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Iran Primer: The Revolutionary Guards

by ALIREZA NADER

21 Oct 2010 21:345 Comments
File_25384_56257.jpg[ primer ] The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was created after the 1979 revolution to enforce Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's concept of an Islamic state ruled by a velaayat-e faghih (guardianship of the jurist). The Guards played a crucial role not only in crushing early opposition to Khomeini's vision, but also in repelling Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980. Since then, the Guards have functioned as both the primary internal and external security force. The IRGC has now eclipsed the Artesh, or conventional forces. It operates substantial and independent land, sea and air forces. It commands burgeoning missile forces. It runs asymmetric warfare through the elite Qods Force and proxy groups, such as Hezbollah. And it would most likely command a nuclear arsenal, if the regime chooses to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Over time, the Guards have also been transformed into a leading economic and political actor. The IRGC and its associated companies are involved in many sectors of Iran's economy, allowing it to amass unprecedented power. The Guards' ascendance could not have happened without the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khamenei relied on the Guards to buttress his declining authority and to block political reform. As guarantor of the revolution's core principles, the IRGC played a key role in marginalizing reformist and pragmatic conservative factions seen to challenge those principles.

Military and security role

The IRGC has played an important role in suppressing groups that opposed Khomeini's objectives, such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) Organization. The MEK, a leftist group founded in the 1960s, backed the revolution but then split from the theocrats; it was the largest Iranian opposition group until the 2009 election spawned the Green Movement. The Guards were also responsible for putting down various leftist and ethnic insurgencies that broke out after the revolution.

Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran actually proved to be a boon for Khomeini and the Guards, as it helped unite the nation around the new regime and bolstered the Guards as Iran's premier military force. The Artesh was the shah's main prop; they were also trained and supplied by the Unites States, so were viewed with suspicion by the regime. The Guards, loyal to velayat-e faqih, took the lead in repelling Iraq, although their involvement may have actually prolonged the conflict because of their ideological commitment and lack of military experience. Nevertheless, the Guards' role in Iran's so-called "holy defense" against Iraq has been used over the years to burnish their credentials as defender of the revolution and the nation.

The Guards forces now number up to 150,000 men divided into land, sea and air forces. The IRGC land forces are estimated to number between 100,000 and 125,000. The IRGC's navy may total as many as 20,000, though some estimates are significantly lower. Another 20,000 are in the IRGC naval forces. And the Qods Force totals around 5,000. The Basij militia, which is subordinate to the Guards, can also mobilize hundreds of thousands of its members to defend Iran against a foreign invasion.

The Guards are also in charge of executing Iran's strategy of asymmetric warfare in the event of a U.S. or Israeli attack. The IRGC's secretive Qods Force has trained and equipped proxy groups, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraqi Shiite insurgents, and even elements of the Taliban. Some surrogates have already been used to target U.S. and other Western forces in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan; they could be used against U.S. targets outside Iran in the event of a future conflict.

The Guards have also developed an asymmetric naval strategy for use against the U.S. Navy, which has a superior conventional force. The Guards have hundreds of fast attack boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and naval mines. Together they impede U.S. operations in the Gulf, disrupt shipping, and impose a painful cost on U.S. forces in the event of an armed conflict. The Guards also operate hundreds of ballistic missiles that can target U.S. forces stationed in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, in addition to Israel and beyond.

The Guards are also Iran's most powerful internal security force, at times cooperating and competing with the ministry of intelligence and other security organizations. The Guards' intelligence organization appears to have eclipsed the ministry of intelligence in scope and authority, especially after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Other security organizations such as the Basij and the Law Enforcement Forces have become subordinate to the Guards.

Economic giant

The Guards' involvement in the Iranian economy began during Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidency. Reconstruction of Iran's economy, battered by nearly ten years of war and revolution, was one of his major priorities. The IRGC had the manpower to engage in reconstruction activities. Rafsanjani may have also hoped to co-opt the Guards by giving them a slice of the economic pie.

Over the next 20 years, however, the Guards became Iran's largest economic force. The Guards currently dominate most sectors of the economy, from energy to construction, telecommunication to auto making, and even banking and finance. Khatam al Anabia (the Seal of the Prophets), the Guards' construction headquarters, is involved in much of the Guards' official economic activities. But the IRGC is also linked to dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of companies that appear to be private in nature but are run by IRGC veterans. So the Guards' economic influence activities encompass a broad network of current and former members rather than a single official or centrally administered organization.

The IRGC has taken advantage of its national security authority to extend its control. The Guards prevented a Turkish company from building the Imam Khomeini international airport in 2004 on national security grounds. The takeover of the Telecommunications Company of Iran by a Guards-affiliated consortium in 2009 may have also been motivated by security concerns, especially after the presidential election and subsequent unrest.

The Guards have arguably benefitted from international sanctions and Iran's isolation, which hurt their domestic and foreign business competitors by increasing business costs. The IRGC's ability to tap into state funds and its relatively vast independent resources have provided a decisive advantage. Under Ahmadinejad, the Guards have been awarded hundreds of no-bid government contracts in addition to billions of dollars in loans for construction, infrastructure and energy projects. The Guards reported involvement in illicit economic activities may also cushion them from the full effects of sanctions. Ironically, tougher sanctions would undoubtedly further damage Iran's economy, but they may actually strengthen the very force driving national security policies, including the nuclear program.

Political role

One of the key issues dividing reformist and conservative factions has been the role of the Guards in Iranian politics. Reformists and even some conservatives contend that Khomeini explicitly forbid the Guards' involvement in politics. The Guards, they argue, were established only to protect the regime. The Guards' political ascent began during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005. Khatami and his supporters envisioned a series of political, social, and economic reforms to make the Islamic Republic a more "modern" Islamic system. But the reformist agenda threatened the conservative ideology, political power and ideological authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini in 1989. Reformist intellectuals questioned Khamenei's leadership, and even the efficacy of having a supreme leader. Khamenei viewed the Guards as an effective bulwark against the reformist agenda.

The Guards' rank and file has historically reflected Iranian society and politics at large. Many Guards members supported Khatami in 1995 and Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. Nevertheless, the Guards' top leadership is comprised of conservatives and "principlists" deeply opposed to political reforms. The IRGC leadership's opposition to Khatami's reforms was manifested in the "chain murder" of reform intellectuals. The Guards also wrote a letter to Khatami threatening a coup d'etat if he did not rein in the 1999 student demonstrations.

The 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former Revolutionary Guard and a "principlist," could not have been possible without the active support of Khamenei and the Guards. Allegations of fraud and ballot-stuffing by the Guards and Basij surrounded Ahmadinejad's victory over Rafsanjani. After the election, Ahmadinejad awarded the IRGC even more government loans and contracts. Guard members also won increasing control of Iran's internal and national security organizations. IRGC ideologues loyal to Ahmadinejad and the political status quo were also appointed to replace reformists, pragmatic conservatives and technocrats in the bureaucracy.

The 2009 presidential election confirmed the Guards' role as Iran's preeminent power broker, after the supreme leader. Senior Guards officials indicated they would not tolerate a reformist such as former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's leading opponent. Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli, a former Guards officer turned businessman who was responsible for supervising the election, played a crucial role in Ahmadinejad's re-election. And after the disputed poll, the Guards were in charge of crushing the mass protests that flared for six months. The reformists and Green Movement accused the Guards of conducting a coup.

But the Guards are not a united or monolithic force. And not all IRGC members are ideologues. Many respect Mousavi, who was prime minister in the 1980s, for his devotion to the revolution and his conduct during the Iran-Iraq War. Some Guards have also reportedly been disappointed with Ahmadinejad -- and even Khamenei -- because of the post-election suppression of dissent. Nevertheless, the symbiotic relationship between Khamenei and the top echelon of the Guards is likely to ensure the IRGC's role as enforcer of the status quo and the principles of the revolution.

The future

* The Guards' and so-called principlists' domination of the regime after the 2009 election may result in more belligerent Iranian foreign and domestic policies, especially on the nuclear issue.

* The Guards may be able to maintain the political status quo if they remain a unified force. However, they face internal divisions, which could potentially weaken Khamenei's hand in a moment of crisis.

* The Guards' involvement in the business world may erode its credibility to the extent that it will not be able to function as an effective security or military force in the future.

Alireza Nader, an international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, is coauthor of "Mullahs, Guards, and Bonyads: An Exploration of Iranian Leadership Dynamics." This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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5 Comments

A great piece, however I wish the author had addressed the question IRGC involvement in economic activities. It does not seem that reformists were against it. Is it possible that all administrations were in favor of IRGC role in the economy as a way to control its political ambitions?

Ali / October 21, 2010 6:29 PM

Decidedly skewed perspective on the IRGC.

No attention given whatsoever to IRGC operations against the soft war coup and soft war threats being applied to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

And I must remind the author that at least half of the IRGC rank and file, as well as leadership, voted for reformist President Khatami, which contradicts some of the assertions put forward in this piece.

Pirouz / October 21, 2010 6:43 PM

Pirouz, do you even read these articles before you launch your consistently contrary and egotistical comments?

Shouldn't you be torturing a political prisoner right now?

Bahman / October 22, 2010 3:48 AM

Pirouz, if I am right which I think I am, a basiji wanna be such as you should change his name to a more traditional Islamic name. If you want let me know to provide you with some suggestions.

Anonymous / October 22, 2010 8:58 PM

:) Pirouz masters the art of distracting to attract attention, guys let him be.
On the other hand where is the "skewness"?

Ali / October 23, 2010 8:18 AM