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The Economic Empire of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) initially started as one of several paramilitary forces hastily assembled by the emergent Islamic Republic right after the 1979 revolution to enforce Islamist ideology and crackdown on dissent. Over the years, it grew into a massive military-industrial complex. Like all military forces in totalitarian regimes, the Guards see themselves as the embodiment of the state ideology, which mandates the establishment of a global Islamist government, with strong Iranian nationalist characteristics that put the regime at odds with most of its neighbors, especially Arabs, Israel, and the whole democratic world.

To achieve that goal, the Revolutionary Guards created an economic empire encompassing Iran’s trade, industry, energy, banking, transportation, mining, medicine, entertainment, sports, and import and export.  The Guards’ affiliated organizations through foundations, camps, consortiums, and holdings run this empire, which branches out indefinitely. And this is only the more mundane-looking side of their essential sinister business, which is financing war and terrorism worldwide and fueling the machine of oppression in Iran.

Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Camp

The Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Camp is the most notable financial institution of the Revolutionary Guards. It started during the post-Khomeini “privatization movement” of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Iran. The movement constituted the mass transfer of public property, resources, and organizations from the government sector to regime insiders. IRGC generals and staffers were some of the most significant beneficiaries of that movement.

The Camp monopolized substantial oil, gas, and petrochemical projects after international sanctions against the Islamic Republic intensified over the regime’s nuclear ambitions. This led to the mass migration of multinational companies from Iran. This provided the jumping board from which Khatam al-Anbiya leaped to become the largest contractor of government projects in Iran. Today the Camp has turned into a behemoth that dominates almost all of the financial and industrial sectors in Iran.

Khatam al-Anbiya is one of the main institutions tasked with implementing the Supreme Leader’s “Resistance Economy.” This is a concerted effort to monopolize Iran’s resources, industries, and infrastructure projects to circumvent international sanctions and fund the ideological-military expansion of the Islamist regime abroad as well as the suppression of dissent at home. As a result, the Camp has been heavily sanctioned several times by successive U.S. governments since 2010.

IRCG Cooperative Foundation

The IRCG Cooperative Foundation is the other primary pillar of the Guards’ economic empire. The scope of activities by the foundation clearly shows that its aim is to provide economic clout for the Guards by monopolizing state and private economic venues and activities. While sanctioning the IRCG Cooperative Foundation on April 24, 2023, the European Council called it “the body responsible for managing the IRGC’s investments and in that framework responsible for funnelling money into the regime’s brutal repression.”

In a revealing statement, Colonel Khizrullah Heydarzadeh, head of the Resistance Economy Center of the IRGC Cooperation Foundation, once told the Tasnim News Agency, “The enemy has made a full-scale economic war on Iran, which is far harsher than a military war. The American war room against Iran is indeed its Treasury Department. In response, the Supreme Leader has emphasized that we need to be vigilant and implement the Resistance Economy. We have a duty and a mission to put the country’s economy back on track. Therefore, the IRGC are tackling various issues. When Iran’s economy reaches a dead end, we enter and solve the problem.”

One of the controversial acquisitions by the IRGC Cooperative Foundation was the strategic Iran Telecommunication Company in 2009, which Iranian newspapers at the time called the greatest transaction in the history of Iran’s stock market. This coincided with a major popular upheaval, and as such the IRGC desperately needed to monitor the people’s communications so it could stem the tide of the protests by arresting organizers and dissidents.

The IRGC Cooperative Foundation is also considered the main financing arm of the notorious Quds Force, the overseas branch of the Revolutionary Guards tasked with clandestine operations against enemies of the state. According to a November 2016 announcement by the U.S. Treasury Department, the Foundation’s subsidiaries, in cooperation with the Quds Force, provided the necessary equipment and materials for counterfeiting banknotes from Europe and played a role in arms deals. It was also instrumental in setting up a counterfeiting network to meet the financial needs of the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Abolishing the IRGC

It is virtually impossible to accurately assess the scope and depth of the economic activities of the Revolutionary Guards and their affiliated Khatam al-Anbiya and the IRGC Cooperative Foundation, as they utilize front companies and constantly move the old companies’ assets to create new ones. Like the Camp, the Foundation has been the target of several U.S. and EU sanctions. But as long as their assets and activities are highly elusive, enforcement remains partial at best.

In response to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ increasingly menacing activity in Iran and worldwide, the U.S. designated it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2019. The EU has long been considering the same, with the European Parliament mustering an overwhelming majority in favor of the measure in January 2023. Many independent activists and human rights organizations have also been calling for the Guard’s designation as a terrorist organization. During the Jina (Mahsa) Revolution, a primary request of the protesters to the West was to designate the IRGC as such for its role in suppressing the anti-regime protests and persecuting democracy activists in Iran.

Given the Revolutionary Guards’ strong attachment to the totalitarian ideology of the Islamic Republic and their heavy investment in the corrupt nature and authoritarian structure of the regime, and considering how they have inserted themselves into almost every aspect of Iranian life, any meaningful change, including a possible regime change in Iran, will prove pointless without a complete prohibition of the IRGC. Peace in the Middle East, establishment of democracy in Iran, and integration of the nation into the liberal world order will become a reality only by dismantling the military-industrial complex of the Revolutionary Guards and their economic empire.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Reza Parchizadeh (@DrParchizadeh) is a political theorist, security analyst, and cultural expert. He holds a BA and an MA in English from University of Tehran and a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), all with honors. He wrote his master’s thesis on Middle Eastern history and Orientalist philosophy; and his doctoral dissertation on political thought and cultural studies in the English-speaking world, and defended both with distinction. His major areas of research interest are medieval and early modern political thought, Protestant Reformation, Renaissance Literature, British Empire, Film Studies, Middle East Studies, Chinese Studies, Japanese Studies, Russian Studies, Security Studies, Foreign Policy and International Relations. Dr. Parchizadeh is on the editorial board of Journal for Interdisciplinary Middle Eastern Studies at Ariel University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. He is also an international committee correspondent for World Shakespeare Bibliography, the prestigious joint project of Johns Hopkins University and Shakespeare Association of America that constitutes the single-largest Shakespeare database in the world and is published by Oxford University Press. Currently, he serves on the editorial board of the international news agency Al-Arabiya Farsi.

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