Iran’s Revolutionary Guards


Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was founded in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution to defend the regime against internal and external threats, but has since expanded far beyond its original mandate. Today the guard has evolved into a socio-military-political-economic force with influence reaching deep into Iran’s power structure. During the first term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, current and former fighters carved out their place in government: they have been appointed ambassadors, mayors, undersecretaries, provincial governors, and fourteen of the country’s twenty-one cabinet ministers are veterans of the force. Analysts say the organization, with its control of strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises, has evolved into one of the country’s most influential domestic institutions.

Crackdowns on protestors in the wake of the disputed June 2009 presidential elections have brought new scrutiny of the guard’s role. Some analysts believe IRGC influence in the political arena amounts to the irreversible militarization of Iran’s government (NYT). Others, like Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, suggest the guard’s power has grown to exceed (New Republic) that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who legally has final say on all state matters. But Frederic Wehrey, an adjunct senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and the co-author of a recent study on the IRGC, notes that the Revolutionary Guard is far from a cohesive unit of likeminded conservatives. Instead, he says, it’s a heavily factionalized institution with a mix of political aspirants unlikely to turn on their masters.

‘Guardians’ of the Revolution

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or Pasdaran in Persian, was formed by former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was originally created as a “people’s army” similar to the U.S. National Guard; commanders report directly to the supreme leader, Iran’s top decision-maker. Iran’s president appoints military leaders of the guard but has little influence on day-to-day operations. Current forces consist of naval, air, and ground components, and total roughly 125,000 fighters. The corps’ primary role is internal security, but experts say the force can assist Iran’s regular army, which has about 350,000 soldiers, with external defenses. Border skirmishes during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s helped transform the guard into a conventional fighting force organized in a command authority similar to Western armies; some analysts compare it to the “old Bolshevik Red Army.” The guard also controls Iran’s Basij Resistance Force, an all-volunteer paramilitary wing which, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment of the world’s militaries, consists of as many as one million conscripts.

The Revolutionary Guard controls the country’s strategic missile forces, mounts foreign and domestic intelligence operations, and is responsible for protecting the regime; the guard has sole jurisdiction of patrolling the Iranian capital.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA analyst, says the Revolutionary Guard was created as a “counterweight to the regular military, and to protect the revolution against a possible coup.” Khomeini’s revolutionary government, which toppled the U.S.-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was seeking to avoid a repeat of a successful 1953 coup that ousted another revolutionary government. But the guards’ activities in recent years have been aimed at protecting Iranian interests far beyond Tehran.

International Adventurism

Military analysts say the guard began deploying fighters (NPR) abroad during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988, “export[ing] the ideals of the revolution throughout the Middle East.” The Quds Force, a paramilitary arm of the Revolutionary Guards with less than a thousand people, emerged as the de facto external-affairs branch during the expansion. Its mandate was to conduct foreign-policy missions–beginning with Iraq’s Kurdish region–and forge relationships with Shiite and Kurdish groups. A Quds unit was deployed to Lebanon in 1982, where it helped in the genesis of Hezbollah. Another unit was sent to Bosnia to back Bosnian Muslims in their civil war in the early- and mid-1990s. More recently, some experts say, the Quds Force has shipped weapons to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Gaza-based Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and is also supplying munitions to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Shiite militias in Iraq.

The guard’s alleged involvement in Iraq has been a particular point of contention between Washington and Tehran. Former President Bush accused Iran in February 2007 of providing roadside bombs to “networks inside Iraq.”

Timeline: U.S.-Iran Relations

A month later coalition forces captured Ali Musa Daqduq, a Lebanese-born member of Hezbollah operating in Iraq, and Pentagon officials said Daqduq was working with the Quds Force to train Iraqi extremists in logistics, firearms, and explosives. Gen. David Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told lawmakers in September 2007 that the Quds Force was aiding militias in Iraq to “serve its interests and fight a proxy war” with coalition forces, and in a September 2007 interview with military reporters, former Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner said six operatives with Quds Force links had been arrested in 2007. Despite repeated Iranian denials, U.S. congressional leaders in late 2007 designated the guard as a foreign terrorist organization, cutting off Iranian companies and individuals from the U.S. financial system.

Yet, not everyone is convinced Iran’s role in Iraq is as direct as U.S. officials suggest, or its pursuit of nuclear technology is as clear-cut, as this Backgrounder explains. Likewise, some experts see the Guard’s role in Afghanistan as exaggerated. While U.S. military officials have accused Iran of supplying the Afghan Taliban with weapons, CFR International Affairs Fellow George Gavrilis says there is a lack of evidence to support the charges. “Iran has a vested interest in a stable, well-governed Afghanistan,” Gavrilis writes, “an interest that it has protected since the fall of the Taliban.”

Becoming a Player at Home

The alleged spread of the Revolutionary Guards’ external influence coincides with a growing cachet at home. Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in August 2007 that “the Revolutionary Guards are the spine of the current political structure [in Iran] and a major player in the Iranian economy.” The guard’s political influence began its ascendancy as a counterweight to the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami. But analysts say the number of former guardsmen entering political life spiked during Ahmadinejad’s first term, beginning in 2005. Khamenei has appointed former Revolutionary Guard commanders to top political posts (Ahmadinejad was a guardsman) and key institutions, like the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (Ezzatollah Zarghami), the Supreme National Security Council (Saeed Jalili), and the Expediency Council (Mohsen Rezaei, a 2009 presidential challenger). Ali Alfoneh, an expert on the Revolutionary Guard and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says this increase was a tactical move by Khamenei to counter pressures at home, and abroad. He “must have considered former members of the Revolutionary Guard better at crisis management at home … but also better [suited] to counter external pressure on the nuclear issue,” Alfoneh says.

The Revolutionary Guard also controls the country’s strategic missile forces, mounts foreign and domestic intelligence operations, and is responsible for protecting the regime; the guard has sole jurisdiction of patrolling the Iranian capital. Wehrey, writing with colleagues in a January 2009 assessment of the Pasdaran (PDF), notes that “much of the institution’s rise to prominence over competing militias and paramilitaries in the post-revolutionary period was due to its effectiveness in suppressing internal dissent.” Guardsmen and Basij volunteers have a history of violently crushing riots in Iranian cities, and a unit dedicated to quelling civil unrest, the Ashura Brigades, was established in 1993 (PDF). In 2007, the Basij was brought under direct command of the Revolutionary Guard by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari. Alfoneh wrote in September 2008 the move officially refocused the organization to defend against the type of non-violent “velvet revolution” that end Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia. Some analysts say the reorganization was aimed at quelling the very unrest that has surfaced following the June 2009 election. During protests following the contested June 2009 presidential election, members of the guard’s Basij force–dubbed “shadowy vigilantes” (NYT) by Western news organizations–allegedly beat and killed opposition supporters in Tehran and other Iranian cities.

A Money Machine

Political clout and military might are not only attributes of today’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is also a major financial player. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 2007 that the group, which was tasked with rebuilding the country after the war with Iraq, now has ties to over one hundred companies that control roughly $12 billion in construction and engineering capital. Former CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh has linked the guards to university laboratories, weapons manufacturers–including Defense Industries Organization–and companies connected to nuclear technology. Khalaji, of the Washington Institute, lists the Bahman Group, which manufactures cars for Mazda, among guard-owned companies. And Wehrey writes that “the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market.” The engineering firm Khatam al-Anbia, for instance, has been awarded over 750 government contracts for infrastructure, oil, and gas projects, he says.

Some experts suggest the guard’s rising political and economic clout has put it in a position to challenge the clerical establishment.

Not all of the guard’s activities are seen as above board. Mohsen Sazegara, a founding member of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and now a U.S.-based Iranian dissident, says though the original charter of the elite force was to create a “people’s army,” years of political and military changes have transformed the unit into a shadowy behemoth. Sazegara says the guard’s business dealings range from construction and manufacturing to black-market enterprises, like the illegal importation of alcohol. “I don’t know of any other organization in any country like the Revolutionary Guards,” Sazegara says. “It’s something like the Communist Party, the KGB, a business complex, and the mafia.” But Wehrey says the public backlash against its expansion has been muted and that the IRGC enjoys a constituency in certain areas of Iran, especially in rural provinces where Guard-funded infrastructure projects and employment in the Basij paramilitary may give the Guard “a higher degree of support than we assume.”

Looking Ahead

Analysts differ widely on what the future holds for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Some, like Alfoneh, suggest the guard’s rising political and economic clout has put it in a position to challenge the clerical establishment. “For the past thirty years the Islamic Republic has been based on a fundamental alliance between the clergy and the Revolutionary Guard,” Alfoneh says, “where the clerics have been ruling the country, and the Revolutionary Guard has guarded the Islamic Republic” and its values. But now the dynamic has changed to “where there Revolutionary Guard is both ruling, and guarding,” Alfoneh says. Stanford’s Milani, writing in The New Republic, suggests that the post-June 2009 election crisis in Iran could strengthen the guard’s hand even more. If Khamenei calls on the Revolutionary Guard for a full crackdown on protestors, Milani says it would be “difficult to imagine the IRGC quelling the current protests and then simply turning power over to the clergy.” Milani adds: “It is even conceivable that faced with irresolution among the clergy, they will act on their own, and establish a military dictatorship that uses Islam as its ideological veneer–similar to Pakistan under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.”

Wehrey doubts the guard and its commanders would go that far. For one, Wehrey notes, the organization today is overly factionalized and made up of competing currents. During the Khatami era, for instance, the guard’s leadership supported conservative elements within the Iranian establishment, while the rank-and-file were more empathetic to the reformists. Under Ahmadinejad, splits have emerged most noticeably on economic policy. And to suggest that the guard would orchestrate an overt bid for power misses the “checks and balances on the system,” Wehrey says. “There is so much else going on behind the scenes. It’s intensely driven by personalities, by political differences that overlap the formal structures. To say that the guards are acting in lockstep to assert themselves as a political actor ignores the factional divisions … that permeate the guard.”

Given the guard’s uncertain direction and cloudy ambition, it is unclear what tools the Obama administration might bring to bear to counter the organization’s rise. The U.S. State Department has included Iran on its list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1984, and the agency’s most recent country assessment designated the Revolutionary Guard (specifically its Quds force) a terrorist entity.

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