IRGC’s Influence Ascendant in Iran as Anniversary of its Founding Approaches

Saturday, May 5th will mark the 39th anniversary of the founding of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which stands today as the country’s most powerful military and security force and a powerful economic actor inside Iran. Iran’s revolutionary government formed the IRGC just one month into the life of the Islamic Republic, giving it a constitutional mandate to “guard the Revolution and its achievements.” In effect, the IRGC is tasked with enforcing loyalty to velayat e-faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), the Khomeinist precept used to justify Iran’s authoritarian rule by a cleric designated as Supreme Leader. The IRGC is engaged in preserving the Islamic Revolution and Iranian regime against domestic and external threats, and is a key agent of Iran’s efforts to spread its revolutionary ideology beyond Iran’s borders.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of Iran’s Islamic Republic and the first Supreme Leader, founded the IRGC out of a core of roughly 700 loyalists who had received military training at Amal and Fatah training camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley while Khomeini was exiled in Najaf, Iraq. The IRGC was essential in providing Khomeini’s revolutionary government an armed basis of support, and immediately set about dismantling anti-revolutionary dissident groups such as the communist Tudeh party and the Mujahideen e-Khalq.

The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War witnessed the transformation of the IRGC from a hastily organized militia into one of Iran’s most powerful institutions. The IRGC emerged from the crucible of the war as a formidable fighting force with considerable organizational and engineering prowess, and rapidly eclipsed the country’s conventional armed forces as the primary military power center. The IRGC boasts air, ground, and naval forces, serves as caretaker for Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and trains and equips militias and terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East through the Quds Force, the IRGC’s foreign expeditionary wing. Domestically, the IRGC has amassed a formidable intelligence apparatus which engages in repression and censorship, and operates sections of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison complex where prisoners, many of whom are incarcerated for political reasons, are housed in deplorable conditions and where torture and manifold human rights abuses have been reported. 

The IRGC has also assumed a pervasive and opaque role in Iran’s economy. Its construction and engineering wing, Khatam al-Anbiya (“seal of the Prophets”), moved into civilian enterprises following the Iran-Iraq War, expanding its influence and economic portfolio as it took on lucrative post-war reconstruction projects. This process accelerated during the 2005-2013 presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Khatam al-Anbiya was the beneficiary of a succession of huge no-bid contracts, rendering the organization and its complex web of subsidiaries as the dominant players in Iran’s construction, energy, automobile manufacturing, and electronics sectors. Fueled by Khatam al-Anbiya’s profits, the IRGC has taken on an outsized role in the militarization of Iran’s economy.

The IRGC’s increasing prominence as an economic and military powerhouse has been backed and abetted by the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who views strengthening the Guards as a means to buttress his own legitimacy and authority within Iran. Khamenei has increasingly embraced the IRGC to maintain the upper hand in a nation-wide power struggle against so-called “moderates,” those who favor limited political and economic liberalization as a strategy to preserve the Islamic Revolution, and “reformists,” many of whom question the doctrine of velayat e-faqih altogether. 

On the eve of the anniversary of the IRGC’s founding, Iran has been beset for months by a protest movement which has become increasingly bold and assertive in challenging the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic’s ruling regime. Among the frustrations of the demonstrators are that promised economic benefits from the 2015 nuclear deal have not materialized. Instead, the deal has primarily enriched state-controlled entities and reinforced patronage networks linked to the Supreme Leader and IRGC. Iran’s 2018-2019 budget earmarked 267 trillion rials ($6.34 billion) for the IRGC, a 42% increase over the previous year’s funding level. The rise in defense spending comes amid budget cuts for domestic priorities, such as construction and cash subsidies to the poor. Protestors have taken exception to Iran’s heavy investment in foreign policy adventurism at the expense of domestic expenditures, chanting slogans such as “Not Gaza, not Lebanon. My life only for Iran.”

Rather than seeking to pacify the situation by acquiescing to demands for political, social, and economic reforms, numerous signals indicate that Supreme Leader Khamenei is instead doubling down on repression and ideological rigidity, strengthening the position of the IRGC in the process. One of the clearest signs is the IRGC’s increasing primacy over Iran’s military personnel and strategy. Iran’s 2018-2019 budget allocated three times as much funding for the IRGC compared to the conventional military forces. In early March, Khamenei appointed his personal representative to the IRGC, Hojjatoleslam Ali Saidi, as his representative to Iran’s conventional armed forces. This move suggests an expansion of the IRGC’s – and by extension, Khamenei’s – influence within the Iranian military and an effort to ensure the military’s complete subservience to Khamenei and the IRGC. Saidi’s appointment marked an acceleration of a trend dating back to June 2016, when Khamenei appointed Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hossein Bagheri, one of the youngest IRGC generals, as chairman of the Armed Forces General Staff, the country’s highest military body. Bagheri replaced Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, who held the position for over 25 years despite lacking a formal military background. Further indicating the blurring of the conventional military’s autonomy, on April 25, the army and IRGC held a joint parade for the first time to commemorate Iran’s National Day of the Army. According to an IRGC official, the parade was intended as a demonstration “to let our enemies know that among our armed forces only exits unity, solidarity, and brotherhood. All our armed forces are ready to face the threats in a unified and solid way.”

President Hassan Rouhani, who has at times has criticized the IRGC and whose constituency elected him in hopes of political and economic reforms, appears to have moved instead toward accommodation with the IRGC. In a speech marking Army Day, Rouhani praised the army for refraining from “political games” and hailed the “purity and sincerity” of the conventional forces. These remarks were widely interpreted as an implicit rebuke of the IRGC and were condemned by IRGC officials. A week later, however, Rouhani changed his tune, saying, “Thanks to prowess of the beloved and brave [Guards] Corps, Army and self-sacrificing Basij [voluntary forces affiliated with IRGC], we enjoy exemplary security in Iran.”

These developments indicate that both Iran’s elected and unelected leadership are seeking to boost the IRGC’s profile as an antidote to the protests that have taken root throughout the country since late December. The IRGC will likely have a freer hand to brutally quell the demonstrations as a result. The U.S. and its European allies should seek to capitalize on the popular unrest in Iran by upping the pressure on the IRGC, one of the primary institutions opposing the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people and destabilizing the region. The IRGC controls an opaque web of hundreds of companies, as well as major assets in charitable foundations and trusts known as bonyads. Dramatically increasing sanctions designations on the IRGC’s business and charitable holdings could choke off the IRGC’s revenues at a time of particular vulnerability. An effective pressure campaign can transform a potential opportunity for the IRGC into a major setback, providing a major victory to those struggling against the tyranny of Iran’s theocratic, revolutionary regime.

Jordan Steckler is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).