More than 25 years ago, the "Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) began its abuse of Iran's resources by forcibly injecting itself into different sectors of the economy.
It slowly took over contracts and planted itself in Iran's economy to the point that companies would not be able to work without being beholden to it, observers say.
The new fiscal year's budget, which will be implemented effective March 21, is a prime example of how the IRGC is getting a big piece of the cake in Iran to the detriment of the people, they said.
In the 2022–23 draft budget, President Ebrahim Raisi's administration has increased the funds allocated to the IRGC by more than 210% -- a significant increase that goes far beyond the previous upward trend -- while seeking only a 10% pay raise for government employees.
Even though the budget has yet to be fully approved, its "general" points have been approved by the Majles (Iran's parliament).
In the absence of foreign investment, the IRGC has aimed to strengthen its grip on Iran's economy and stamp out competition.
IRGC leaders say its economic activities -- as well as its military activities -- are meant to safeguard Iran against foreign aggression. But the reality is that the IRGC gets richer by dominating Iran's economy.
This state of affairs has only gotten worse over the past decade, to the point that Iranians say, "If you don't work for the IRGC, you do not work."
Hamid Shahnavaz, a civil engineer whose large and once lucrative firm went bankrupt in 2020, said he has experienced this injustice firsthand.
"Although the coronavirus outbreak exacerbated problems, the main reason for our bankruptcy was the IRGC takeover," he said. "It underbid us on every project, and it was only a matter of time before we would topple over."
"My partners and I were hopeful for a change, although we knew it was wishful thinking," Shahnavaz said. But over the course of three years, "things got worse for us as the IRGC undertook more and more projects".
Politics slowly dominated by IRGC
Until about five years ago, the IRGC featured most prominently in the economic sector, but since then, and with Iranian leader Ali Khamenei's staunch support, it has also crept into the political arena.
Ambassadors, especially those assigned to regional countries, are either former IRGC officers or individuals close to the IRGC. Hassan Eyrlou, the former ambassador to the Houthis who recently died of COVID-19, is but one example.
As of two years ago, most domestic posts go to former IRGC officials as well, with governors among the relatively new members of the exclusive IRGC club.
Handing over sensitive posts, at home and abroad, to current or former IRGC officials has become commonplace in the Raisi administration.
According to an investigative report published October 20 in Iranian daily Payam-e Ma, Tehran deputy mayor for social and cultural affairs Amin Tavakkolizadeh said "jihadi forces" -- meaning the IRGC -- "need to be added" to forces managing the city, and should help manage child labourers.
Earlier in October, Tehran City Council chairman Mehdi Chamran announced that the city's municipality had decided to commission all of its projects to the IRGC.
Illegal drugs, illicit weapons
Meanwhile, the IRGC persecutes Iranian dissidents, trains militia elements that interfere in the region's affairs, and attempts to meddle in elections. Observers and citizens say it takes money out of the Iranian public's mouths to fund these activities.
What is not funded by the country's budget is supported by smuggling illegal drugs and illicit weapons, which the IRGC's overseas arm, the Quds Force, and its several proxies engage in.
Yemen's Houthis and the Lebanese Hizbullah are perhaps the most prolific in these activities, aided by Units 190 and 400 of the Quds Force.
Similarly, the rise in the rate of drug-related crimes in Iraq's Kurdish region has underscored the disruptive and destabilising role of the IRGC and its proxies, who are heavily involved in the drug trade.
Most narcotics entering the Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq are smuggled in by armed groups backed by the IRGC or its partners, experts said, noting that drug trafficking is a significant source of funding for these groups.
The IRGC's atrocities have reached far and wide, to the point that as of late, some of its affiliated militias and groups in the region, particularly in Iraq, are distancing themselves from it, at least on the surface.