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Guardians of the Revolution

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard perform the weekly Friday prayers at Tehran University in the Iranian capital on 16 July 2010. Source: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
A number of shibboleths have dominated the study of Iran since the revolution. One such shibboleth is the assertion that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the ultimate arbiter of events in Iran. Known as Pasdaran in Persian, the IRGC and its role in government have been the source of myths that cast a long shadow on all analyses of Iranian politics.

For over a decade, the US Congress and successive administrations have kept the Pasdaran in their sights, encouraging the emergence of a veritable industry dedicated to the study of the IRGC. As a result, most Americans know more about the IRGC than they would like to. In 2008, the US Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution urging President George W. Bush to label the IRGC a terrorist group. He did so a month later, and continued to implement harsh new sanctions targeting the business interests of the group. As the then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told the press, “It is increasingly likely that if you are doing business with Iran you are doing business with the IRGC.” Since then, President Barack Obama has taken a bipartisan approach and has imposed even harsher sanctions against the Pasdaran, including the blacklisting of some of its commanders.

Revolutionary politics, economic power

The IRGC is a unique, often misunderstood, beast. It is an army answerable to no one but the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is also a business conglomerate that controls over five hundred companies active in a wide range of industries—from nuclear power to banking, life insurance to holiday resorts and shopping malls. By most estimates, the IRGC is Iran’s third-largest corporation, after the National Iranian Oil Company and the Imam Reza Endowment in the city of Mashhad, northeast of Tehran.

A thorough analysis of the IRGC must take into account a number of facts. First, it is not a revolutionary army in the sense of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria or the Vietminh in Vietnam. Those were born during the revolutionary wars in which they became key players. Both could claim to have earned their respective victories on the battlefield, thus securing a dominant position in the emerging revolutionary regimes.

The IRGC, on the other hand, was created after the Khomeinist revolution had succeeded. This fact is of crucial importance. The Khomeinist revolution won power after a brief struggle of about four months in which street demonstrations—not armed combat—played the crucial role. On the few occasions when armed groups intervened on the side of the revolution, the actors were leftist organizations that broke with Khomeini in the early phases of his rule. Those who joined the IRGC came from a variety of backgrounds. Within Iran, many suspect that quite a few IRGC recruits were opportunists. By joining the IRGC, they could not only obtain revolutionary credentials but would also secure well-paying jobs at a time that economic collapse made jobs rare. Many non-commissioned officers from the Shah’s army joined the Pasdaran, as did a number of former Marxist and Islamic-Marxist guerrillas.

Joining the IRGC enabled many who had cooperated with the ancien régime to rewrite their CVs and obtain ‘revolutionary virginity.’ Membership in the IRGC ensured access to rare goods and services, from color TVs to more decent housing. As the years went by, IRGC membership became a fast track to social, political, and economic success. Today, half of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet ministers are former members of the Pasdaran. The president himself also served as a member of the IRGC’s engineering corps in the 1980s. Former IRGC members hold nearly a third of the seats in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis), the ersatz parliament that Khomeini created in 1979. Twenty of Iran’s thirty-two provinces have governors who are members of the IRGC, and its members have also started capturing key posts in the diplomatic service. Today, former members of the IRGC are the Islamic Republic’s ambassadors to important places such as the United Nations in New York and embassies in a dozen Western capitals.

Fingers in many pies

Despite all this, it is as an economic power that the IRGC weighs so heavily on Iranian politics. In 2004, a Tehran University study estimated the annual turnover of IRGC businesses at USD12 billion, with total net profits of USD1.9 billion. The privatization package prepared by President Ahmadinejad is likely to increase the IRGC’s economic clout. Almost all of the public sector companies marked for privatization—at a total value of USD18 billion—ended up in the hands of the IRGC and its individual commanders.

The crown jewel of the IRGC’s business empire is the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which has cost the nation over USD10 billion so far, according to unofficial estimates cited by the Iranian daily Aftab-e Yazd in 2011. Theoretically, the nuclear program—supposedly designed for peaceful purposes including the production of electricity—is controlled by the Iranian Nuclear Energy Organization (Sazman Enerji Atomi Iran), the head of which is appointed by the president of the Islamic Republic. In reality, however, from strategic conception to production and management, the IRGC supervise the program under the authority of the Supreme Leader.

The vast and expensive nuclear program is part of a broader scheme of arms purchases and manufacture, which in total accounts for almost 11 percent of the annual national budget. Iran started building an arms industry in the 1960s and it was manufacturing a range of weapons by the time the revolution happened, including a British-patented tank and a French-designed short-range missile. Since then, the IRGC has succeeded in expanding the armament industry despite sanctions imposed by Western powers, and it now produces a range of weapons including small attack boats, drones, and mini-submarines used for laying mines in deep waters. In 2010, Iran was exporting a range of weapons to twenty-two countries around the world.

The Iranian armament industry has put a special focus on designing and manufacturing missiles with scientific and technical assistance from many countries, including India, China, Russia, North Korea, Brazil, and South Africa. Several generations of the Shahab (Meteor) missiles are now manufactured and deployed as a regular part of the Iranian arsenal. The latest generation, Shahab 5, has a range of over two thousand kilometers and is designed to reach targets in Europe.

The IRGC is also a major player in the Iranian construction industry, securing many of the biggest public sector contracts. This is done through a conglomerate of construction and technical consultancy companies known as Khatam Al-Anbia (The Last of the Prophets). The conglomerate has constructed thousands of kilometers of railways and highways and has acted as a principal partner in building airports, seaports, and large public housing projects. It won a multi-billion dollar contract to build six new oil refineries in 2010, intended to fill the gap created by the ban imposed by Western powers on exports of refined petroleum products to Iran. The IRGC has its own special arrangements for importing goods from all over the world and runs port facilities in the Gulf, the Caspian Sea, and the Gulf of Oman without legal custom controls. In the Free Trade Areas (FTA) set up on several islands in the Gulf, the IRGC operates with little or no supervision from the Iranian government. According to estimates cited by the Tehran daily Sharq over six hundred thousand people across the country work for businesses owned or controlled by the IRGC, making the force the second-largest employer after the government itself.

The IRGC also controls the lucrative business of what it calls ‘exporting the revolution,’ estimated to be worth USD1.2 billion per year. It finances branches of the Hezbollah movement in at least twenty countries, including some in Europe, and also provides money, arms, and training for radical groups with leftist backgrounds, among them the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru. The Pasdaran also plays a central role in Iran’s relations with a string of left-leaning regimes, including those in Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba, and North Korea.

In recent years, it has emerged as a major backer of the armed wing of the Palestinian movement, including Hamas, and more specifically the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The IRGC also controls a number of both Shi’ite and Sunni armed groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In the Gaza conflict of November 2012, Fajr-5 missiles manufactured by the IRGC and supplied to Islamic Jihad and Hamas were fired at targets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The vehicle through which the IRGC exports revolution is a special unit known as the Quds (Jerusalem) Force. This consists of fifteen thousand highly trained men and women specializing in ‘martyrdom operations,’ which is code for guerrilla war, armed insurgency, and terrorism. According to a report published by the Tehran daily Sharq in 2009 the Islamic Republic has invested some USD20 billion in Lebanon since 1983. In most cases, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah is nominally in control of the companies concerned; however, a closer examination reveals that in most cases the Lebanese companies are fronts for Iranian concerns controlled by the IRGC.

The Syrian upheaval and subsequent civil war that started in 2011 have provided the IRGC (through the Quds Force) with a central role to play in a major foreign crisis. According to sources in Tehran, Quds Commander General Qassem Suleimani has been a frequent visitor to Damascus to provide guidance and leadership to a beleaguered Syrian government. On 18 November 2012, the daily Kayhan in Tehran reported that thousands of “dedicated Alawite fighters” were being trained by the Pasdaran with the participation of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah. Before the start of the crisis, the IRGC was reported to maintain a “defense coordination” office in Damascus with military personnel of over four hundred people.

The IRGC maintains a high profile throughout the Iranian administration. Its representatives are present in virtually every governmental department and often project power beyond the theoretical limits fixed under the law. The IRGC also has a central role in the Islamic Republic’s vast network of intelligence and security agencies: former members occupy key posts in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security which, though theoretically under the authority of the president, is ultimately responsible only to the Supreme Leader. In addition, the IRGC maintains two security agencies of its own, one dealing with internal matters and the other with foreign intelligence.

Parallel armies

The IRGC’s ubiquitous presence may be misleading. It is closer to a franchise than a centrally controlled organization where all parts could be activated for a single purpose. Until a few years ago, the IRGC was administered as a ministry under a dedicated Cabinet minister. With the abolition of that ministry, most of its responsibilities were transferred to the Ministry of Defense, which also represents the regular armed forces. Needless to say, the regular armed forces have a completely different military and political culture than the Pasdaran and regard the latter as upstarts, if not actual intruders. Periodic efforts to merge the Pasdaran with the regular armed forces have failed, leading to a peculiar situation in which Iran has two armies, reflecting the fact that it is a nation divided between state and revolution. The difference is that the regular armed forces, including the air force and navy, are built around a central command and control organization with a clear mission to defend the country against foreign aggression. The Pasdaran do not enjoy such clarity in their mission. They are supposed to act as an internal security force, an intelligence organization, a business conglomerate, and a vehicle for terrorist operations abroad. This confusion in their mission is reflected in the structure of the organization.

The IRGC is divided into five commands, each of which has a direct line to Ayatollah Khamenei. This prevents the creation of an esprit de corps, without which no armed forces could develop a common culture and thus the ability to influence a nation’s politics. According to Heshmat Jaafari, a former guard member now in exile, to minimize the risk of a coup d’état, the IRGC’s senior officers are not allowed to engage in “sustained communication” with one another on “sensitive subjects.” Of the five commands in question, two could be regarded as “terrorist” according to the US State Department’s definition that (needless to say) is rejected by the Islamic Republic.

One command is in charge of the already-mentioned Quds Corps, which is currently waging indirect war against US and allied forces in Afghanistan, and until 2011 was also doing so in Iraq. Apart from Hezbollah and Hamas, it works with a number of other radical groups across the globe. The second command ensures internal repression. It operates through several auxiliary forces, including the notorious Karbala, Ashura, and Al-Zahra (an all-female unit) brigades, which are charged with crushing popular revolt. Many Iranians see these groups as instruments of terror.

As a parallel to the regular army, the IRGC has its own ground forces, navy, and air force. It also controls the so-called Basij Mustadafin (Mobilization of the Dispossessed), a fanatical, semi-voluntary force of ninety thousand full-time fighters. According to its commander, Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi, this force could be expanded to eleven million if necessary. The IRGC’s own strength stands at 125,000 men. Its officer corps, including those in retirement, numbers around fifty-five thousand and is as divided on domestic and foreign policies as the rest of Iranian society.

Some former IRGC commanders who did not share the Islamic Republic’s goals have already defected to the US. Hundreds of others have gone into low-profile exile, mostly as businessmen in the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, and Turkey. An unknown number were purged because they refused to kill anti-regime demonstrators in Iranian cities. Furthermore, many prominent IRGC commanders may be regarded as businessmen first and military leaders second. They usually have a brother or a cousin in Europe or Canada to look after their business interests and keep a channel open to ‘satans’ large and small, in case the regime falls.

A few IRGC commanders, including some at the top, do not relish a conflict with the US that could destroy their business empires without offering them victory on the battlefield. Indeed, there is no guarantee that all parts of the IRGC would show the same degree of commitment to the system in the event of a major war. IRGC commanders may be prepared to kill unarmed Iranians or hire Lebanese, Palestinian, and Iraqi radicals to kill others; however, it is not certain they would be prepared to die for Khamenei’s glory. In 2008, those concerns persuaded Khamenei to create a Defense Planning Commission controlled by his office.

Behind the myths

A blanket labelling of the IRGC as a “terrorist organization,” as opposed to targeting those elements of it that terrorize the Iranian people and others in the region and beyond, could prove counterproductive. It may, in fact, unite a fractious force that could splinter into many parts given the right incentives.

Stuck on many branches of the Iranian government and business, the label Pasdaran should not lead us into believing that the IRGC is a unified force controlling the Islamic Republic. In fact, the IRGC’s loyalty to the Khomeinist regime has not been tested in real life since the uprisings of the summer of 2009. It was the Basij, controlled by Khamenei’s office through his military advisors, that led the repression of the Green Movement. The IRGC was created because the mullahs did not trust (and even feared) the regular armed forces. The Basij was created because the mullahs were not sure they could rely on the IRGC to defend the regime.

How real is the possibility of a coup by the IRGC? Based on the best information currently available, such a possibility must be rated as remote. The IRGC is not a unified force and cannot devise and execute a major political project under a central leadership. More importantly, perhaps, there is no tradition of military coups in Iranian history. The 1921 change of government during Ahmad Shah’s reign has wrongly been labelled a coup. The event was led by the journalist Seyyed Ziauddin Tabataba’I, and later inspired Benito Mussolini’s notorious March on Rome in 1922. Using the presence of a Cossack Brigade at the gates of Tehran as a threat, Seyyed Zia persuaded Ahmad Shah to appoint him as prime minister with full powers; however, this dramatic change of government did not involve any armed operation and caused no bloodshed—nor did it lead to regime change in the form of overthrowing the monarchy or abrogating the nation’s constitution. What happened in 1921 could best be described as a putsch in which the Cossack Brigade played second fiddle.

Similarly, the 1953 change of prime minister, when the shah dismissed Mohammad Mossadeq and appointed Fazlallah Zahedi in his place, is wrongly labelled a coup d’état. The military played no role there either, because the struggle for power between Mossadeq’s supporters and those of the shah was settled in the streets of Tehran, where rival crowds fought it out. Unlike many developing countries, Iran has never been ruled by the military—even though the armed forces, in their many incarnations, have always played a major role in the government of the country.

Today, the Pasdaran myth notwithstanding, the possibility of the military seizing power in Iran is more remote than ever. The regular armed forces continue a well-established tradition of non-intervention in politics. On the other hand, the IRGC does intervene in politics, but never as a single bloc. Various commanders express conflicting opinions even on such sensitive issues as the possibility of war with the United States. One significant example of this diversity of opinion came in the summer of 2012, when IRGC Commander General Muhammad-Ali Aziz Jaafari warned of “imminent war” with the US in a series of public speeches and interviews. In contrast, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (which theoretically includes the IRGC), General Hassan Firuzabadi, publicly criticized “those who are spreading rumors of war” and called for “an end to statements that could cause disquiet” in the country.

On almost all major political issues, the IRGC reflects deep divisions within Iranian society. As Iran prepares for its next presidential election in June 2013, the IRGC is already divided among supporters of various potential candidates. Several are former members of the IRGC, but this does not mean that they reflect the views and interests of the Pasdaran. Critics of the regime, including former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi, claim that the Pasdaran has morphed into a political party “based on the barracks.” That is only partly true. In the 2005 presidential election, they supported three different candidates, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2009, most IRGC factions backed Ahmadinejad because they wanted to prevent Mousavi’s victory; however, their stance was dictated not by their commanders but by Khamenei, who regarded Mousavi’s possible victory as a threat to his own authority.

Three myths have been spun about the IRGC being a unified force, Iran’s effective government, and a potential coup-maker in the future. To understand the IRGC and the role that it is playing and could play in the future, one must go beyond that triple myth.

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Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.


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