IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)
IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) that seeks to fulfill Tehran’s ambition to become the dominant political and military power in the Middle East. First, this resource highlights a few events that shaped the IRGC’s transformation from a hastily-organized militia into the Islamic Republic’s dominant military institution. After that, it briefly describes the IRGC’s organizational structure and leadership. Then, it considers how each of its six core branches—the Basij, the Ground Force, the Navy Force, the Aerospace Force, the Intelligence Organization, and the Quds Force—advances Tehran’s internal security and foreign policy priorities. There is a section for each branch that provides an account of its commander, historical background, domestic activities (if any), role in national defense, and foreign deployments. Finally, it looks at Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, an economic conglomerate and a main source of funding for the IRGC.
- Type of Organization: Military, terrorist, transnational, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations: Islamist, Khomeinist, Shiite, state actor
- Place of Origin: Iran
- Year of Origin: 1979
- Founder(s): Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
- Places of Operation: Global, concentrated in the Middle East
On May 5, 1979, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the formation of the IRGC (Sepah-e Pasdaran in Persian) out of approximately 700 revolutionaries that were trained in Lebanon. From the early years of the Islamic Republic, these revolutionaries acted upon their mission as stated in the preamble to the 1979 constitution. Forming an “ideological army,” they first defended the country’s frontiers and grew into an aggressive military institution devoted to “the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way.”
The newly-formed paramilitary was intended to serve as a check against a potential coup d’état attempt by the Army, which Supreme Leader Khomeini and his loyalists viewed with deep suspicion due to its ties to the former Pahlavi monarchy. The IRGC also suppressed violent counterrevolutionary groups, such as the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK). And it asserted Tehran’s control over the country’s borders, conducting a brutal counterinsurgency against Kurdish separatist groups in 1979-1980. Then, the IRGC defended Iran against an invading Iraqi army. The Iran-Iraq War, known to IRGC commanders as the “Sacred Defense,” transformed the IRGC into a more classical military institution, and appeared to prove the mettle of the IRGC’s pious and revolutionary values, as Saddam’s army was repelled, and the IRGC began a counteroffensive against Iraq in 1982. The brutal eight-year war ended in 1988.
After the war, battle-tested IRGC officers ascended to the top military and security posts in the Islamic Republic and increased their hold over the economy. This process continued after the Assembly of Experts selected Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the supreme leader in June 1989. From these key positions, the IRGC swayed political decision-making in the other branches of the elected government. On one occasion, the top IRGC commander threatened a coup d’état if then President Mohammad Khatami did not take a more forceful stance against student protesters in 1999. The IRGC also became an economic powerhouse, acquiring extensive financial stakes in all major sectors of Iran’s economy, in part because of its political clout. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the IRGC received a succession of huge no-bid government contracts, leading to a rapid expansion of its economic portfolio. In social contexts, the Basij, a paramilitary force, promoted and enforced the Islamic Republic’s severe and dogmatic interpretation of the Quran throughout Iranian society using violence and intimidation. The IRGC thus became a dominant political, economic, and social institution, indispensable to protecting and extending the Islamic Revolution and preserving Khamenei’s supreme leadership.
The Iranian military structure remains bifurcated to this day, with the IRGC continuing to receive preferential treatment from the supreme leader. The IRGC today exercises influence that dwarfs the Army (Artesh in Persian). However, it does not answer to the president. It answers directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the commander-in-chief, who has final authority on all matters of religion and state, according to the Islamic Republic’s foundational doctrine: velayat-e faqih. The supreme leader appoints the overall IRGC commander and installs clerical leaders in its branches to ensure their revolutionary character, while the Armed Forces General Staff, dominated by IRGC commanders, administers the IRGC, Army, and national police.
The top commander of the IRGC, Major General Hossein Salami, and his six branch commanders oversee the implementation of the IRGC’s mandate, which is, according to Iranian law, “to protect the Islamic Revolution of Iran and its accomplishments, while striving continuously…to spread the sovereignty of God’s law.” To these ends, the IRGC combines conventional and unconventional military roles with a relentless effort to pursue and punish domestic dissenters. Salami believes violence is justified as an instrument to impose conservative Islamic dictates and suppress opposition movements. He claims that the U.S. should be evicted from the Middle East, and the “Zionist regime” wiped off the map. The other IRGC commanders parrot similar statements, reflecting the goals that drive this hyperaggressive institution.
The U.S. government designated Salami as a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferator while he was in charge of the IRGC’s missile program as commander of the IRGC’s Air Force (later renamed Aerospace Force). Salami replaced Mohammad Jafari in 2019 as the overall commander, two weeks after the U.S. designated the IRGC as an FTO. The U.S., however, has not designated Salami based on his human rights crimes, despite the Basij’s and ground force’s killing of protesters while he was in office in November 2019. The E.U. designated him for human rights abuses in 2021, citing his responsibility for this use of lethal force. In November 2022, the E.U. levied additional sanctions against Salami for overseeing the provision of Iran-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine. Before becoming commander-in-chief of the IRGC, Salami served as deputy commander-in-chief, and prior to that, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force.
The office of the commander of the Basij oversees and deploys one of the regime’s most important resources: an abundant, loyal youth following. The first part of this section introduces the Basij commander. The second part discusses the Basij’s first major role in the history of the Islamic Republic, namely defending the country’s frontiers in the Iran-Iraq War. The final section covers the Basij’s recruitment, training, law enforcement, and business operations; and its role in national defense and foreign military operations.
The Basij Commander: A Dedicated Human Rights Abuser
Brigadier General Gholamreza Soleimani—a U.S.- and E.U.-designated human rights abuser in charge of the Basij when it massacred peaceful Iranians protesting abrupt gas price increases, repression and corruption in November 2019—commands the volunteer paramilitary. Previously, he served as commander of the Saheb-Al-Zaman Provincial Corps in Esfahan Province. While there, he hailed the need for the formation of a resistance economy for development and lashed out against the then-Rouhani government. Like most other IRGC commanders, Soleimani assumed his post with a commitment to the regime’s hegemonic aspirations. However, his branch focuses on maintaining internal security, more than promoting outward expansion. He professes that Iran’s unique democratic system of government with spiritual elements should serve as a model of governance for other countries. The pursuit of hegemony, in other words, is not achieved only by way of force, but also by the persuasiveness of Islam as interpreted by the supreme leader and incorporated in the Islamic Republic’s system of government.
Historical Background: The Great Sacrifice for "Sacred Defense"
The charismatic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini created the Basij in November 1979 as a militia made up of his pious youth followers—some of whom had fought against the Shah—to help manage property confiscated from the former elite and royal family. Much of the wealth seized in the revolution was supposed to be redistributed to lower-class families, but the Basij soon found itself in another role when Saddam Hussein’s army invaded, attempting to seize territory amid the post-revolution instability. The supreme leader’s call for the creation of a “twenty-million-man-army,” though never realized, did foretell an effective mass mobilization effort in response to the invasion.
The ranks of the Basij swelled as hundreds of thousands of Iranians volunteered to fight in the Iran-Iraq War in the name of the nascent revolutionary government and its supreme leader. Of the 300,000 Iranians killed in action, loyal Basijis—as members of the Basij are called—died at staggering rates. Often undertrained, if trained at all, Basijis were “martyred” in so-called human-wave offensives in which they swept minefields with their bodies and sought to overwhelm enemy forces by rushing into machine gun fire and artillery without support. Infamously, young children were sent to die in these ways.
The Basij’s great sacrifice in the war contributed to its members’ belief that they deserved to assume top leadership positions in the Islamic Republic. Its leaders also harbored ambitions to operate the paramilitary organization autonomously. Notwithstanding these ambitions, the Basij was brought under the command of the IRGC chief in 2007, and then incorporated into the IRGC’s Ground Force in 2009 after its poor performance in suppressing the “Green Movement,” a protest movement opposed to electoral manipulation inherent in the reelection of hardline conservative figure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013) led to the empowerment of the Basij and an expansion of its domestic mandate; the Basij was called upon to exert greater social and moral control over society. Basijis were elevated to key government and security posts during this period, and the Basij’s budget increased drastically. President Ahmadinejad, a former member of the Professor Basij Organization, allocated many cabinet seats to professors from this organization. They subsequently purged university leadership and installed more conservative figures, who were deeply opposed to western academic influences and culture.
As the Basij enforced religious precepts more strictly, it became increasingly viewed as a partisan actor, part of the fraudulent reelection of Ahmadinejad, and responsible for the implementation of his policies. The Basijis were also correctly seen as brutal enforcers deployed against the “Green Movement.” What was once a disorganized group of young fighters serving as cannon fodder had become a vigilante terror squad known for using iron bars, clubs, truncheons, chains, and firearms, against protesters.
But for all its zeal, the Basij did not effectively quell the “Green Movement.” Notably, in some cases, local Basijis failed to attack their fellow citizens, particularly if they saw them expressing their piety with loud proclamations that “God is great.” Nevertheless, the attacks on dissidents continued. Wikileaks reported in 2010 on an eyewitness account from inside a Basij camp of the use of sadistic forms of torture against dissidents, including crushing people to death and disembowelment. Amid the overall failure to suppress the movement, then-Basij commander, Hossein Taeb, was removed from his post. He was later made the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization.
The Basij's Functions: Internal Security and National Defense
The Basij fulfills several internal security and national defense functions. The first, and arguably most important is recruitment for public service. The Basij oversees a vast recruitment network that penetrates all segments of society. Typically, rural, poor, uneducated, and young Persian devout Shia—sometimes as young as 12 years old—are targeted in this campaign with promises of upward mobility. They are enticed by a small stipend, loans, housing, welfare, and pilgrimages. The Basij are allowed to bypass mandatory conscription; provided preferential university placement; and sometimes promoted to military and security posts, including potential officer commissions. The Basij also offers technical training, which is appealing in rural, underdeveloped areas.
Basij members run clubs, known as Paygahs at virtually every mosque across the country, and use religious studies and recreational activities such as sports and field trips to lure potential recruits. The underlying aim of these programs is to build a loyal political constituency, whose average age and strong religious beliefs are meant to guarantee the longevity of the Islamic Republic.
Today, there are approximately 450,000 active reservists in the Basij, and hundreds of thousands more who are inactive but mobilizable. Estimates of the total number of active members run as high as three million, with an average age between 15 and 30 years old.
Once recruited, Basij members are trained in ideology. Manufacturing an enemy whose very existence represents a threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic is central to indoctrination. The existence of an external threat is essential to any revolutionary regime because it provides legitimacy and a higher purpose for existing. That enemy, of course, is the United States, also known as the “Great Satan,” and its partner Israel, known to the IRGC as “Little Satan.”
Domestically, the Basij carries out a grassroots campaign to counter influences opposing the regime. This insidious campaign depends not only on brute force but Basij presence in all areas of society; its members are well-organized and represented at schools, workplaces, factories, mosques, and every major public institution. They work as recruiters and proselytizers and spy on and harass critics, dissidents, intellectuals, bloggers, and activists. On university campuses, they organize against leftists, reformists, traditional (less radical) conservative groups, and student unions. At workplaces, they bust strikes, with branches devoted to countering unions and professional organizations.
The Basij also operates as an auxiliary law enforcement unit deployed—sometimes alongside the IRGC’s Ground Force—to support the Law Enforcement Force (LEF) in times of acute crisis at home, entrusted to employ violence against fellow citizens. They shot and killed hundreds of protesters in 2019 and have deployed to suppress the Mahsa Amini protests, armed with anti-riot weapons such as tear gas, pellet-loaded shotguns (“Birdshot”), and paintball guns, riding on motorcycles and pickup trucks and stuffing regime opponents into vans. Basijis often carry out their abuse and destroy vehicles and property without showing any government identification, reportedly to afford the regime some degree of plausible deniability.
As an auxiliary law enforcement unit, Basijis also serve alongside the so-called “Morality Police,” a unit under the LEF that pursues and punishes women and men for transgressions against conservative Islamic dictates. Like the “Morality Police,” which was responsible for beating Mahsa Amini to death, the Basij often target and brutalize women for removing the compulsory hijab. To the regime, the hijab and mandatory gender segregation in public places, are a bulwark against decadence, corruption, and promiscuity associated with Western infidels. The Basij polices relationships, opposing same-sex behavior and certain dating practices, and enforces bans on some types of music, movies, and art—especially those with Western influences. Alcohol and drug use, theft, and other criminal activity, including the use of satellite antennae, also fall under its purview.
Though some are motivated by materialistic interests, Basijis tend to be true believers in the severe view of Islam that they are tasked with enforcing. They are the ones who, like the ruling party of an authoritarian government, amplify pro-regime propaganda and organize pro-regime rallies and religious ceremonies. In 2009, for example, Ansar-e Hezbollah, another suppression entity that has collaborated with the Basij, countermobilized against the “Green Movement,” advocating for the punishment of peaceful protesters, which they believed were seditious rioters and conspirators. By supporting the Islamic Republic, they contribute to the perception—however deceiving—of regime legitimacy. The Basij and the IRGC comprise the Islamic Republic’s core constituencies and political power base.
Less ideologically-driven Basijis also achieve their aims because the regime funnels wealth, power, and prestige into their ranks. The Basij conducts its economic activities through the foundation Bonyad Taavon Basij (“Basij Cooperative Foundation”), which receives preferential loan and tax treatment and government subsidies.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated a vast financial network supporting the volunteer paramilitary, and assessed that the Basij held multiple billions of dollars-worth of assets in a network of shell companies in major industries, such as metals, minerals, automotive, and banking. The Basij owns at least 20 corporations and financial institutions, including Mehr Eqtesad Bank, which is a financial offshoot of Bonyad Taavon Basij, that pays dividends and provides hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of interest-free lines of credit for Basij members, helping them to develop businesses. As the Basij became more wealthy and powerful, its brutality and oppression have generated a strong public backlash against its activities. The anger and resentment targeting the regime and its enforcers in response to Mahsa Amini’s death is only the most recent manifestation.
Another function served by the Basij is national defense. In the event of an invasion by a military power capable of quickly destroying communications and the command-and-control structure inside Iran, the Basij would be called upon to conduct asymmetrical warfare throughout the country. These operations would have the potential to thwart an occupation and repel the foreign power through attrition. If the Basij mounted an effective mobilization effort and its units dispersed throughout the country remained loyal to the Islamic Republic, a modern war in Iran, unlike the Iran-Iraq War fought in the trenches, would more likely resemble the 2003 Iraq War in which the U.S. and coalition forces struggled to subdue a domestic insurgency and establish a democratic form of government.
Since the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, the Basij has tended to serve domestic interests. But in the context of the Syrian Civil War and Iran’s involvement in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Basij also supported foreign military operations. In 2018, the U.S. Treasury noted that the Basij had recruited child soldiers who later deployed to the Syrian battlefield. The Basij’s Imam Hossein Battalion—a light infantry unit trained in counterinsurgency tactics—offered support to the IRGC’s Ground Force in Syria at the height of the civil war. The Basij and IRGC officers also deployed to Iraq to coordinate the fight against ISIS, gather intelligence, and sometimes fight themselves.
Finally, it is notable that the Basij serves as a model for foreign militias, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and the pro-Assad National Defense Forces (NDF) in Syria, in that it doubles as a social welfare provider and organizes cultural and religious events. The Basij uses social welfare to build a patronage network. In one such instance, the Basij sent medical practitioners to rural areas to provide care to sick people unable to afford treatment. The export of this model—more commonly known as the “Hezbollah model”—helps Tehran create spheres of influence. Iran-backed militias gain influence not only through the use of violence, but by organizing formidable constituencies and fielding candidates for government posts.
The Ground Force
This section begins with a brief account of the U.S. and European perspectives on the current commander of the Ground Force, Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour. The second part includes a historical account of the Ground Force’s national defense doctrine, which is based on assumptions similar to those of the Basij. The third part covers the Ground Force’s role in internal security, national defense, and foreign military operations.
The Ground Force Commander: An Unpopular Regime's Muscle
Mohammad Pakpour is the commander of the IRGC’s Ground Force; former IRGC top commander Mohammad Ali Jafari promoted him to the post in 2009. The 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), lifted U.S. sanctions against him. However, the Trump administration designated Pakpour in 2019 under counterterrorism authority Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, noting that the Ground Force deployed to Syria to support the Quds Force under his command—a mission that Pakpour publicly admitted to in 2017. The U.S., however, has not sanctioned Pakpour under human rights authorities, even though he commanded the Ground Force when it indiscriminately gunned down hundreds of peaceful protesters in November 2019. The E.U., on the other hand, sanctioned Pakpour as a human rights violator in 2021, citing his command role during that slaughter. Before heading the IRGC’s Ground Force, Pakpour served as the deputy for coordination of the IRGC’s Ground Force, commander of the IRGC’s 8th Najaf Division, and commander of the IRGC’s 31st Ashoura Division.
Historical Background: "The Mosaic Doctrine"
Four years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Mohammad Jafari took the helm of the IRGC. He implemented a plan, the “Mosaic Doctrine,” that originated as a response to the U.S.’s lightning-speed toppling of Saddam Hussein. The “Mosaic Doctrine,” assumed that if Iran was invaded next, the invading forces would have technology and conventional capabilities that far surpassed Iran’s. The “Mosaic Doctrine” is an asymmetric warfare concept that envisages a protracted and dispersed insurgency to compensate for Iran’s weaknesses. To that end, in 2007, the year in which the Basij was brought under the command of the IRGC, the Ground Force was divided into 31 provincial units plus one for Tehran, in addition to its operational combat units that include infantry, artillery, engineering, airborne, and special operations. The decentralization was intended to improve unit cohesion at the local level and command and control in the event of a devastating air campaign against operational centers and to enable the Ground Force to rapidly deploy to hotspots in urban areas in times of unrest.
The Ground Force's Functions: A Foreign Fighting Force
Like the Basij, the IRGC’s Ground Force preserves internal security, protects the nation from foreign invasion, and participates in military operations abroad. The Ground Force, with its 100,000 to 150,000 active personnel, split between provincial and operational units, can implement larger operations at home than the LEF and Basij and larger operations abroad than the Quds Force.
The Ground Force’s internal security focus involves protest suppression through the use of excessive force. It has deployed tanks, armored vehicles, and military-grade weaponry against protesters. It also conducts counterinsurgency campaigns against Kurdish militant separatists in northwest Iran and Baluchi separatists in the southeast. The Ground Force’s special operations unit, known as the Saberin, often takes the lead on such operations, and has been deployed in discrete areas against protestors in the aftermath of the death of Mahsa Amini.
The Saberin’s skills blend well into the irregular warfare approach to national defense called for in the “Mosaic Doctrine.” It specializes in airborne operations, which could assist attacks on the enemy’s rear area supply-lines and communications. This unit is also skilled in explosives, a low-cost and effective means of targeting enemy convoys with roadside bombings, and demolition, which enables it to destroy roads and bridges needed by the enemy for supplying its troops. Furthermore, the Saberin is trained in mountain warfare, an advantage in Iran’s mountainous terrain.
The Ground Force appeared to deviate from its fighting doctrine in deploying to Syria to rejuvenate a faltering ground campaign against anti-Assad rebels. Its forces fought alongside the Artesh, the Basij, the Quds Force, its proxies, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and pro-Assad militias in key operations such as “Dawn of Victory,” which led to the fall of Aleppo in 2016. The Syrian Civil War, therefore, motivated the IRGC’s Ground Force to adopt expeditionary and conventional power projection roles. Some Ground Force soldiers remain in the country at permanent bases run by the IRGC.
The Navy Force
The IRGC’s Navy Force, under the leadership of Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, is a threat to international maritime security. First, this section highlights Tangsiri’s aggressive disposition, which has endeared him to the supreme leader. Then, it identifies a potential role that this branch could play in the event of a military escalation. Finally, it points out some of the operations the IRGC’s Navy Force conducts to intimidate, retaliate against its enemies and deter military action against Iran.
The Navy Force's Commander: Khamenei's Favorite
The Navy Force Commander Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri was appointed to lead the branch of approximately 20,000 active personnel in 2018. He is known to be one of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s favorite commanders, which is not surprising given his antipathy toward the U.S. He sometimes boasts that Iran is willing and able to retaliate at sea for what he perceives as acts of aggression against his country. The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Tangsiri under E.O. 13224 in 2019, noting his threats to block the Strait of Hormuz—a strategic channel through which 30 percent of total global oil consumption flows. He directs the branch’s sabotage of commercial vessels traversing international waters and occasionally echoes Khamenei in asserting ownership over the Persian Gulf. He disdains world order, once saying that the “law of the world is the law of the jungle,” an implicit affront directed toward U.S. global leadership. Before becoming commander of the IRGC’s Navy, Tangsiri served as Navy deputy commander and commander of the IRGC’s 1st Naval District.
The Navy Force's Function: A Threat to Maritime Security
The IRGC’s Navy has developed anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, including the use of airborne, coastal, undersea, and surface warfare assets, to prevent enemy vessels from operating in the strategic Persian Gulf. In 2019, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s report on Iran’s military power listed some of these assets. The IRGC’s Navy has contact and influence mines; an arsenal of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); unmanned sea vessels (USVs), including unmanned submarines; fast attack crafts (FACs) and fast inshore attack crafts (FIACs); and shore-launched anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), anti-ship ballistic missiles, and anti-radiation missiles. It operates out of several bases, including Bandar-e Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz.
In the event of military escalation, the IRGC’s Navy could conduct asymmetric attacks against a superior navy, for example, using FACs equipped with machine guns, unguided rockets, torpedoes, and ASCMs. Many of these speedy vessels, seeking to avoid direct or sustained confrontations, could ambush and overwhelm large enemy vessels, the mainstay of an advanced navy. Moreover, large vessels cannot maneuver well in the Strait of Hormuz, a 30-mile-wide choke-point. Iran could deploy its A2/AD capabilities to try to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, but doing so could inflict major costs on its oil-dependent economy. It could also target its adversaries’ naval assets, such as ports, oil installations, and desalination facilities. Tehran’s asymmetrical capabilities at sea, and its potential to obstruct key shipping lanes, add to its naval deterrent.
Tehran continues to signal that it remains a threat to maritime security by conducting attacks against commercial vessels in international waters. The IRGC’s Navy frequently seizes foreign vessels that it claims are freighting smuggled oil, and attempts to intimidate the U.S. Navy. Moreover, it seizes vessels to retaliate and seek leverage against governments worldwide. In 2021, for example, the IRGC’s Navy boarded and took control of a South Korean vessel as tensions flared over frozen Iranian assets held in South Korean banks. In May 2022, it seized two Greek vessels in the Persian Gulf a month after Athens impounded an Iran-flagged, Russian-operated tanker in the Aegean Sea that the U.S. had designated for its ties to a Russian bank. Greece later handed over to the vessel to the U.S., which confiscated the Iranian oil onboard.
The Aerospace Force
This section opens with an account of the Aerospace Force commander’s ascent through the ranks of the IRGC. The remainder is organized around the Aerospace Force’s core capabilities—missiles, air defense systems, and drones. These capabilities are discussed in terms of establishing deterrence against Iran’s enemies and setting up the option for an unprovoked strike.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh: The Next Soleimani?
Since 2009, Amir Ali Hajizadeh has commanded the IRGC’s Aerospace Force. He began his military career in the Iran-Iraq War as a “special unit” sniper, but he was closely associated with an artillery division. With the backing of Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, the renowned “godfather” of Iran’s missile program, Hajizadeh ascended the ranks of the IRGC, and soon became commander of a missile unit in the war. In 2003, he was elevated to command Iran’s air defense systems.
IRGC's Aerospace Commander Amir Hajizadeh
In the years since becoming the Aerospace Force commander, Israeli security officials have begun to question whether Hajizadeh is taking on the role formerly played by the revered former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Hajizadeh is responsible for drone strikes against Israeli-linked vessels in international waters—attacks which the former Quds Force general may have likely assigned to proxies. His close relationship with the supreme leader, indicated by his longevity at the helm of the Aerospace Force, has increased his stature at home.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Hajizadeh in 2019, explaining in a press release his role in overseeing Tehran’s missile program and his responsibility for the shooting down of civilian airliner MH17 on July 17, 2014 with a surface-to-air missile, which caused the death of 300 people. Three years later, the E.U. designated Hajizadeh, citing his role in UAV-related defense cooperation, including the supply of Iranian-made drones to Russia. Iran’s drones are, therefore, a threat to European security and regional security. Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal—the largest and most diverse in the region—poses a major challenge to regional security as well, especially as the regime improves the range, accuracy, and lethality of these munitions. Hajizadeh once said, "the reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2,000 km is to be able to hit our enemy the Zionist regime from a safe distance.”
The Aerospace Force's Function: Deterrence?
Hajizadeh’s appointment to lead the Aerospace Force coincided with an expansion of the branch’s scope to include Iran’s missile and space programs, the latter which is dedicated, in part, to testing missile systems and technologies. Iran is seeking to improve the accuracy of its ballistic missiles to enhance the credibility of a long-range strike against targets in Israel from secure positions inside Iran. This capability would help compensate for the weakness of its air force, which has degraded over time because Iran cannot easily import the materials it needs to upgrade its planes. Iran’s missiles have already proven accurate enough to strike U.S. targets in the region. For example, in January 2020, Iran hit an Iraqi military base housing U.S. troops in retaliation for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. The Aerospace Force’s ballistic missile arsenal expands Iran’s options for retaliation or an unprovoked strike against targets in the region.
Operational control of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal is delegated to the Aerospace Force’s Al-Ghadir Missile Command, first designated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in June 2010 under E.O. 13382, intended to block the property of persons and their support networks engaged in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This element within the IRGC Aerospace Force has been involved in medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) launches since at least 2008. And it reportedly works with Iranian entities that develop and produce ballistic missiles, such as Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG), which produces Iran’s solid-propellant ballistic missiles. It has participated in SBIG’s Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missile and its Ashura medium-range ballistic missile projects. The Al-Ghadir Missile Command is currently under the direction of Mahmud Bagheri Kazemabad, who the U.S. State Department identified as a WMD proliferator in March 2022. Most of Iran’s missiles are known to be nuclear-capable. Were Iran to produce a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, its deployment and management would likely fall to this element in the Aerospace Force.
Iran’s air defense systems are deployed to increase the potential costs of aerial incursions or strikes on the homeland. In 2019, Iran fired surface-to-air missiles and struck a $100 million U.S. Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk reconnaissance drone allegedly infringing on Iran’s airspace. The U.S. claimed the drone was flying over the Strait of Hormuz, an international waterway. Iran’s air defense systems also protect military assets, such as nuclear installations and missile silos—sometimes called “missile cities”—which Iran already goes to great lengths to shield by building underground and deep within mountainsides. In recent years, the Aerospace Force has displayed advanced air defense capabilities. In October 2021, for example, in the Velayat Sky 1400 air defense drill, Iran showcased several surface-to-air missile systems, along with upgraded radar, surveillance, communications, and electronic warfare systems.
Iran’s UAVs serve a function similar to its missiles; allowing Iran to strike distant targets in the region. Iran launched the Shahed-136 drone—the same type being shipped to Russia—at the Israeli-linked oil tanker Mercer Street in the Gulf of Oman in 2021, killing two Europeans and denying that it played a part. This attack is what led one analyst to surmise that “the balance of power” within the IRGC had shifted toward the Aerospace Force’s preference for overt retaliatory strikes, as opposed to proxy wars. Again, in a separate incident in November 2022, a U.S. Navy forensic investigation revealed that the Shahed-136 was used to attack an Israeli-linked tanker. Some analysts believe the attack may have been in retaliation for an Israeli strike on a convoy at the Iraq-Syria border a week prior. If viewed as retaliation, these attacks might be understood as an effort to deter Israel from future strikes. However, Iran’s true intentions are seldom clear; its attacks could also be intended to seek leverage or for intimidation.
Iran’s ballistic missiles and UAVs have also been deployed in offensive operations. In 2017, Iran used ballistic missiles to strike ISIS positions in support of ground operations against the terrorist group. Since the Mahsa Amini protest movement began, Iran has launched several rounds of missiles and drones at Kurdish groups in Iraq in an attempt to divert blame for the ongoing unrest in Iran.
The Intelligence Organization
This section begins by pointing out the recent leadership transition in the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization. Then, it mentions the impetus behind Supreme Leader Khamenei’s decision to rename and expand the scope of the IRGC’s Intelligence Branch in 2009. Finally, it indicates the entity’s roles at home and abroad.
The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization is led by Mohammad Kazemi, who replaced Hossein Taeb in June 2022 after a series of intelligence failures, including the high-profile assassination of Quds Force Unit 840’s deputy commander Hassan Sayyad Khodaei that Iran blamed on Israel. Kazemi was previously the head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Protection Organization, which is responsible for counterintelligence and is separate from the Intelligence Organization. In June 2009, shortly after the reelection of Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Khamenei established the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization, expanding the scope of the former IRGC Intelligence Branch, and putting it in charge of suppressing the rapidly growing “Green Movement.” The new intelligence and security organization, brought under the leadership of Taeb after he was removed from his post as the head of the Basij, incorporated seven separate divisions, including Khamenei’s personal intelligence body known as Department 101, a Basij volunteer unit, a cybersecurity unit, and a directorate in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS). Domestically, the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization pursues, arrests, interrogates, and tortures dissidents, even running its own section at the notorious Evin Prison. Abroad, it provides material, logistical, technical, and operational support to the Quds Force, which takes the lead on external military operations. The IRGC’s Intelligence Organization also conducts counterintelligence operations, the primary goal of which is to protect IRGC personnel, operations, and facilities from infiltration, espionage, and information leaks.
The Quds Force is the IRGC wing responsible for external operations. Thus, this section focuses on foreign activities, and does not offer insights into the Quds Force’s role in national defense. It should be noted, though, that its skills would lend well to the “Mosaic Doctrine,” which, as described above, emphasizes unconventional tactics. The first part briefly describes Esmail Ghaani, the current Quds Force commander, in relation to the former Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. The second part discusses the IRGC’s unconventional tactics; and its focus on proxy wars, the primary way in which Tehran advances its foreign policy interests in the region. The third part looks at Quds Force operations in the strategic countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
The Quds Force Commander: Searching for Soleimani
Esmail Ghaani commands the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the IRGC made up of between 5,000 and 10,000 special operations personnel. Its operatives typically keep a low profile to afford Tehran plausible deniability when operations fail or have the potential to escalate hostilities. Ghaani ascended to this position in January 2020 after a U.S. Reaper drone struck and killed then-commander Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport while he was allegedly plotting to kill Americans. Upon assuming this post, Ghaani became the commander not only of the Quds Force but of the proxy forces stood up by Soleimani.
Ghaani lacks several of the characteristics that made Soleimani effective in the Levant. First, he does not have extensive experience in the Arab world, as he was earlier in his career a member of the Quds Force’s Ansar Corps, which operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Soleimani, on the other hand, had longstanding relationships with militia leaders in Iraq, some of whom had roots in Tehran’s support for rebels fighting against Saddam Hussein dating back to the Iran-Iraq War. Ghaani also does not speak Arabic, the language used by militia leaders, as well as Soleimani did. Moreover, Ghaani, Soleimani’s longtime deputy commander, is known to be more bureaucratic than his former boss, whose charisma made him a symbol of “resistance” against Western powers and Israel.
Still, the Quds Force is a global enterprise with directorates and cells in every region of the world. The U.S. government and its allies have uncovered and disrupted plots in Africa, Germany, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kenya, Bahrain, and Turkey. But the Quds Force, sometimes working in coordination with terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, criminal organizations, or drug cartels to mask its activities, has been implicated in many other violent activities worldwide. Soleimani’s death was a major blow to the effectiveness of the IRGC’s proxy operations in the Levant. However, the Quds Force will continue to pose a grave threat to international peace and security for the foreseeable future.
Unconventional Warfare Operations
Using subversion, kidnapping, assassination, bombings, sabotage, and proxy wars, the Quds Force continues to target dissidents and journalists in foreign countries; Jewish, Israeli, American, and Western targets; and regional adversary governments, particularly those bordering the Persian Gulf. Tehran’s subversion of foreign adversary governments typically relies on terrorist organizations. This is the case in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, for instance, where Tehran sponsors violent groups that oppose the ruling monarchies. These groups are known to carry out attacks on civilians and government officials alike, often using weapons and training provided by the Quds Force.
Kidnapping and assassination plots against Western targets are often thought to be the responsibility of Quds Force Unit 840, though personnel from the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization also assist in these operations. On several occasions, kidnapping plots have targeted American journalists but were uncovered and disrupted by U.S. law enforcement agencies. In August 2022, for instance, a man armed with an AK-47 showed up at the home of an outspoken Iranian-American activist and journalist named Masih Alinejad, allegedly to abduct or kill her. More recently, the IRGC has targeted London-based journalists working at Iran International and BBC Persia for their coverage of the Mahsa Amini protest movement. The Islamic Republic has no qualms about killing activists or journalists who expose its malign domestic and foreign activities.
In April 2022, a Quds Force operative from Unit 840, held at an unspecified location in Europe, admitted to plotting attacks against an Israeli national working at the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, an American general in Germany, and a French journalist. He claimed he was offered $150,000 for organizing the assassinations and $1 million if they were carried out successfully. A month later, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei—believed to be Unit 840’s deputy commander tasked with planning antisemitic attacks around the world—was assassinated in Tehran. Shortly after his assassination, the Mossad foiled three Iranian plots to use terrorist cells in Turkey to attack Israeli citizens there, possibly in retaliation for the assassination of Khodaei. More recently, the U.S. Justice Department revealed that the Quds Force had tried to kill former National Security Advisor John Bolton in a murder-for-hire scheme, an act of war interpreted as retaliation for the Soleimani assassination.
Proxy war, however, is Iran’s favored means of achieving its foreign policy interests. Its proxy network, sometimes referred to as the Iranian Threat Network (ITN), comprises between 80,000 and 200,000 radicalized individuals, many who adhere to the Shia sect of Islam and are dispersed throughout the strategic countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. The main groups in the Quds Force-led proxy network are Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, the Houthis in Yemen, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Zainabiyoun Brigade, and Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). These groups loyally conduct operations at the behest of Tehran, but some operate independently—even at times against Tehran’s interests. These trends have become exacerbated in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death and Ghaani’s difficulty in managing the sprawling terror enterprise.
The Quds Force recruits from mosques, cultural centers, shrines, and universities. For example, the Quds Force is believed to recruit foreigners in Qom, one of the holiest Shia locations in Iran. Recruits are identified at religious seminaries and transferred to Quds Force training centers, such as the Manzariyah training center near Qom. Foreigners from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria frequently travel to Iran on religious pilgrimages and sometimes find themselves motivated to join the ITN. Iran’s Al-Mustafa University also doubles as a recruitment site. In December 2020, the U.S. Treasury designated the university, which has branches in more than 50 countries, because Afghan and Pakistani students were recruited for intelligence purposes and for brigades deployed to Syria. The Quds Force’s ability to implement violence worldwide depends on effective outreach to grow the numbers of loyal, radicalized individuals. It also depends on the propaganda campaigns of its proxies, which the Quds Force manages and coordinates through its Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU).
As with Basij recruits, however, Quds Force recruits are not equally loyal to Tehran. Materialistic motives compete with ideological motives, the latter which can be more powerful in promoting subservience to Tehran’s interests. Therefore, the Quds Force’s training regimen relies heavily on inculcating recruits with the Islamic Republic’s unique brand of antisemitism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism—concepts often cloaked in the rhetoric of anti-colonialism and anti-Muslim oppression.
Iran vows to support the muqawama (“resistance”) movement, opposed to what it perceives as imperial powers present primarily in the Middle East. However, the notion also aligns with anti-capitalist, anti-American leftist groups in the Western hemisphere. To intensify the commitment to “resistance” and thus grow the propensity for violence, the IRGC also perverts the commonly-held Shia belief in the eventual return of the Twelfth (“Hidden”) Imam from occultation, transforming it into an apocalyptic fantasy in which Imam Mahdi returns and leads an army of good to triumph over evil. This framework can convince members of the IRGC and its proxy network that violence against the U.S. and Israel is justified as a part of Mahdi’s crusade. Finally, the religious and ideological training regimen likely incorporates velayat-e faqih, the Islamic Republic’s foundational doctrine, which contends that Iran's supreme leader is the preeminent Shia religious authority, deserving to be emulated and followed by all Muslims.
These are some of the many aspects of Iran’s radicalization campaign, focused on creating hatred against Iran’s adversaries; they drive Tehran’s long-standing policy of “exporting the revolution.” However, it should also be noted that the Quds Force extends its outreach to Sunnis, such as the Palestinian terrorist groups, as well as Kurds. Tehran seeks legitimacy through pan-Islamism, calling for the unification of the ummah (“the Muslim community”) and opposing nationalism. These pan-Islamic appeals broaden the pool of potential candidates for recruitment.
The Quds Force carries out military training as well. Basic weapons training typically lasts 20 to 45 days, but some recruits are introduced to more advanced weaponry, including explosives, mortars, and drones; logistics and support; and strategy. The Imam Ali training complex, west of Tehran, features a firing range for rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons; and driver and combat training courses, which include simulations of cityscapes and mountainous terrain. Facilities in Esfahan provide demolition and sabotage training. The Quds Force also trains its trusted proxies to facilitate training courses. Lebanese Hezbollah has become an ideal recruiter, trainer, and commander, given its ability to communicate in Arabic, like most potential Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, and Yemeni recruits; its religious and ideological ties to the Islamic Republic; and its guerilla, UAV, cyber, and propaganda capabilities.
Furthermore, the Quds Force arms and equips its proxies and partners. Quds Force Unit 190 is tasked with weapons transfers. To deceive foreign intelligence services, it has used front shipping companies to smuggle weapons and equipment, oil tanker convoys, and even heavily-guarded pilgrim convoys that cross into Syria ostensibly to visit religious shrines—some of which Iran built. Among the weapons it provides are UAVs; USVs; rockets; cruise, ballistic, and anti-tank guided missile systems; small arms ranging from machine guns to sniper rifles; land and limpet mines; improvised explosive devices (IEDs); explosively formed penetrators (EFPs); explosive materials; mortars and artillery systems; RPGs; claymores; man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs); and radars, night vision goggles, and armored personnel carriers.
The Quds Force’s mission to build up its proxies and partners’ military capabilities is a low-cost way to project power, but Tehran takes a risk that these entities, once empowered, will pursue divergent interests. The following part of this section looks in more detail at how the Quds Force accomplishes its aims in major theaters of operation. It offers a historical account of the Quds Force operations in Iraq during the U.S. occupation and a description of the challenges facing the proxy leadership structure in Iraq. Then, it turns to Syria, with an account of the Quds Force’s role in the Syrian Civil War and a view of the assets, capabilities, and personnel under its management in Syria. Finally, it touches upon Quds Force activities in Lebanon and Yemen.
Iraq: Pulling Baghdad into Tehran's Sphere of Influence
While U.S. and coalition forces occupied Iraq in 2003, the Quds Force under Soleimani’s leadership was transferring weapons, including the IEDs frequently used as roadside bombs against the U.S. and even deadlier EFPs, to insurgent militias. In overseeing the transfer of these weapons, Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 600 U.S. servicemen and women, a staggering 17 percent of all U.S. deaths in the war. Iraqi militias were also trained in Iran in guerrilla tactics, light arms, IEDs, marksmanship, and anti-aircraft missiles to bolster the insurgency against U.S. and coalition forces.
A powerful Iran-backed militia during the Iraq War, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, was responsible not only for the death of many Americans but thousands of Iraqis in a bloody two-year sectarian civil war that began in 2006 after Shia militants retaliated against Sunni civilians for an al-Qaeda attack on the al-Askari shrine, considered to be one of the holiest Shia sites. Today, unlike most Iran-backed militias, the Mahdi Army, rebranded as the Peace Brigades, opposes Iranian meddling in the Iraqi political system and society.
The U.S. completed the withdrawal of most of its troops in 2011. Three years later, Mosul fell to ISIS, a Sunni extremist offshoot that emerged from the remnants of Abu al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). After the U.S. withdrawal, ISIS eventually took control of one-third of the country. In response to this metastasizing terrorist group, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki established the Popular Mobilization Forces in 2014. The PMF was dominated by Iran-backed militias, some of which were loyal to Iran’s supreme leader; others were loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Shia youth responding to Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s fatwa calling for young men to join the fight against ISIS also joined the ranks but retained their loyalty to Sistani.
Therefore, the PMF groups were united in their opposition to ISIS but not in their allegiances. Both the U.S. and the PMF fought against ISIS separately, and it was largely defeated in 2017, but the PMF remained divided regarding its loyalties to these three powerful Shia figures. Today, despite divergent loyalties, the PMF is a government-funded state institution, nominally under the command of the Iraqi prime minister. At the same time, the pro-Tehran militias in the PMF, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Kataib Hezbollah (KH), often act in Tehran’s foreign policy interests, undermining Iraqi independence and sovereignty.
These militias rank among the most powerful of Iran’s proxies. Their management remains the Quds Force’s responsibility. Supreme Leader Khamenei, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization each recognize the Quds Force’s primacy in Iraq. A Quds Force unified command structure, the Ramazan Corps, manages military, intelligence, terrorist, diplomatic, religious, ideological, propaganda, and economic operations in Iraq. Ghaani implements policy in Iraq and is probably more powerful than the current Iranian ambassador. With that said, it should be noted that diplomatic posts are often appointed to members of the IRGC, rather than the foreign ministry. A former ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, was, prior to his ambassadorship, a Quds Force operative and confidant to Soleimani. Iran’s current ambassador to Iraq, Mohammad Kazem Al-e Sadeq, was also close with Soleimani. He served in several positions in the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, at one point a member of the board of directors of an association which honors IRGC martyrs, particularly those who have served in its Intelligence Organization.
Ghaani manages the Iraq file in a way similar to Soleimani, paying attention to the religious, political, and military dimensions of Tehran’s interests in Iraq. For example, he meets with Iraqi clergy in Najaf; influential politicians and PMF commanders in Baghdad; militia commanders in Samarra; and Kurdish leaders in Erbil. However, though he is in charge of Iraq's proxy and partner network, other senior Quds Force commanders have likely stepped into the void created by Soleimani’s death. This is not to mention that other Iranian entities like the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization and the Ministry of Intelligence are also playing a role in managing the Iraq file. Ghaani cannot command the many roles that Soleimani played, so a sort of committee may emerge atop the proxy leadership structure in Iraq.
The leadership vacuum in the proxy network in Iraq resulted not only from the death of Soleimani but also from the death of the PMF’s former de facto commander, the Persian-speaking KH commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in the same January 2020 U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. Muhandis administered personnel, coordinated logistics, and set and implemented policy within the PMF. The absence of Muhandis and Soleimani—who together mediated between militia leaders inclined to compete for state resources, prestige, and rank in the PMF—inflamed divisions in the Iraqi proxy network. Competition between KH and AAH has occasionally devolved into internecine turf wars and assassinations. The Iraqi militias became less cohesive in the absence of these two individuals.
They also became more disobedient. The PMF militias have an interest in remaining on good terms with their benefactor Iran. However, they also face internal pressures to conduct attacks that may not be in Tehran’s interest. The regular attacks against Iraqi government assets and U.S. diplomatic and military personnel could be a response to demands from the groups’ radicalized elements. They could also have been directed by the IRGC. The Iraqi government remains a target of KH and AAH, despite Ghaani’s efforts to rein them in. Throughout the Biden Administration’s nuclear negotiations with Tehran, Iraqi proxies picked up the tempo of missile and drone strikes against the U.S. military—which remains in Iraq to advise, assist and train its partners in preventing the resurgence of terrorist groups. The increased frequency of attacks demonstrates a lack of deterrence, likely resulting from the Biden Administration’s reticence to use force in response.
Therefore, Iran’s interests may have shifted, but that does not mean the militia members will adjust their religious and ideological motivations. With the obedience of the militias in question, the Quds Force adopted a new approach. Beginning after the death of Soleimani and Muhandis, the Quds Force began to identify its most ardent loyalists from the larger groups and re-form them into smaller, elite units that report directly to the Quds Force. The recruits are often sent to Quds Force or Lebanese Hezbollah-run training camps and receive instruction in core capabilities, such as drone and information warfare. The newly-formed groups are sometimes mistakenly identified as KH front groups, but they are often in fact separate entities.
Despite its occasional disobedience, KH remains one of Iran’s most trusted Iraqi proxy groups. The Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point reported in late 2021 that KH and groups linked to it coordinate logistics in Iraq with the support of the IRGC and Lebanese Hezbollah. PMF Brigade 17’s commander Hassan al-Sari, aka Saraya al-Jihad, is a key logistician for KH in southern Iraq. He oversaw missile systems deployed in Iraq’s Maysan governorate, near its southeast border with Iran, as of October 2020, along with then-Quds Force commander of operations in southern Iraq, Brigadier General Ahmad Forouzandeh. The Quds Force trusts KH to help manage the weaponry it deployed in Iraq.
The CTC reported that rockets and missiles are brought into Iraq in their constituent parts—body, engine, and warhead—and then reassembled, probably with the help of Quds Force engineers and technicians. By transporting them in parts, they are easier to conceal. The weapons deployed to Iraq—particularly missiles, rockets, and drones—severely undermine internal security and stability. Iraqi officials accused KH and AAH of ordering a drone strike on former Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadimi’s residence, weeks after pro-Iranian groups were routed in national elections in late 2021, to demonstrate their willingness to resort to violence if political outcomes are unfavorable. The officials added that Tehran probably did not direct the attack, given that it wishes to avoid an escalation of hostilities between Shia groups in Iraq. However, it is seldom clear where orders originate, allowing Tehran to disavow any knowledge of them.
Pro-Tehran political figures—often from Shia militias—hold high-ranking posts in the government that they are willing to defend with violence. From these posts, the militias can advance Tehran’s security interests. On one such occasion, the Obama administration could not convince Iraq's prime minister to close down its air space to Iranian planes flying supplies to the Assad regime during the Syrian Civil War, as then-Minister of Transport Hadi al-Amiri came from the powerful Iran-backed Badr Organization.
Up to 70 percent of personnel in the Interior Ministry, which controls the Iraqi police force, reportedly owe their loyalty to Iran-backed militias. In 2014, the ministry came under the effective control of Badr Organization commander Hadi al-Amiri. Given the Interior Ministry’s personnel composition, the police force tends to permit the militias to operate freely in strategic areas of Iraq. This helps them secure the “land corridor” through Iraq for the transshipment of weapons and equipment to Syria and Lebanon. According to a U.S. Department of Defense report, Iraq’s police and emergency response division, both subunits of the Interior Ministry, as well as the Iraq Army’s Fifth and Eighth Divisions, “are the units thought to have the greatest Iranian influence.” However, the report notes, “officers sympathetic to Iranian or militia interests are scattered throughout the security services.”
Syria: Assets, Capabilities, and Personnel
Syria is another major theater that demonstrates how the Quds Force thrives in an environment of instability and weak central governance. Just as Tehran’s influence in Iraq rapidly grew out of the chaos it fueled and promoted after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad provided a ripe opportunity for Iran to expand its presence in Syria. The Arab Spring hit Syria in 2011—the same year the U.S. withdrew most of its troops from Iraq.
The IRGC quickly came to the defense of its longstanding ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At first, the Quds Force advised, assisted, and trained the Syrian army and pro-regime militias, but as the rebels gained the upper hand, the IRGC increased its presence in Syria. In 2015, Soleimani was dispatched to Russia to request its air support. Russia obliged, then began dropping barrel bombs—often on civilian populations—in support of Iran-backed proxy groups and Assad’s army. The IRGC provisioned its proxies with weapons and heavy-equipment and provided artillery support.
In 2016, the IRGC’s Ground Force, the Basij, and the Artesh, participated in operations that led to the fall of Aleppo, turning the tide of the war in Assad’s favor. Quds Force operatives then transformed Syria into a forward operating base to threaten Israel. In 2018, more than 2,000 Quds Force operatives and tens of thousands of proxy fighters remained in Syria. Their mission evolved from being covert and plausibly deniable to overt military entrenchment.
The Quds Force set up assets and capabilities in Syria that give Iran strategic depth, or the ability to fight a war closer to enemy territory. A study published by the Jusoor Center at the end of 2021 identified an IRGC presence at more than 180 sites in Syria, including military, security, and operational bases, and logistics hubs and outposts. The study shows a heavy concentration in the Damascus countryside, Aleppo, and the western banks of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor province.
The Quds Force oversees the IRGC’s construction of permanent basing, and then often runs the facilities. Among the most significant bases in Syria is the Imam Ali compound in Deir Ezzor province, near the strategic Al-Qaim-Abu Kamal border crossing with Iraq. On September 3, 2019, Western intelligence sources revealed that the compound, then under construction, would soon become operational. Six days after this report, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) struck the base, reportedly causing severe damage, and again in March 2020 strikes were carried out against the base. A human rights organization on the ground claimed that the U.S.-coalition conducted the latter strikes, but the U.S. denied the allegation.
An October 2022 Alma Center report notes that the base remains “very significant in bringing weapons [including ballistic missiles] into Syria.” The Imam Ali compound is the largest IRGC base in Syria, with the capacity to house thousands of personnel and store missiles underground. After the IDF struck the base in 2019, the IRGC reportedly began expanding the base’s underground storage facilities. The base is equipped with missile launch platforms and air defense systems.
Also strategically positioned in Deir Ezzor, the Al-Kum (“T-2”) base was assessed to hold high-value to the IRGC as recently as February 2022. The Tiyas (“T-4”) airbase—positioned 60 km west of the historic desert city of Palmyra, where another key IRGC compound is located—serves as a drone operations center. It was equipped with a Khordad air defense system in 2018, the same year in which the Israeli Air Force bombed the facility on two separate occasions. The Imam Ali compound, the T-2, and the T-4 bases are positioned along a straight line running through Syria from the border with Iraq to Homs. The network also crosses through Palmyra.
Iran’s forward deployment of air defense systems is the responsibility of the Quds Force and the Aerospace Force working together. Soleimani reportedly led efforts to coordinate their shipment, but the Aerospace Force’s deputy coordinator, Brigadier General Fereydoun Mohammadi Saghaei, took the lead on deploying them and possibly managing them, with the assistance of Lebanese Hezbollah. Israel insists that Iran withdraw these systems, along with its long-range missiles, as they impede its freedom of action and pose a threat to Israel’s homeland.
The Quds Force’s central command headquarters in Syria, known as Beit al Zajaja (“the Glass House”), was operational as of 2020, despite being struck by the IDF in late 2019. Located near the Damascus International Airport, militia commanders and government officials are believed to convene at the Glass House to plan, coordinate, and conduct military operations across the country. Additionally, field communications are received, and intelligence is aggregated here. There are also departments dedicated to military intelligence, counterintelligence, logistics, propaganda, communications, and operational command and control. Israel has struck Damascus International Airport on multiple occasions since 2019 to prevent its use as a transshipment hub, though public damage assessments have not indicated the command headquarters’ condition. On January 3, 2023, Israel fired missiles at the international airport, putting it out of service and causing material damage in nearby areas.
In addition to permanent basing, the Quds Force operates a network of research and manufacturing facilities in Syria. The Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah continue to implement Qassem Soleimani’s plan, dubbed the “Precision Project,” to assert control over the weapons facilities in Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (CER). Iranian mechanical engineers in the past led efforts to develop Scud missiles with North Korea in a project known as “Project 99” at CER’s Institute 4000, located in Masyaf, Syria. Critical operations were moved there during the civil war.
The IRGC was tasked with rebuilding Institute 4000 after Israel bombed it in August 2022. A month later, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed the location of ten production facilities used for “mid- and long-range, precision missiles and weapons,” four of which were located outside the city of Masyaf, near the Lebanon-Syria border in northern Lebanon. These sites intend to secure the transfer of advanced weaponry. They enable engineers to reassemble missile, rocket, and drone components shipped from Iran, and upgrade existing arsenals with precision technologies. Quds Force Unit 340 oversees tech transfers, its proxies’ missile development, and the export of production capabilities.
The Quds Force, furthermore, operates a complex network of hubs and warehouses woven throughout Syria that allow it to ship weapons westward, toward the Israeli front. This logistics network, known as the “land corridor,” was a core interest motivating Iran’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War. The network has been used to move weapons to Assad, IRGC bases, and Lebanese Hezbollah, further enhancing the credibility of a threat to Israel’s homeland.
The IRGC coordinates logistics in Syria via an operations center, known as Unit 2250, located in Damascus, with satellite offices throughout the country. The Quds Force’s extensive involvement in logistics was revealed by the targets struck in a massive IDF missile and aerial campaign launched in 2018, after Israel’s air defense batteries intercepted 122-mm Grad rockets and 333-mm Fajr-5 rockets launched by the Quds Force at Israeli assets in the Golan Heights. In response to this unprecedented Quds Force rocket attack, the IDF hit 50 Quds Force targets, including a logistics complex in the Damascus countryside, and a weapons storage facility at Damascus International Airport.
The Iraqi Heyadrioun Division, stood up in 2015, supports Quds Force logistics operations in Syria. This division was trained to specialize in moving personnel and military cargo across borders en route westward from Iran and through depots at major Syrian airports; it is also responsible for escorting officials in Syria. Additionally, the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun, largely made up of Afghanis and Pakistanis respectively, facilitate cross-border weapons transfers from the “Afghani security square,” near Albu Kamal’s city center in Deir Ezzor.
Senior Quds Force operatives embed in these units in a command role. They aim to create a cohesive proxy army out of an amalgam of languages, cultures, ethnicities, religions, and nationalities. Like its ballistic missiles, its proxy network in Syria allows Tehran to more credibly target Israel’s homeland in lieu of a modern air force. The proxies add to the asymmetric deterrent Iran seeks to establish through the use of terrorist organizations in Lebanon and Gaza.
Lebanon: Reinforcing the Southern Front with Israel
In June 1982, the same year the IRGC transitioned to offensive operations against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC dispatched hundreds of its personnel to organize a guerilla resistance against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The IRGC trained Shia groups in political and religious indoctrination and military and terrorist tactics. Those groups became Hezbollah, a dominant political party and military power in Lebanon today, and Iran’s most trusted partner. Hezbollah is the main beneficiary of Tehran’s largess, receiving up to $700 million each year. However, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and the reimposition of sanctions on Iran drained the budget of Hezbollah (and the IRGC), forcing it to close offices and furlough fighters.
Over the years, Iran transformed Hezbollah into a formidable military force armed with a diverse range of rockets, missiles, and UAVs. With Quds Force support, Hezbollah is setting up underground, industrial-scale facilities to enhance the accuracy of its missiles and rockets. Iran funds the “Precision Project” in Lebanon, directs the construction of these secret facilities, provides technical know-how, and transfers equipment banned under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. A key facility is located in the Beqaa Valley, eastern Lebanon. These operations help establish deterrence against Israel, while diminishing the Mossad and the IDF’s ability to prevent weapons transfers. By extending the range, enhancing the accuracy, and increasing the lethality of Hezbollah’s munitions, Iran has a partner that can credibly strike high-value targets inside Israel in the event of military escalation.
Yemen: A Geostrategic Threat
Yemen is strategically positioned beside the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, an international waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, and borders Tehran’s adversary Saudi Arabia. The Yemeni Houthis threaten international trade traversing the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. They possess Iran-supplied mines, USVs, anti-ship cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles, as well as anti-tank guided missiles, UAVs, Katyusha rockets, man-portable air defense systems, and RDX high explosives. Their A2/AD capabilities can be deployed to obstruct shipping in the Red Sea. Iran’s ability to direct such actions is another potent deterrent against its enemies. Furthermore, the Houthis menace Saudi Arabia—whose Aramco oil facilities were struck in a sophisticated cross-border drone and missile attack in March 2022—and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). That the Houthis have forced Saudi Arabia to wage an expensive air campaign to protect its national security benefits Iran, because that campaign steals resources that could otherwise be directed toward building its capabilities.
Khatam Al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters
The Khatam al-Anbiya (“Seal of the Prophet”) Construction Headquarters is the IRGC’s engineering and construction branch. Under the command of an IRGC general, the economic conglomerate is one of the IRGC’s main sources of revenue. First, this section introduces the commander of Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters (herein referred to as Khatam al-Anbiya), Brigadier General Hossein Hoosh al-Sadat. After that, it briefly describes how the former military engineering corps amassed such wealth. Finally, it turns to the core function of Khatam al-Anbiya: funding the IRGC operations discussed throughout this resource.
IRGC commander Hossein Salami appointed Hossein Hoosh al-Sadat to the helm of Khatam al-Anbiya in March 2021 after its former commander, Saeed Mohammad, left the post amid his plans to run for president of Iran. As commander of Khatam al-Anbiya, Hossein Hoosh al-Sadat likely views his role in the IRGC as integral to reaching the supreme leader’s vision of a “resistance economy,” one which is impervious to international sanctions. In December 2021, he vocalized this view, saying that Khatam al-Anbiya had been vital to sustaining major projects, such as the South Pars oil field, despite the withdrawal of international companies after the Trump Administration reimposed sanctions in 2018. He defended the construction headquarters’ extensive role in that project, arguing that the oil field's production would have ceased if a larger share of the contracts had gone to foreign investors. Previous Khatam al-Anbiya commanders include such high-profile figures as Rostam Ghasemi, who became an oil minister in the latter years of the Ahmadinejad Administration. The current Speaker of Parliament Mohammad Ghalibaf, a former mayor of Tehran, also served in this role.
After the Iran-Iraq War, Supreme Leader Khamenei formally established Khatam al-Anbiya. Through this new branch, the IRGC took the lead on industrial and development projects, which helped sustain its revenue amid government budget cuts, secure a role for troops in the post-war economy, and also rebuild the country’s damaged infrastructure. Khatam al-Anbiya’s economic portfolio—and that of the IRGC’s more broadly—expanded after the war with the support of then-President Rafsanjani, despite tensions between him and IRGC commanders arising from his efforts to marginalize the IRGC politically and his insistence that the IRGC be combined with the Artesh. An effort to “privatize” government industries essentially meant the transfer of public property and government resources and organizations to regime insiders.
In the 2000s, a succession of no-bid government contracts offered to the IRGC during the Ahmadinejad presidency accelerated the growth of its financial interests, and further enriched regime loyalists. In one contract, Iran’s oil ministry awarded Khatam al-Anbiya a $1.3 billion no-bid contract to build a 900-km gas pipeline from the Bushehr province to the Sistan and Baluchestan provinces. Khatam al-Anbiya signed a $2.5 billion government contract to finish phases 15 and 16 of the South Pars oil field without a bidding process; the IRGC also dominated later phases of construction. As of 2009, the year of Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection, Khatam al-Anbiya had been awarded 750 construction contracts for dam projects, water diversion systems, highways, tunnels, buildings, heavy-duty structures, trusses, off-shore construction projects, and water, gas, and oil pipelines.
Khatam al-Anbiya controls a large share of the IRGC’s financial assets, estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars, or between one-third and two-thirds of Iran’s total gross domestic product (GDP). This estimate's broad range indicates the difficulty of knowing who owns what in the Iranian economy. In some cases, the construction headquarters may not technically own an entity, but still exercises control over it. Such influence might be rooted in direct personal links to IRGC officials, or other forms of corruption in which an individual owner is rendered beholden to the IRGC. For example, Etemad-e Mobin, a consortium reported to have bought a 51 percent share in Iran’s telecommunications business in 2010 minutes after it was privatized and the main competitor was disqualified for “security” reasons, is known to have close ties to the IRGC. These ties give the IRGC potential access to every phone conversation in the country. As of 2010, Khatam al-Anbiya had control of more than 812 registered companies inside or outside Iran, and had been the recipient of 1,700 government contracts. Thus, between 2009 and 2010, the number of Khatam al-Anbiya’s government contracts appears to have increased substantially not only in the construction sector, where it already had 750 contracts, but also in other sectors of the economy.
Approximately 40,000 people were estimated to work for Khatam al-Anbiya as of 2015, not all of whom are members of the IRGC. A large share of this workforce is made up of civilian contractors. Like most other branches of the IRGC, Khatam al-Anbiya plays domestic and foreign roles. In sum, it is a vital funding mechanism that directs state resources to IRGC coffers via contracts with government ministries, including its main clients the Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Oil, Ministry of Roads and Transportation, and Ministry of Defense. Khatam al-Anbiya monopolizes strategic sectors of the economy, displacing private sector competitors in the process. Khatam al-Anbiya has acquired monopoly power in the agriculture, construction, mining, transportation, and energy sectors, because of a flawed government contract bidding process that favors the IRGC. The scale of Khatam al-Anbiya allows it to underbid private sector competitors and its connections with public banks give it greater access to capital. Its reported tax exemptions widen its advantage over the private sector.
Khatam al-Anbiya’s accounting practices receive no oversight from independent firms, allowing officials to embezzle state resources. The firm that audits Khatam al-Anbiya is owned by Khatam al-Anbiya. The IRGC’s Intelligence Protection Unit is believed to be the only entity that oversees Khatam al-Anbiya. But Khatam al-Anbiya’s wealth is not only squandered, it is also used to fund IRGC operations, including terrorism, and the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Furthermore, it plays a role in poverty alleviation, building mosques, schools, housing, clinics, transportation infrastructure, and sports centers in underdeveloped areas often in cooperation with the Basij, to advance the IRGC’s political interests. And it implements research programs geared toward technological development and economic self-sufficiency. Abroad, it works to project soft-power by funding and carrying out development projects.
Khatam al-Anbiya has thrived in both hardline and more pragmatic Iranian administrations. As noted, its economic portfolio rapidly expanded as the Ahmadinejad Administration handed over lucrative government contracts and privatized government entities, but that process did not slow down when former President Hassan Rouhani came into office in 2013. Contrary to the commonly-held belief of some Western audiences that Rouhani’s reform program would disempower the IRGC, he continued to enable and fuel its growth, while boxing out private investors and robbing resources from the Iranian people. Today, the IRGC is poised to continue to grow under the current hardline administration of President Ebrahim Raisi.
Often-quoted, Rouhani once referred to the IRGC as “a state with a gun,” insinuating that it uses coercion and intimidation as a business practice. This statement encouraged the Western view of Rouhani as a relatively moderate reformer. But that view must be reexamined in light of government contracts awarded to the IRGC by his ministries. As just one example, in 2018, the Ministry of Petroleum awarded Khatam al-Anbiya 10 projects in the oil and petrochemical industries valued at $22 billion, four times the official budget of the IRGC. It is noteworthy that foreign firms did enter the Iranian market while Rouhani was president. However, the notion that poor economic performance can be blamed on sanctions does not hold up under close scrutiny, as it becomes apparent that corruption, mismanagement, and structural problems are to blame. The IRGC’s efforts to steal wealth from the Iranian people and amass power is the group’s modus operandi.
U.S., E.U., and U.N. sanctions reduce Khatam al-Anbiya’s revenues, and thus hinder the IRGC’s activities. The U.S. Treasury Department first designated the holding company in 2007, and has since occasionally designated its leadership and some of its subsidiaries; however, many still operate free of sanctions. During nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna in June 2022, the Islamic Republic reportedly demanded that U.S. sanctions against the construction headquarters be lifted as a condition of reviving the 2015 nuclear pact. Such a decision would neuter the panoply of sanctions Khatam al-Anbiya is under pursuant to U.S. law, and would resource the IRGC’s efforts to sow fear, death, and destruction at home and abroad in the furtherance of its ideological mandates.
The E.U. first levied sanctions against Khatam al-Anbiya in 2008, noting that it was linked to Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities and its production of nuclear-weapon delivery systems. The U.N. maintained its sanctions from 2010 until after the implementation of the JCPOA in 2015. Its sanctions list contends that Khatam al-Anbiya “undertakes a significant amount of work on Passive Defense Organization projects,” and that its subsidiaries were heavily involved in the Fordow nuclear enrichment site. If the JCPOA is revived, E.U. WMD-related sanctions on Khatam al-Anbiya would be lifted in October 2023.
In the last two years of the Trump administration, the U.S. government issued several rounds of sanctions against the IRGC, targeting its revenue sources. As noted earlier, the Treasury Department sanctioned Bonyad Taavon Basij, a network of businesses and financial institutions supporting the Basij, under E.O. 13224 in October 2018. But perhaps the most significant designation—and the most detrimental to the IRGC’s reputation and its ability to procure financial resources through business activities around the world—came in April 2019, when the U.S. State Department designated the IRGC in its entirety as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The IRGC thus joined a group that includes ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah. In September 2019, the State Department’s “Reward for Justice” program announced a $15 million reward for information leading to the disruption of the IRGC’s financial mechanisms. The next month, the State Department sanctioned Iran’s construction sector, which is dominated by the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters.
Though the U.S. government has long viewed Tehran as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” the FTO designation was unprecedented; it was the first time the U.S. government designated an entire branch of a foreign government as an FTO. As a result of this designation, those who provide material support to the IRGC are criminally liable. The Treasury Department was empowered to block the IRGC’s assets; and IRGC members were prohibited from entering the U.S. This initiative, along with the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on key sectors in Iran’s economy, severely dented the IRGC’s revenue, and weakened its proxies, which received less funding. Sanctions enforcement undermines the Islamic Republic of Iran’s power, as the government is deprived of the resources to sustain its patronage network reaching into the IRGC.
The Biden administration should heed the advice of the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. In April 2022, he said, “I believe the IRGC-Quds Force to be a terrorist organization, and I do not support them being delisted from the Foreign Terrorist Organization list.” Efforts to reverse the sanctions imposed on the IRGC, or a failure to target the individuals and entities enabling it, will resource the very entity that is brutally repressing its own people and undermining regional security, U.S. regional interests, and European security. The IRGC may further challenge European security in the coming months by transferring surface-to-surface missiles to Russia in addition to the attack drones it has already sent. The E.U., however, has not yet followed suit in designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization. On January 3, 2023, reports revealed that the U.K. government intends to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organization, which will make belonging to the group or supporting it a criminal offense in the U.K.
Other non-kinetic options are available to the U.S., including building up the capabilities of our allies and partners in the region and promoting cooperation between them. The role of U.S. intelligence in the assassinations of IRGC operatives or Israel’s precision strikes is seldom clear. Increasing U.S. intelligence support to Israel, however, can only improve the effectiveness of Israel’s “war-between-war” aerial campaign in Syria—which the IDF optimistically reported had taken out 90% of Tehran’s assets in the war-torn country—and its ability to target individuals and disrupt the operations undermining regional security. Deepening regional networks will only improve the ability to identify and strike land-based weapons, supply-lines and convoys. Additionally, weapons transfers to Israel—such as the massive ordinance penetrator capable of destroying hardened Iranian assets—and to the Gulf states, can further deter Iran from its forceful pursuit of regional hegemony. The Abraham Accords should also serve as a foundation for diplomacy and military cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.
There are also kinetic options that may be implemented in a measured way to retaliate against Iran’s proxies for their attacks on U.S. diplomatic and military personnel. Currently, U.S. deterrence in response to such attacks appears to be weak. Retaliatory strikes have seldom been carried out against these proxies, despite the rapid increase in their attacks on U.S. interests since President Joe Biden took office. Such strikes should be contemplated to increase the costs for the Iranian system as it weighs the benefits of mounting aggressive operations against U.S. and allied interests, particularly during periods of internal unrest.
Since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the IRGC has faithfully executed its duty to protect the revolution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The IRGC is a core constituency in the regime’s support base that can be relied upon to use repressive violence to maintain stability in times of unrest. The IRGC is also the vehicle through which Tehran exports the revolution, deters its enemies, and pursues regional hegemony. While not the only motivation driving these aims, an ideology rooted in fear and hatred of free, Western nations ranks among the most powerful. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s raison d’étre depends on a perpetual external threat, namely the U.S. and Israel, endangering its subjects’ way of life, and deeply-held religious beliefs. As soon as those people lose trust in that invention, a pillar of the regime will begin to crack.
The military objectives pursued by the IRGC demonstrate that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not merely implement a defensive doctrine, though defense and deterrence are undoubtedly important goals. Iran attempts to establish a forward presence and a long-range strike capability to increase the costs Israel and the U.S. would pay in the event of military escalation. Its asymmetric naval capabilities discourage a sea conflict. A partisan paramilitary organ at home and the mountainous terrain along Iran’s borders deter a ground invasion. Its ballistic missiles could be used against countries perceived as supporting its enemies in the event of a conflict, potentially inflicting a psychological toll. However, Iran’s malign and destabilizing activities show that its concept of regime survival is inextricably linked to aggression. Its continuous unconventional warfare operations debunk the claim that Iran merely pursues deterrence. Tehran wants to become the dominant regional force and consistent with that goal, is intent upon the expulsion of the foreign powers it has defined as enemies, despite the growing unpopularity of those portrayals at home.