At the 20th National Assembly of Commanders and Officials of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), President Hassan Rouhani praised the efforts of the IRGC in defending the country and asked for its help in economic matters, while asking it to function as a non-partisan group in Iran’s domestic political affairs. Rouhani also took arguably his strongest stance to date on the civil war in Syria, blaming the West for taking action for the benefit of Israel.
The IRGC, typically known as Sepah in Iran, is tasked with “defending the revolution,” unlike the army, which plays a more traditional role and is required to defend Iran’s borders and maintain general security.
In regard to politics and Sepah’s position in society, Rouhani said, “Sepah should be far from political currents, because its place is higher than these partisan games and currents. It should not be attached to a side or party.” He added, “Sepah should belong to the entire nation, because if a day comes when the unity of the nation is needed, [what] will bring the entire nation onto the field under the banner of Islam is Sepah.”
Sepah Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaffari answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During moments of crisis, Sepah’s top leadership has not shown any public dissent within its ranks and has publicly aligned with Khamenei. This loyalty was seen in the 2009 election protest, or when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former Sepah member himself, attempted to replace his intelligence minister but was overruled by the supreme leader.
Rouhani asked Sepah to use its capabilities to address Iran’s economic problems as it continues to face pressure from Western sanctions, saying, “Sepah, which is to protect and be at the front line of defending the revolution, today has a huge responsibility on its shoulders in this field, with the immense capacities at its discretion, in various situations, [and] can take action.”
He continued, “Sepah has manpower, equipment and planning [capabilities], and must act on this situation of the economy which the enemy has targeted.” He added that Sepah should “take charge of large national projects.”
Many of Sepah’s business operations, which started during construction efforts during the Iran-Iraq war — a war in which it played a significant role and paid a heavy price — are run through the business conglomerate Khatam ol-Anbia and its subsidiaries.
However, Sepah’s financial influence has not been without its own controversy. Some in Sepah have not so discreetly used their connections to increase their personal wealth. In July of 2011, tensions with Ahmadinejad peaked when Ahmadinejad publicly called some within Sepah “our own smuggling brothers,” accusing them of abusing their access to Iran’s ports by illegally smuggling in goods without paying a customs fee.
On Syria, Rouhani said, “Today, the fight in Syria is not because of one person, one sect or one group. But it’s clear for everyone that the West has laid a plan for the entire region.”
According to the Iranian Labour News Agency, Rouhani said, “The arrogant [powers] have, with the excuse of the use of chemical weapons, initiated the topic of attacks against Syria, and are after the consolidation of the interests of the Zionist regime and weakening the resistance front.”
However, transcripts from Fars News and Mehr News put Rouhani’s comments on Syria in a much larger, and more serious, context. They quoted him as saying that “Investigating the situation in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Syria shows that the West has placed them like links in a chain, to strengthen Israel and weaken the resistance front.” He continued that Syria will have implications not only for the region, but perhaps for the entire world.