Quds v. Revolutionary Guards: Why U.S. Sees Iran’s Two “Terrorist” Forces Differently

For weeks now there has been talk of removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from the West’s list of international terrorists, to meet one of Iran’s conditions for renewing the 2015 pact on its nuclear program, or agreeing on a similar pact.

Tehran says removing the terrorist label from the Guards and lifting all sanctions on this key military force constitute a ‘red line’ that must be included in any deal in ongoing, though stalled, talks on its program.

Recently U.S. President Joe Biden and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, voiced opposition, without specifically citing the Revolutionary Guards, to ending the terrorist label for one particular unit of the Guards, the Quds Force.

This is a regional task force suspected of meddling in the affairs of several neighboring states, and the previous U.S. administration of President Donald Trump took out its powerful leader Qassem Soleimani in 2020, saying he was a threat to U.S. forces.

The problem with Washington’s comments and thinking is the idea that the Guards and the Quds Force are two distinct institutions, when in fact they are part of a single entity.

On Khamenei’s orders

The Quds Force or Quds Army (Sepah-e quds) takes its name from Jerusalem (Quds), a city that the Islamic Republic of Iran boasts it will recover for the Muslims.

The force emerged from departments created after the 1979 revolution to back operations and Islamist movements outside Iran.

The directorates’ names, and their heads, changed through the years of war with Iraq (1980-88), but it was clear they effectively functioned under the aegis of the Revolutionary Guards.

After the end of the war, the country’s new supreme leader Ali Khamenei, ordered the creation of the Quds Force as one of the five branches of the Revolutionary Guards, alongside their infantry, air force, navy and the Basij (city militias). Thus the operations of the Quds force cannot be considered as independent of the Guards.

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