This text originally appeared at SouthFront in July 2016
After the events in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution, which took place in Iran by overthrowing the Pahlavi dynasty, the new government of Iran was charged with a serious task: maintaining order and preventing a counter-revolution. The survival of the new government was crucial, especially since the previous dynasty was very close to the Western governments and the US. The most reliable mechanism for achieving this was, of course, military control. Regular forces of Iran’s army were not enough to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic – we should keep in mind that much of the regular forces were leftovers of the previous regime and could not be fully trusted. However, revolutionary forces, which include the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Basij militia and the Quds Force, have had an enormous impact on maintaining the Islamic Republic’s government, but also, the IRGC gained a significant position in Iranian society and state policy. The IRGC, which was formed in 1979, is a product of the Islamic Revolution and since then, as a military organisation in Iran, it became one of the pillars of the Iranian state. On the 5th of May 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree with which the IRGC was formed as a parallel military structure beside the Iranian Army. The IRGC was focused on internal matters rather than on external ones. The Revolutionary Council also stated eight categories of duties for the IRGC:
- Assisting security apparatus in dealing with counter-revolutionary elements
- Fighting armed counter-revolutionaries
- Battling against foreign forces inside the country
- Cooperating with the armed forces of the country in training subordinates in moral, ideological and political matters
- Assisting the government in implementing the Islamic Revolution
- Supporting liberation movements across the world in their fight for justice under the tutelage of the leader of the Islamic Revolution
- Utilising all resources in dire times of catastrophes and calamities in order the help and improve the society of the Islamic Republic of Iran
The prosperous path of the IRGC in the Iranian society was not guaranteed by the constitution, although as the revolution progressed further, so did the influence and power of the IRGC. In the aftermath of the Revolution, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was just one of many militias charged with the duty of protecting the state from both external and internal threats. Major threats at that time were primarily from armed leftists groups and ethnic insurgent groups, such as the Kurds and monarchists. At the same time, the police and military were restricted and controlled by the provisional government headed by Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan (in office between the 11th of February and the 6th of November 1979). On the other side, the IRGC was able to operate outside the sphere of jurisdiction and deal with all possible threats in various ways (the IRGC and other paramilitary groups were highly proficient in urban combat). Besides the IRGC, there were also other paramilitary groups, which exploited the post-revolutionary period in Iran for their own gains. One of those was komithes (committees) and so-called ’revolutionary tribunals’. These groups were rather dangerous, there were over 1,000 komithes in Tehran functioning similarly to freelance bands. Arrests were made easily; anyone they deemed as a threat to the new government could become a victim. Revolutionary tribunals were also scattered across the country, delivering justice, and much more often, executions of thousands of people accused of plotting a counter-revolution. The IRGC had frictions with these kinds of organisations, but ultimately it prevailed. The Iran-Iraq war played a major part in consolidating the power of the IRGC in the future Iranian society. During the war, the IRGC was the primary institution which managed to suppress the Kurdish uprising and other separatist movements of Turkmen and Baluchs, thus preserving the integrity of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thanks to these successful roles, the IRGC portrayed itself as a ’protector’ of the Republic against Iraq, and simultaneously, against internal challenges which could threaten the government. However, there are scholars who are highly critical of the IRGC’s role in the war. There are opinions which suggest that many young men who were recruited during the war times (much of the recruitment was voluntary, but some of it was done by force), were also needlessly sacrificed (the Iraqi tactic during the war was passive and was consisted mainly out of mine fields and stationary defenses, infantry waves and fervor of the Iranian forces broke those obstacles, but also caused major casualties that could have been avoided). However, these opinions do not resonate among the Iranian population; men who lost their lives during the war became shahids/martyrs, bringing honor to their families. One thing should be pointed out: although there was a real threat to the sovereignty of Iran from the Iraqi aggression, the government of Iran used the war not only to protect its territory, but also to further consolidate its power and purge any potential political threats inside the society.
Besides its primary duties of preventing a counter-revolution, the IRGC also provided intelligence work, especially on the domestic plane. After the revolution, the IRGC was heavily relying on the remnants of the previous intelligence agency, the SAVAK (widely feared by the people in Iran). One of the major victories that the IRGC scored in the intelligence sector was eliminating the Islamic group, Forghan (it emerged in 1979 with a strong sense of opposition towards the new government, most notorious for its assassinations) and the Communist Tudeh Party. After the formation of the Ministry of Intelligence, the IRGC was relieved of some of its duties in the intelligence sector. Though the Ministry manages most of the intelligence work, the IRGC remained as one of the shadowy agencies still in charge of providing critical information. At present, the security division of the IRGC, or Sazman-e Harassat, has the function of a regular internal intelligence office. Primary functions usually consist of tracking suspicious individuals, oppositionists and separatists, and also political renegades.
The ideological role of the IRGC in the Iranian society is also very strong. Two professors from Tehran University, who prompted further indoctrination, were Ahmad Fardid and Reza Davari-Ardakani; both of them are prominent philosophers invited by the Political Bureau to teach their ideas. The ideas and teachings were mainly anti-Western, insular, anti-technological and highly nationalistic. These ideas were especially welcomed during the war times, since they promoted fervor among the troops. Today we have a different picture: the IRGC is persistently trying to represent itself as a force for modernisation of the country and the society. These initial ideas are shifting and it also reveals that the IRGC is not one monolithic structure stuck in the past, but an organisation which is trying to stay in touch with current events in society. Popularisation of the IRGC among the younger generation is usually done in summer camps located in semi-rural areas. Though the mention of such camps can seem a bit brutal and could have a reminiscence of the Second World War, activities in the camps are rather diversified, which accommodate the interests of younger people. The camps are not strictly ideological; they promote activities such as sports, recreation and the learning of different technical skills. Of course, this is all done in accordance with Iranian culture and Shia doctrine. Besides these summer camps, the IRGC is embedded in universities and in the high school education system. As in the summer camps, the IRGC is trying to socialise and further develop its popularity in these educational institutions. In the universities, it is especially interested in keeping an eye on potential dissidents or counter-revolutionaries. Engagements in the educational system have their drawbacks, especially since some of the professors who were deemed progressive, have lost their jobs or have been replaced with people who are in line with the IRGC doctrine. However, high schools and universities represent a great place for recruitment of future educated IRGC cadres.
The IRGC also performs regular training activities throughout Iran for both active and potential future members of the organisation. This training includes classical military training with drills, and incorporates both male (ashura) and female (zahra) battalions. With this military training, there are four main objectives: equipping the forces with the needed knowledge in order to effectively participate in homeland defense; training for disaster relief operations; defending the country against the so-called ’soft coup’; and spreading the values of the IRGC further into society.
- Homeland defense training of the IRGC is mainly orientated towards asymmetrical warfare and the war of attrition. One of the main tactics is to draw out the campaign of the aggressor to that extent that the invader loses the will to pursue his main objectives. The IRGC with Basj forces is the crucial pillar of this strategy, also known as ’mosaic defense’. This type of strategy also includes partisan warfare, falling back behind enemy lines, harassing the enemy and their communication lines, which finally renders the occupation non-effective through heavy attrition. The conflict in Lebanon from 2006 played a major role in the creation of this strategy. Hezbollah tactics and guerrilla warfare used at that time against a better-equipped adversary became a turning point.
- Disaster-relief training is one of the focal points of the IRGC training in general. Besides maintaining social order and distributing needed supplies in disaster zones, it’s important to sustain the government’s and the country’s cohesion and stability. Natural disasters can be used to initiate an uprising by certain groups or external factors. Therefore, it is of great importance that the IRGC, along with other groups, performs duties as trained professionals with a lot of sympathy towards the people who were affected by potential disasters.
- The IRGC also conducts training and drills against ’soft coups’. Troops are instructed on how to fight against dissident groups who may cause uprisings or similar insurgencies sponsored by external factors. There is a growing fear of Western-sponsored organisations and this is not without a reason; in the past couple of years, we can see the development of various revolutions in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and other countries. The IRGC, along with Basj forces, is trained to deal with such occurrences if they take place.
- Besides the drills, the IRGC is also popularising its role in the society, especially among the younger generation. Along with weapon-handling and small-unit military tactics, the IRGC and Basj forces are teaching religious and ideological lectures.
The IRGC also has a major influence on the Iranian economy. Some say that it has even managed to extend its influence in every aspect of the Iranian market. The involvement in the economy began during the war in the 1980s, when the formal ranking system allowed senior members to acquire some privileges and even economic benefits. Later, by the end of the 1990s, the IRGC was heavily involved in oil trade and production, with substantial revenue and large infrastructure. The IRGC’s expansion into the economic sector was boosted mostly by informal social relations of its senior members and other important figures in society. Some analysts claim that the IRGC’s role in the country’s economy is something similar to a shadow economy that functions parallel to the regular market. The involvement in the Iranian economy can be seen through:
- Foundations or Bonyads, which provide scholarships, aid to the poor in terms of low interest loans and also provide financial funds for public works. These foundations have economic relations with regions like Russia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. They also provide loans to families and members of the IRGC and Basij forces located in rural areas.
- The IRGC is also heavily invested in engineering, construction and manufacturing companies. This also began during the war when the IRGC got permission from the government to confiscate several factories and managed to establish moavenat khodkafaee and moavenat bassazi (HQ of self-sufficiency and HQ of reconstruction). From this, they spread to other branches of industry.
- Finally, there are public works. The IRGC, through its funds, manages various public works and infrastructure in the country, especially in the rural or remote areas of the land. This is financed directly from IRGC companies or funds or via patronages of individuals or other companies. Generally, this is always a popular move and the population is rather grateful for it. However, there is a reasonable suspicion that via public works, the IRGC or some individuals from the IRGC are laundering finances which were gained by illicit trade on the black market.
The IRGC’s role in politics begins during the Khatami era, where the IRGC took up the role of protector for conservatives who were trying to displace Khatami’s supporters from political power. After those initial steps, IRGC senior members began to acquire a significant portion of political power in the republic, as well as in local levels of governance. For example, in 2003, many former members or associates of the IRGC took part in local levels of government in city councils, enabling further entry into legislative politics in the parliamentary elections in 2004. The initial idea of the IRGC and its formation did not include political engagement. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini even stated that IRGC forces must stay out of politics and ensure its neutrality towards the state and the government in order to protect the Revolution. Over time, its attitude towards politics did change, even if we look at the country’s constitution and the definition of the IRGC, which is stated as being a “guardian of the Revolution and of its achievements”, we can clearly see that from the beginning, its role in society did include some levels of politics whether or not Ayatollah Khomeini wanted a political or an apolitical military force. Even the Revolutionary Council stated in its charter that members of the IRGC must be trained in political/military and ideological matters. This kind of militarisation of Iranian politics disturbed the other factions of the political spectrum in Iran. Reformists and moderates were highly displeased with these actions responding with a barrage of critics. These critics were not unfunded. After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the IRGC managed to widen its grip on Iranian politics. This ascent of the IRGC in Iranian internal politics came from the Khatami-era, reformists, who posed a great threat to Khomeini, pushed the leader to turn to the IRGC and Basj force (they proved to be natural allies), hence giving them wider political powers.
Another important segment of the IRGC is the Quds Force. The Quds Force was established at the end of the Iraq-Iran war at the beginning of the 1990s, when the need for subversive activities became attractive for the IRGC and the whole Iranian government. Their main regions of interest included neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and some Gulf States. The Quds Force directly answers to the Ayatollah, although it is believed that much of the relations between Quds Force and the Ayatollah are conducted through informal channels. The Quds Force is regarded as an elite unit inside the IRGC. It has great prestige in society and is also rewarded with great resources. The Quds Forces are deployed across the country in different headquarters, each specialised in some field of expertise depending on the geographical designation (for example, the Lebanon Corps, the Iraq Corps etc.). The main headquarters are responsible for the Quds Force construction, relations towards the Supreme Leader and other senior and influential persons in the security and political sectors of Iran. Some members of the Quds Forces are deployed in Iranian embassies across the globe and some even operate through Iranian charitable associations and education institutions. Recruitment for this unit is done in the vicinity of holy sites or mosques; only devoted Shia Muslims are considered reliable to undergo future training for this Force. The recruitment is not only done in Iran, but in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq as well. The training of the new recruits is done in cooperation with the IRGC and can last from three to nine months. There are three main training facilities for Quds Forces across Iran:
- Imam Ali Base in the vicinity of Tehran, the base is specialised in training foreign fighters for ground operations
- Wali-e-Assar Base in Shiraz
- College Base in Qom, which provides spiritual and ideological training and preparation
In the Quds Forces, there is also a covert unit called ’Unit 400’. Activities of this special unit are usually sensitive foreign missions. This unit or part of the Quds Force, has a bad reputation and is often accused of terrorism or helping terrorist organisations (accusations of this sort usually come from the West and always point to relations between Quds Forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon). The main objective of the Quds Forces is clandestine missions in the region, especially in countries with a Shia population or countries which represent crucial geopolitical points for Iran.
Although Iran maintains a strong authoritarian regime, the Iranian Revolution has shown the resolve which is needed to overthrow a Western-backed totalitarian dynasty and further endure sanctions and even aggression from neighboring countries. The IRGC and the Quds Forces have proven to be crucial in maintaining the new government and enduring the trials which lasted for many years. Iran, as a successor of the Persian Empire, represents a luscious spoil, not only for global powers, but for the regional players as well. Though some level of reform and liberalization is needed for Iran in order to better position itself on the global stage (both in economy and politics), the threat of the so-called ’colored revolutions’ is very real. Therefore, the IRGC will remain one of the pillars of society, which protects and acts as a bastion against foreign subversion and domestic dissidents.
MA IGOR PEJIC graduated in Political Science: Foreign Affairs Department at the Faculty of Political Science, and now holds an MA in Terrorism, Security and Organised Crime from the University of Belgrade, Serbia.
- Small Wars Journal: A Review of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Qods Force: Growing Global Presence, Links to Cartels, and Mounting Sophistication by Alma Keshavarz 2015
- The Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard by Ben Smith 2007