DUBAI (Reuters) - President Hassan Rouhani told Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards on Monday they should not get involved in politics, in a carefully worded speech that sought to avoid antagonizing the elite military force.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which answers directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rather than to the president, has become more assertive in politics in recent years, with increasing numbers of veterans in parliament.
Rouhani's speech, which included praise for the IRGC's increasing economic might, could be an attempt to maintain its support, something that might be in doubt if the Guards see their interests threatened by the new president who has pledged more moderation in Iran's foreign and domestic policies.
A centrist cleric who won a surprise landslide victory over more conservative candidates in a June election, Rouhani told an assembly of IRGC commanders and officials that the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had recommended the military stay out of politics.
"The IRGC is above and beyond political currents, not beside them or within them," Rouhani said, according to the ISNA news agency. "The IRGC has a higher status, which is that of the whole nation."
The Guards' conservative leadership opposed many policies of Iran's reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who served from 1997 to 2005, and helped to scuttle his boldest initiatives.
The 100,000-strong IRGC and its volunteer paramilitary branch, the Basij, were instrumental in suppressing the huge street protests that followed the disputed 2009 re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Both opposition activists and some establishment figures have accused the Guards of crossing a line into political action. Prior to the June elections, Guard commanders made clear they would not tolerate protests similar to those held in 2009.
Outside Iran, the IRGC's Quds Force plays an important role enacting Iranian policies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, foreign diplomats and analysts say.
Guards commanders have issued statements welcoming the election of Rouhani who served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years and so has strong ties with the military.
He used Monday's speech to praise the economic prowess of the IRGC which has built a vast economic empire that includes civilian infrastructure and engineering - something that worries some private sector business people who complain of having to compete with an over-mighty pseudo-state giant.
Sanctions - imposed mostly by Western countries over Iran's nuclear activities - have kept Western oil firms away from Iran's energy sector, leaving space for IRGC firms to win the lucrative contracts.
"Today, in conditions in which our economy is a target (of sanctions), the IRGC must enter into action and take on three or four large national projects," Rouhani said.
"The IRGC is not a rival to the people and the private sector ... the IRGC today must take on important projects that the private sector is unable to take on."
(This story has been refiled to fix typo in headline)
(Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)