The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is dropping the mask.

Until June 12, when the Guard emerged as the critical pillar of the regime in putting down the post-election protest demonstrations, the IRGC remained in the shadows. Intelligence specialists say that there isn’t a lot known about the organization, structure and operational commanders of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), otherwise known as the pasdaran. During my visit to Tehran last month, I spoke to one Iranian expert, a former journalist, who said that there are two things that are very closely shielded in Iran: the organization of the IRGC and the organization of the Office of the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But now, at least, the Guard is openly acknowledging its role.

It began in the days before the election, when the IRGC’s ideological chief warned that it would crush the reformist-led opposition, which had dressed its campaign in green. “There are many indications that some extremist [i.e., reformist] groups have designed a ‘color’ revolution,” said Yadollah Javani of the IRGC. “Any attempt at a velvet revolution will be nipped in the bud.” Now Javani is back, and he’s sounding uglier, with talk about eye-gouging. Said Javani, who is the IRGC’s “political director”:

“We came up against a deep mischief during this election, a mischief that gave birth to the new divisions. During these events, the eye of the mischief was damaged, but it was not blinded. Now the eye of the mischief must be blinded completely and gouged out, and this can be done by illuminating the events behind the scenes.”

The political director of the IRGC is an important post. Last year, when I visited Iran, I met with a former IRGC political director, M. Hossein Saffar-Haramdi, a close ally of President Ahmadinejad, who is currently the minister of culture and Islamic guidance. (Like many IRGC commanders, he’s been since elevated to a key post in Iran’s government.) As minister of culture, Saffar-Haramdi’s job is to censor or shut down newspapers, oversee the creative arts (including painting, sculpture, film, and music), and ensure that Iran’s women don’t get too uppity. When I asked him then why he shuts down opposition papers, he said blithely:

“Any press activity that would disturb the fabric of society or create some sort of disruption, the law must be applied. “The press is free, as long as it does not start insulting political personalities and religious beliefs.”

On Sunday, the current commander of the IRGC, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, admitted that the Guard had been placed in charge of putting down the current protests:

“Because the Revolutionary Guard was assigned the task of controlling the situation, it took the initiative to quell a spiraling unrest.”

Thanks to the intrepid Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, we know more about the current role of the Guard. In Monday’s Times, he quoted more extensivelyfrom the statement of Gen. Jafari:

“These events put us in a new stage of the revolution and political struggles, and all of us must fully comprehend its dimensions. Because the Revolutionary Guard was assigned the task of controlling the situation, [it] took the initiative to quell a spiraling unrest. This event pushed us into a new phase of the revolution and political struggles and we have to understand all its dimensions.”

General Javani, the same official who’d warned on June 10 about the threat of a velvet revolution, added:

“Today, no one is impartial. There are two currents — those who defend and support the revolution and the establishment, and those who are trying to topple it.”

That last quote is very significant, because it signals that the Guard, now openly emerging as a power in Iran, considers the opposition to be revolutionaries trying to overthrow the system rather than reformists seeking to modify it.

If you want to understand the importance of the Guard in Iran, I strongly recommend reading a 2009 publication from the Rand Corporation, entitled: “The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.” It describes in detail how the Guard has developed from a military institution into a political and economic powerhouse. It has vast holdings in every sector of the Iranian economy. And because of those holdings, the Guard is institutionally opposed to rebuilding ties to the West. Why? Because among its various tentacles, the Guard is engaged in a wide-ranging smuggling enterprise that brings its commanders large profits. And if the Iran made a deal with the West that eliminated the sanctions strangling Iran, those profitable smuggling operations would disappear.

Says the Rand report:

From laser eye surgery and construction to automobile manufacturing and real estate, the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market. Perhaps more than any other area of its domestic involvement, its business activities represent the multidimensional nature of the institution. The commercialization of the IRGC has the potential to broaden the circle of its popular support by co-opting existing financial elites into its constellation of subsidiary companies and subcontractors.

Approximately one-third of Iran’s imports are delivered through smuggling, the black market, and a network of sixty illegal ports under the control of the IRGC, according to Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist cleric, and members of the Iranian parliament.

As Rand notes:

As an economic organization more interested in monopoly rather than open competition, the IRGC may wish to keep Iran’s economy closed off and under its tight control. If this is the case, U.S. and international sanctions may not weaken the IRGC, but instead enhance its formal and illicit economic capabilities.

The IRGC also has ties to the enormously powerful foundations, or bonyads that have risen since 1979, including the Mostazafan Foundation, headed by Mohammad Forouzandeh, a former IRGC commander, and the Shahid Foundation, headed by Hossein Deghan, the former head of the IRGC Air Force. The Mostazafan Foundation, Iran’s largest, owns 350 companies in agriculture, industry, transportation, and tourism. It reportedly has ties to a secret foundation, the Nur Foundation, established in 1999 to import sugar, construction materials, and pharmaceuticals. The Shahid Foundation is also involved in dozens of enterprises.

According to Fariborz Ghadar, an Iranian economist who spoke last week at a forum I attended at the Woodrow Wilson Center, about one-third of Iran’s entire economy is controlled by the bonyads. Another one-third is state-owned enterprises, and one-third is private sector. The IRGC has its hand in all three, since it controls several state-owned companies, controls many bonyads, and is awarded many private-sector contracts.

Part of the struggle in Iran involves an economic tussle pitting behind-the-scenes titans like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a billionaire, and many private sector businessmen against the power of the IRGC. There’s a strong economic dimension to Iran’s political crisis. Many of the wealthiest Iranian merchants, who control tremendous power through Iran’s networks of bazaars, are traditional conservatives who are increasingly unhappy with the mismanagement of the Iranian economy by Ahmadinejad and his IRGC cronies, and by the IRGC’s corruption and greed. Indeed, if the political struggle is raised to the next level, watch the bazaar. A year ago, a nationwide strike by bazaaris (to protest a value-added tax) nearly shut down Iran’s economy. (An analogy: imagine if all the shopping malls in America closed down at once.) This time, a bazaari strike could take on much more political, and therefore more explosive dimensions.

No wonder the IRGC is worried.