatami could again bring political feuds to a boil.

The more than 200,000-member corps of Revolutionary Guards — which is independent of the ordinary armed forces — have a direct pipeline to the leadership and a broad mandate to confront "dangers" to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The guards carry considerable prestige for their front-line role during the 1980-88 war with Iraq and direct the volunteer militia known as the "basij," which some estimates say includes 15 percent of the population, or about 10 million people.

But it doesn't stop there. The Revolutionary Guards oversee such vital and lucrative interests as oil platforms, pipelines and dams, and the airport affair suggests they are reaching into new areas of politics and the economy.

"It's no surprise that Iran's leaders could be turning to institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards," said Gary Samore, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "This is a period of many uncertainties for Iran, and the Revolutionary Guards represent a reliable fallback position for the establishment."

The airport seizure was a lesson in how far they will go — and how little anyone can do about it.

The guards shut down the $200 million airfield on the first day of scheduled flights in May, citing security risks. They feared possible business links between Israel and a Turkish company with the contract to co-manage the airport.

The government and liberal lawmakers protested, but in vain. The conservative-dominated parliament, which includes former officers and sympathizers of the guards, voted Oct. 4 to impeach the transport minister over complaints topped by the airport deal.

There's suspicion — although unproven — that the Revolutionary Guards are actively supporting militant Shiite factions in Iraq. But no one questions the Guards' deep influence over Iran's most hard-line policies, including opposition to any political thaw with Washington.

These days, heightened anxiety is evident. Iranian Web sites, Friday prayer leaders and political commentators all are chewing over scenarios of a U.S. or Israeli strike, and the Revolutionary Guards do nothing to discourage the nail-biting.

"[President"> Bush won't hesitate to attack Iran if he wins the elections," a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, Hojatoleslam Mojtaba Zolnour, told a gathering last month.

Ehsan Ahrari, an international-affairs commentator based in Norfolk, Va., traced the guards' resurgence to the U.S.-led attacks that toppled the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

"Iran has been nervous that they could be next. Iraq only made it worse," he said. "The Revolutionary Guards are borderline paranoid. This is why they could be seeking as much control as possible."

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