Iran commander criticizes government over influence from West

By Isabel Coles and Marcus George DUBAI (Reuters) - The commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard force has criticized the government of President Hassan Rouhani as being under the influence of Western ideas, a sign of the growing tensions between the competing power centers. Major General Mohammad Jafari's comments are some of the sharpest to be made by a senior official in public since the moderate Rouhani took office in August pledging to improve Iran's relations with regional countries and the West. The government's diplomatic initiative led to an agreement with six world powers last month under which Iran is to curb its disputed nuclear program in return for limited relief from sanctions that have squeezed its economy. The interim accord has been widely welcomed by Iranians but hardliners are irked by the foreign policy shift and apprehensive that they are losing influence over Iran's most powerful man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "The military, systems and procedures governing the administrative system of the country are the same as before, (but it) has been slightly modified and unfortunately infected by Western doctrine, and a fundamental change must occur," Fars news agency quoted Jafari as saying on Tuesday. The comments by Jafari - the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - underline the changing circumstances since hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left office after two terms. During those eight years, the IRGC was able to strengthen its involvement in economic and political affairs of the country, a role Rouhani is intent on reversing. Jafari also appeared to dismiss calls by Rouhani and Khamenei for the force to stay out of politics, saying its duty was to protect the Islamic Revolution. "The main threat to the revolution is in the political arena and the Guards cannot remain silent in the face of that," he said. "TURF WAR" Siavush Ranjbar-Daemi, a lecturer in Iranian politics at Manchester University in Britain said: "From the moment this presidency started Rouhani has been trying to redefine the IRGC presence in politics. He sees them as an obstacles to the nuclear agreement". "He's trying to acquire as much influence as possible over Khamenei. Clearly the relationship between Rouhani and the Guards is not good. There will be a lot of adjustments and turf war." Rouhani's policies have so far gained the endorsement of Khamenei, who has the final say in Iran's foreign and security policies but who holds a deep distrust of Western countries and their motives against Iran. Jafari also chastised Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for a comment he was said to have made indicating Iran was militarily weak. Zarif was quoted by local media last week as saying the West had little fear of Iran's military defenses and could destroy them if it wished, although Zarif has said his statement was skewed and taken out of context. "We consider him an experienced diplomat, but he has no experience in the military field," Fars news agency reported Jafari as saying on Tuesday, without naming Zarif. Jafari was answering a question about whether U.S. forces could destroy Iran's military capability with just a few bombs. "It's not like that at all. He has no military experience or expertise," Jafari said during a visit to Tehran's Imam Sadiq University. Iran's hardline factions are struggling to come to terms with Rouhani's technocratic ministers such as Zarif who speak English, boast western educations and regularly use social media to get their messages out. They also fear being marginalized by Rouhani on issues of national security, such as Syria. Jafari was explicit in saying Iran would not halt its support of its Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has provided vital military and economic help to Assad in the Syrian civil war which has helped him reverse gains made by the rebels. "We have announced before that we have specialist forces to transfer experience and training in Syria who work as advisers and this is public knowledge," Jafari said. "We will do whatever we can and is necessary to protect Syria because Syria is the front line of the Islamic Revolution". (Editing by Angus MacSwan)