Since its inception 41 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has sought to amass wealth and power for itself at the expense of the Iranian people.
It has undermined Iran's attempts to move towards a free market, dominated the country's economy and interfered in nearly all aspects of civil society, governance and military affairs, observers told Al-Mashareq.
From the beginning, the IRGC's purpose has been to all-but supplant Iran's conventional military, the Artesh, which revolutionaries suspected of being disloyal to the regime, as many officers were trained in the West.
Composed largely of a volunteer force of hardliners with little to no military training, the IRGC set out to "protect the revolution" by sidelining the military and, in several cases, exerting control over it at the highest levels.
The IRGC's efforts to overtake Iran's military and dominate its economy were aided in the 1980s by Ali Khamenei, who later climbed the clerical ranks nearly overnight, became "Ayatollah" and was selected as the Islamic Republic's leader.
Khamenei's deep ties with IRGC
A relatively young but prominent figure who served as Iran's president during the eight-year war with Iraq, Khamenei was the rare leading cleric to visit the frontlines during the war. This won him the support of many in the IRGC's rank-and-file, some of whom rose to prominence in the years that followed.
During his more than three decades as Iran's "Supreme Leader", Khamenei has overseen and endorsed the expansion of the IRGC's influence across the board in Iran, as well as overseas through its Quds Force.
In 1989, Khamenei appointed his confidant Hassan Firouzabadi, a medical school graduate with no military training or background, as chairman of the Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS), awarding him the rank of Major General.
In 2016, Firouzabadi was replaced by Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, who was an IRGC commander until taking over this post in the Armed Forces.
A few Iranian expatriate and US media outlets noted that although Bagheri had served as the top AFGS intelligence official for decades, his appointment as chairman was a high-profile indication of the IRGC's "primacy" over the military.
IRGC Brig. Gen. Abdolali Pourshasb also referenced this state of affairs in a 2015 statement. When a number of Iran's conventional military troops were deployed to Syria at the end of 2015, he said they "served under the IRGC command".
IRGC takeover of military
There are other signs the IRGC is asserting control over the conventional military more often and more blatantly than it did in earlier years.
AFGS spokesman Abolfazl Shekarchi is an IRGC Brigadier General, for example.
In the 1980s and even 1990s, "there was a recognition that the professionally trained military had expertise that the Guard Corps did not", a former Iranian navy analyst, now living in the US, told Al-Mashareq on condition of anonymity.
Officials acknowledged that IRGC members were not properly trained in maritime communication, navigation and other military aspects, he said.
Even so, he added, the IRGC attempted to "find a way into" the conventional military structure, even as it was being kept at bay on operational matters.
The IRGC took over counter-intelligence operations and sent junior members to the navy and other branches of the military to identify military personnel who disagreed with the regime, or did not attend prayer services regularly.
They would send observers to watch naval exercises and send representatives to meetings within Iran's navy and other military branches, the analyst said.
Employment determined by IRGC
Inside Iran, the IRGC determines the fate of job-seekers and entrepreneurs.
"I applied for a permit to open a private school in the 1990s," said Farideh Nabovvat, an English teacher and school administrator now living in the US.
There was a national exam she needed to pass in order to obtain a permit, she told Al-Mashareq, which included questions about Shia jurisprudence.
She had studied up on this, she said, and scored in the top 1%.
Nabovvat is a Kurdish Iranian born in Iran's predominantly Sunni Western region. She said that during her final interview, an IRGC-linked ideological examiner disqualified her without a proper explanation.
Pirouz Moslem, another Sunni Kurd and civil engineering graduate who applied for government jobs, had a similar experience.
"I had top scores in my technical evaluations," he told Al-Mashareq, "but when I got to the interview, they did not ask me about engineering. The IRGC quizzed me on Shia law, and I failed."
IRGC's influence on politics
The IRGC's influence on Iranian society runs all the way to the top.
Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of Iran's Majles (parliament), is a former IRGC commander, and the previous speaker, Ali Larijani, also served in the IRGC.
Prominent former IRGC officers, such as Esmail Kosari, make up a significant contingent of the parliament's hardline faction.
Mohsen Rezai, the top bureaucrat at Iran's Expediency Council -- one of Iran's most powerful institutions -- is a former IRGC commander.
In 2016, one-time IRGC commander Javad Mansouri said the IRGC has had a "contingent" in Iran's Foreign Ministry since 1985, and that some of Iran's top diplomats belong to the Quds Force, the IRGC's overseas arm.
The Quds Force arms and supports violent militias in Iraq and Syria.
Mansouri has stated that several members of the Quds Force have served or are serving as ambassadors in Iraq, Syria and other countries, and that Abbas Araghchi, one of Iran's top diplomats, "originated from" the Quds Force.
Iran's economy in IRGC's hands
Perhaps the starkest expression of the IRGC's influence is the extent to which it controls Iran's economy. It dominates Iran's black market, supplying banned or hard-to-obtain foreign goods through some 60 illegal jetties it has operated since the 1990s.
Its Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters dominates Iran's construction, oil and gas industries. The IRGC also is one of the largest players in Iran's banking and telecommunications industries.
These business activities provide the IRGC with significant funding streams, in addition to the average $5.5 billion it has received in annual funding from the Majles in recent years.
In 2017 alone, the IRGC reportedly increased spending on its missile programme and the Quds Force by at least $300 million each.
Shahin Mohammadi, a US-based Iranian journalist, told Al-Mashareq those figures seem small, but given Iran's economic crisis, they would be better spent on funding education, healthcare and other necessities.
"As an Iranian, I look at the priorities of the regime, and I think of all the wrongs and the problems they could fix, if only they spent the money on meeting the needs of the people," he said.
Evidence of Iran's economic malaise is abundant. Annual inflation in Iran was above 31% for the month of September, and the country's currency has fallen more than 200% in value since 2018.
The prices of basic goods are at such high levels that the IRGC said recently it would start "helping the government enforce price caps on essential goods". But as of mid-November, no details had been provided.