Wanted: Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards
As the U.S. and its Western allies ramped-up sanctions against Iran in recent years, one group in particular was targeted: the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami). Commonly referred to in the U.S. as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Sepah (army), or Pasdaran (guards), the unit that was born from Iran’s revolution as a “conventional fighting force” has since grown into much more—an entity worthy of its wanted status. In addition to being an armed force, the IRGC is “an economic conglomerate, an agency in charge of nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation, and a player in the country’s political system,” writes Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi in his latest book on Iran.
Aptly titled The Pasdaran, Ottolenghi’s study on Iran’s villainous elite unit is a short-and-sweet read spanning less than 100 pages. It is an overview of everything IRGC: its creation and history, terror activities, involvement in Iranian politics and the economy, and consolidation of power inside the Iranian regime. “The interaction among military, economic, and political power is critical in understanding the centrality of the IRGC to Iran’s current system,” Ottolenghi explains, “the IRGC takes advantage of its influence and capabilities in one realm in order to increase its involvement in another.”
The IRGC was established in 1979 on orders from the late Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini to, as its name suggests, “guard the Revolution and its achievements” according to Iran’s 1979 Constitution. What guarding the Revolution meant was to be interpreted by the Supreme Leader of Iran who, through Khomeini’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih, is considered “God’s shadow on earth”. The IRGC, with its oath of loyalty to the Supreme Leader, is considered “the military arm of God’s will.” An understanding of just how powerful this elite force is in Iranian revolutionary dogma starts to emerge.
The IRGC was first used by Supreme Leader Khomeini to eliminate domestic and international opponents following Iran’s revolution at a time when the Supreme Leader was very much in need of a loyal militia that could counter threats and consolidate the new government. Through assassinations at home and abroad, the Guards emerged as the protector of Iran’s new Islamic order. The Guards were also charged with exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution—at first to Lebanon’s large Shi’ite population. To this end, the IRGC assisted in Hezbollah’s creation in the early 1980s upon orders from Tehran. Although Lebanese, Hezbollah “is a wholly owned IRGC franchise” with its loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Through Hezbollah, Iran introduced new military tactics to the region, previously unknown, with the most “innovative” being the human bomb—perfected by Iran with its use of “human waves” during the Iran-Iraq War.
But the Guards are not only killing machines and teachers of killers; today they are Iran’s “main political and economic player,” writes Ottolenghi.
The IRGC’s grip over Iran was solidified with the succession of Supreme Leader Khomeini’s position upon his death. Current Supreme Leader Khamenei “had impeccable revolutionary and political credentials” but lacked sufficient credentials as a cleric and learned jurisprudent. Without religious authority, Khamenei turned to the Guards, relying “on their loyalty to maintain his grip on power.” Ottolenghi notes that there is no evidence of a written agreement between the Guards and Khamenei whereby the Guards guaranteed Khamenei’s rule for the latter’s protection over the former’s political and economic matters. But both needed each other, guaranteeing a relationship based on mutual support and paving the Guards’ way to economic and political dominion.
Today, former IRGC members sit in key government positions; they have served as ministers in the Ministries of Commerce, Defense, Economics, Intelligence, Interior, Islamic Guidance, and Oil. Former IRGC members are also governors, ambassadors, heads of government-owned companies abroad, and employees in the Supreme Leader’s office. Some one-third of the Majles, Iran’s Parliament, is comprised of former Guards members; their influence paved “the way to a Majles takeover by conservative politicians” by 2008.
The Guards are also estimated to control between 25 and 40 percent of Iran’s GDP. For example, the IRGC controls the economic conglomerate, the Foundation of the Oppressed of the Earth, which was established to take over assets of the Shah’s regime after the revolution. Through the Foundation, the Guards has its hand across Iran’s economy and is involved in “mining, food and beverage, agriculture and animal husbandry, trade and transport, civil development and housing, tourism and recreational centers, real estate, and energy industries”. Within each industry it controls companies such as ZamZam, Iran’s version of Coca-Cola. It is believed that the profit brought in from business is used to fund off-the-radar IRGC operations. Legitimate businesses run by the IRGC also allow the Guards to access foreign technology, which it then uses for military purposes or reverse-engineers—highlighting the convoluted Iranian system and difficulty facing the West in enforcing sanctions against Tehran.
In addition, the IRGC owns and controls banks to access the international finance system; controls several media sources used to advance its message and scare dissenters; uses Iranian energy and heavy industry branches abroad to obtain dual-use technology and forbidden materials; and maintains a near-complete monopoly over Iran’s port of Shahid Rajai, and uses Iran’s Payam International Airport to smuggle goods and ship refined petroleum products abroad. The smuggling trade is estimated to be a business worth billions of U.S. dollars each year.
The IRGC’s power is vast—especially for its modest size that includes some 130,000 ground forces, 20,000 naval personnel, and 5,000 air force personnel. All this begs the question: Who controls Iran today—the Supreme Leader or the IRGC? According to Ottolenghi, “The IRGC remains the final arbiter of power and, as with the original Praetorians in Roman times, a king maker in Iranian politics.” That suggests it is the Guards who are in control although, thus far, their loyalty to the Supreme Leader has assured their obedience. But that submission is not guaranteed forever, and the stronger the Guards become, the weaker the leader of Iran will inevitably be. Nevertheless, according to Ottolenghi, IRGC members remain “ideological devotees to the core principles of the Islamic system of governance by the late Ayatollah Khomeini” and “are truly devoted to that unique ideological blend that is Khomeini’s message.”
For now, that may be true. But one thing is for sure: As an integral component to the Iranian machine and tool to reach Khomeini’s end goal—”to reassert…Shi’a leadership in an Islamic revival that will unite Shi’a and Sunni in their struggle against the West”—the U.S. must work to map out all of the Guards’ activities and sanction it at every turn. For shedding light on the IRGC’s involvement in each sector of the Iranian state system, Ottolenghi makes an invaluable contribution to the current research on a country so vexing to the United States.
Samara Greenberg is a senior research associate at the Jewish Policy Center and deputy editor of inFOCUS Quarterly. She is editor of GazaWatch.