IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)

IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an Iranian government agency whose mission is to defend the regime against internal and external threats. The IRGC includes the Quds Force and Basij militia, which respectively handle external and internal operations. Espousing a radical ideology and a paranoid worldview, the IRGC uses secret police methods against its opponents within Iran, and terrorist tactics against its enemies abroad.

  • 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: Afghanistan, Europe, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, South America, Syria

Historical Background

Founded on May 5, 1979, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) 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 preserves the Islamic Revolution and the 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. The IRGC today is estimated to have 190,000 active personnel at its disposal, and roughly 640,000 including domestic paramilitary Basij forces. 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, face deplorable conditions, complete with torture and other human rights abuses.

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. Ahmadinejad also gave the IRGC control over significant energy projects—for example, part of Iran’s South Pars natural-gas field in 2010 after European companies withdrew. Contracts for the field were reportedly worth $21 billion.

President Hassan Rouhani won two terms on a platform that prioritized boosting civilian power in the political and economic spheres by curtailing the IRGC’s pervasive control. From 2013-2015, Rouhani’s administration sought and obtained – with Khamenei’s cautious backing — a nuclear deal with Western powers. Rouhani’s primary motivation was to open up the Iranian market to Western trade and investment, which he believed would empower civilian business interests at the expense of the IRGC. It should be noted that Rouhani’s efforts to empower an alternative civilian elite do not stem from benevolence, but from his belief that this represents the ideal path to salvage and preserve Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary regime, as well as a desire to enrich his own political allies and benefactors.

After Iran and world powers reached their 2015 nuclear deal in exchange for lifting economic sanctions, the Iranian government reportedly sought to reduce the influence of the IRGC in the Iranian economy. While economic sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear deal were lifted, sanctions against the IRGC remained in place, preventing foreign investment in the Iranian economy. According to government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht in May 2016, the Iranian government “believes that the private sector should gain the opportunity to present its capability. The government itself shouldn’t compete with it. Other sectors like [the IRGC] should not compete with it.” The government and the IRGC have officially denied there is any conflict between them over control of the economy. An unnamed IRGC official accused the government of “trying to isolate” the IRGC.

The IRGC, naturally, has proved loath to cede its power, influence, and riches, and therefore acted to sabotage the Rouhani administration’s machinations for greater economic openness and integration with the West. The IRGC has sought, through threats and harassment, to prevent investment in Iran from those who would not give the IRGC its share. Most notably, the IRGC’s intelligence organization arrested Siamak Namazi, a member of a prominent Iranian-American dual national family who had been in business with powerful elements of the Iranian regime since the early 1990s, such as the Rafsanjani family and the Khatami administration. The Namazis and their associates were also close to President Rouhani’s team, and had sought to invest in Iran. Subsequently, his father, Baqer was arrested after attempting to visit his son. Namazi’s arrest sent the message that the IRGC would not allow its prosperity to be challenged by alternate elites and served to chill the investment plans of other Iranian expatriates.

In early March 2018, 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, 2018, 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 2017. The IRGC has had a freer hand to brutally quell the demonstrations as a result. When large-scale protests erupted once again in November 2019 following the regime’s announcement of a gasoline price hike, Supreme Leader Khamenei and his security advisors ordered the IRGC and Basij to ruthlessly suppress the protests. According to a senior Guardsman in Kermanshah’s account, “We had orders from top officials in Tehran to end the protests. No more mercy. They are aiming to topple the Islamic Republic. But we will eradicate them.” Estimates from officials within Iran’s interior ministry placed the death toll during the protests as high as 1,500. The rapid response to demonstrations with brutality and drastic measures, such as shutting down internet access, indicate the regime is increasingly reliant on the IRGC and its repressive apparatus, rather than a reform agenda, to deal with widespread dissatisfaction over its corruption and economic mismanagement.

Organizational Structure

Iranian law defines the IRGC as “an institution commanded by the Supreme Leader whose purpose is to protect the Islamic Revolution of Iran and its accomplishments, while striving continuously . . . to spread the sovereignty of God’s law.” The IRGC today enjoys the power of a government agency, while still maintaining the zeal and fanaticism of an ideologically motivated terrorist group. The IRGC’s mission combines traditional military roles with a relentless focus on pursuing supposed domestic enemies. According to the Ministry of Defense, the IRGC’s role is to “protect [Iran’s] independence, territorial integrity, and national and revolutionary ideals, under the shadow of the orders given by the Commander in Chief, the Grand Ayatollah Imam Khamenei.”

By law, the power to appoint and remove the commander of the IRGC is given to Iran’s supreme leader. The supreme leader also appoints clerical representatives to the various units of the IRGC whose guidance and instructions are binding on commanders. Iranian law makes “belief and practical obedience to the principle of clerical rule” a condition of membership in the IRGC, further establishing absolute loyalty to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the IRGC’s guiding principle.

Administratively, the IRGC falls under the Joint Armed Forces General Staff, part of the Ministry of Defense. But these layers of oversight do not give Iran’s nominally elected civilian authorities real control over the IRGC, as the entire military remains subordinate to the Supreme National Security Council, which in turn answers to the supreme leader.

Scholars who study the IRGC have concluded that “individuals appear to matter more than institutions when considering national security decision[-]making.” Consequently, scholars have identified personal networks, often based on ties of family, friendship, or joint service in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War as the key factors in IRGC leadership. The opacity of the IRGC’s real command structure helps make Iran an erratic and therefore especially dangerous player in regional affairs.

The Basij

The Basij militia—whose name means “mobilization”—is a paramilitary organization tasked with channeling popular support for the Islamic Republican regime. The Basij is famous for its recruitment of volunteers, many of them teenage children, for “human wave” attacks on Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq War, during which Basij forces swept for mines before the Iranian army would advance. Today, the Basij has two missions: giving military training to regime supporters to prepare them to resist foreign invasion and helping suppress domestic opposition to the regime through street violence and intimidation. The Basij were incorporated into the IRGC in 1981.

The Basij presents itself as a popular volunteer association, although it is very much an organ of the state. The group’s “regular members,” said to number more than 10 million, are unpaid volunteers motivated by ideological zeal or the hopes of advancement. Its “active members,” whose exact number is unknown, receive salaries and work full time to organize the volunteer members. The group has been nominally subordinate to the IRGC since the early 1980s, and organizational changes in recent years have increased the IRGC’s direct control over the Basij, apparently to better manage the two groups’ repression of internal dissent.

Since its establishment after Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Basij militia has overseen state-sanctioned domestic abuses in the country. Shortly after the Islamic revolution, before the new regime could establish an effective police force, the Basij was responsible for maintaining security, removing anti-revolutionary components and shah loyalists from the system. The Basij was kept out of the Iran-Iraq War during its first year, but its later participation is credited with transforming Iran’s position from defensive to offensive. The Basij is accused of brutally suppressing protests after the contested June 2009 election. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of protesters were arrested after the June 12 elections and the Basij militia attacked student dormitories, beating students and ransacking their rooms. Human Rights Watch also reported members of the Basij militia appearing in large groups at mass demonstrations and attacking protesters. There were reports of Basij members armed with clubs and chains beating up anyone suspected of participating in the protests against the government.

Quds Force

The Quds Force is a special branch of the IRGC that undertakes sensitive missions beyond Iran’s borders. The Quds Force has played an active role in providing training and weapons to extremist groups including Iraqi insurgents, Lebanese Hezbollah, and others. The Quds Force’s raison d’etre is to subvert the sovereignty of neighboring states, weakening and destabilizing central governments so that Iran can establish spheres of military and diplomatic influence. The group’s commander was Major General Qassem Soleimani, who served as an emissary of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, reportedly using a combination of violence and bribes to wield enormous influence over the politics of neighboring Iraq. He was also said to coordinate much of Iran’s support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. On January 3, 2020, Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike shortly after landing at Baghdad’s international airport. His successor is Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, Soleimani’s former deputy. Upon his swearing-in, Ghaani pledged to “strike back at the enemy in a manly way.”

Through the Quds Force, Iran commands a transnational movement of Shia militancy comprised of thousands of fighters from around the Arab and Islamic world. Under Soleimani’s direction, Iran’s proxy militias around the region increased their cooperation and coordination with each other and demonstrated a willingness to fight not just in their localized arena, but to contribute to the Shia war effort wherever the exigency is greatest. Iran’s proxies serve as a veritable foreign legion acting in concert to bolster Iranian influence and carry out Iranian foreign policy objectives throughout the region. While Soleimani has departed from the scene, the networks of militias and terrorist organizations that he stood up, trained, and armed pose an enduring threat that will keep the region on the precipice of conflict for the foreseeable future.

Financing

The IRGC is Iran’s most powerful economic actor, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, which has labeled the National Iranian Oil Company “an agent or affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards.” Within the IRGC, the Quds Force exerts control over strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises. According to a 2007 Los Angeles Times report, the IRGC has ties to over 100 companies, controlling over $12 billion. These funds are used to exert influence in Iran and Iranian proxies. According to Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, the IRGC is “heavily involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to telecommunications and pipelines … and a great deal of smuggling. Many of the front companies engaged in procuring nuclear technology are owned and run by the Revolutionary Guards. They're developing along the lines of the Chinese military, which is involved in many business enterprises. It's a huge business conglomeration.”

Iran has been beset since the end of 2017 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 came 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.

Violent Activities

The Council on Foreign Relations describes the IRGC and Quds Force as Iran’s “primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorists abroad.” According to a 2010 Pentagon report, the Quds Force “maintains operational capabilities around the world,” and “it is well established in the Middle East and North Africa and recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.” Further, the report concluded that if “U.S. involvement in conflict in these regions deepens, contact with the IRGC-QF, directly or through extremist groups it supports, will be more frequent and consequential.” Illustrating this point, Khamenei in 2012 reportedly ordered the Quds Force to step up attacks against Western targets in retaliation for U.S.-backing of Syrian rebels in that country’s civil war.

The IRGC and Quds Force have been accused of supporting militants and carrying out terrorism around the world, including in Afghanistan, Argentina, Austria, Bahrain, Germany, India, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. According to a 2013 bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to label the Quds Force a terrorist organization, the Quds Force “stations operatives in foreign embassies, charities, and religious and cultural institutions to foster relationships, often building on existing socio-economic ties with the well-established Shia Diaspora….”

Among some of the IRGC’s most notable violent activities, the Quds Force is accused of orchestrating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Argentina and is accused of playing a role in the attempted assassination in Washington, DC of Saudi Arabia’s then-ambassador to the United States in 2011.

IRGC Ties to Terrorist Entities

The IRGC has been linked to several global terrorist groups. In 2015, IRGC aerospace force commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh boasted, “The Islamic Republic of Iran has helped Iraq, Syria, Palestine and the Lebanese Hezbollah by exporting the technology that it has for the production of missiles and other equipment, and they can now stand against the Zionist regime, the ISIL [Islamic State group] and other Takfiri [apostate] groups and cripple them.”

The IRGC has been a reliable source of funding, weapons, and training to Hezbollah since the terror group’s emergence in the early 1980s. Iranian leaders have acknowledged and openly praised this relationship. The United States has also tied individual IRGC leaders to the Taliban while accusing the IRGC of arming the group. IRGC leaders have admitted to arming Hamas and providing technological training. The IRGC has also provided funding and weapons to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In 2011, the IRGC reportedly plotted with the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.

The IRGC provided Hezbollah with its initial financial support and training when the group emerged in the early 1980s. The Quds Force is Iran’s primary instrument for passing on support to Hezbollah, some of which is in the form of cash, while the rest is in weaponry. Syria is Iran’s main supply route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. As such, the Iranian government has an interest in keeping besieged Syrian President Bashar Assad in power. Before the Syrian civil war, between 2,000 and 3,000 IRGC officers were stationed in Syria, helping to train local troops and managing supply routes of arms and money to neighboring Lebanon. By Iran’s own admission, members of the Quds Force are acting in an advisory capacity to Syrian government forces in that country’s civil war, and Iran has committed itself to providing arms, financing, and training to Iraqi Shiite fighters in the war. A retired senior IRGC commander claims there are at least 60 to 70 Quds Force commanders in Syria at any given time.

Since 2012, Iran has effectively been in charge of planning and leading the conduct of the Syria conflict. As Assad risked losing power due to rebel advances and force attrition, Iran began sending hundreds of IRGC and Basij fighters to Damascus, stanching and eventually reversing Assad’s losses. Tehran has subsequently greatly expanded its support to include deploying thousands of IRGC, Artesh and Basij fighters to take a direct part in the Syrian Civil War’s battles.

Additionally, Iran has deployed an estimated 20-30,000 of its regional proxies from around the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into the country. IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani served at the head of these forces until his death on January 3, 2020, coordinating activities among the various Shia mercenary forces and ensuring that their activities fulfill Iranian foreign policy objectives. As the Assad regime has weakened, it has become increasingly reliant on the local and foreign Shia militias beholden to Iran to seize and hold territory.

The Quds Force has also funded and trained the Iraqi Shiite militias, notably Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH). AAH overtly displays its loyalty to Iran’s leaders, including the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. AAH coordinates with senior Iranian commanders.

US Sanctions

On October 31, 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) updated its Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) List, applying new sanctions to several individuals and entities affiliated with the IRGC for their role in supporting the IRGC’s terroristic and ballistic missile proliferation activities. The latest actions built upon the Trump administration’s announcement on October 13, 2017, that it was designating the IRGC as a terrorist group pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224.

Prior to October 13, 2017, the U.S. government sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety in 2007, 2011, and 2012 under E.O.s 1338213553, and 13606 respectively for its human rights and non-proliferation abuses. OFAC’s October 13th designation corrected an existing anomaly in U.S. policy, whereby the IRGC’s Quds Force –its foreign expeditionary arm—was designated under Executive Order 13224 for its support of terrorism, while the IRGC itself was not. In reality, there is no meaningful distinction between the IRGC and the Quds Force, as both ultimately report to the supreme leader, and the organizations frequently share resources and personnel.

The October 31, 2017 sanctions most notably targeted the IRGC Air Force, the Al-Ghadir Missile Command (which exercises operational control of Iran’s ballistic missile program), the Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization (which is responsible for research and development of Iran’s ballistic missile program), and the Aerospace Force Self Sufficiency Jihad Organization (which is involved in Iran's ballistic missile research and flight test launches).

The sanctions also targeted IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and four senior officers. Jafari has commanded the IRGC, the most powerful element of Iran’s security services and the primary instrument of preserving and expanding the Islamic Revolution, since 2007. During his tenure, Jafari has overseen the expansion of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the brutal suppression of domestic dissent, and the acceleration of Iran’s meddling in Iran, Syria, and Yemen. Jafari’s deputy, Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi, was also designated on October 31. Hejazi, who previously served as commander of the IRGC’s Basij paramilitary force, is an ultra-hardliner who has played a leading role in violently stifling reformist efforts such as the 1999 Tehran student protests and 2009 Green Movement.

In October 2018, the Trump administration further sanctioned the IRGC under EO 13224, designating a network of businesses and financial institutions known as Bonyad Taavon Basij (Basij Cooperative Network) for their role in funding the Basij. In announcing the designation, the Trump administration accused the Basij of fueling conflict and carrying out human rights abuses around the Middle East, including the recruitment, training, and deployment of child soldiers to support the Assad regime in Syria.

In April 2019, the U.S. State Department designated the IRGC, including the Quds Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The designation marked the first time that the U.S. had ever designated part of another government as an FTO. Since the designation, the IRGC and its proxies have escalated their malign and destabilizing activities throughout the Middle East, including actions targeting international shipping, regional energy infrastructure, and U.S. military personnel.

In June 2019, OFAC imposed additional sanctions against eight senior commanders of Navy, Aerospace, and Ground Forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) pursuant to E.O. 13224. In a press release announcing the new sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “IRGC commanders are responsible for the Iranian regime’s provocative attacks orchestrated in internationally recognized waters and airspace, as well as Iran’s malign activities in Syria.”

In October 2019, the U.S. State Department sanctioned Iran’s construction sector pursuant to Section 1245 of the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012. In announcing the designation, the State Department alleged that the IRGC controls Iran’s construction sector “directly or indirectly.”   

On January 18, 2020, the U.S State Department designated IRGC Brigadier General Hassan Shahvarpour, Khuzestan Province’s Vali Asr Commander, “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights against protestors during the November protests in Mahshahr, Iran.” The U.S. alleged that IRGC units under his command killed at least 148 protestors.

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