IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)

IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is the premier military institution in the Islamic Republic of Iran tasked with defending the “revolution and is achievements.” Today, the IRGC is estimated to have 190,000 active personnel at its disposal and roughly 450,000 Basij paramilitary reserve forces. The IRGC only answers to the Supreme Leader and no one else in the government, including the Presidency. It is constituted by four branches: Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, Navy, and the Quds force. The latter is in charge of external operations, commanding a Shiite foreign legion. The IRGC also oversees Iran’s ballistic missile force and has been involved in clandestine nuclear weapons development. The IRGC has amassed a formidable intelligence apparatus that 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 abuses. Over time, the Guard Corps has transformed into one of the major power centers in the Islamic Republic, poising it to shape succession for the next Supreme Leader. Its network also has a business empire with vast stakes in the Iranian formal and the underground economies. The Guard Corps controls some of the leading news agencies and organizations in Iran and oversees an affiliated network of media production companies. The IRGC is committed to an Islamist-Shiite ideology and promotes religious extremism and a millenarian worldview.   

  • 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 OperationGlobal, concentrated in the Middle East

Historical Background

Formally founded on May 5, 1979, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps' (IRGC) constitutional duty is to “guard the Revolution and its achievements.” That vague mission has over time been used as justification for the Guard’s intervention in non-military affairs.

The Guard Corps was initially constituted by Islamist groups loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic. He oversaw the formation of the Guard Corps as a check against a potential coup d’état attempt by the Army, which Islamists saw with deep suspicion due to its links to the former Pahlavi monarchy. The bifurcated military structure remains to do this, with the Guard Corps continuing to receive preferential treatment and exercising influence that dwarves the Army, also known in Persian as Artesh. The IRGC proved essential in Khomeini’s quest to grab ultimate power and eliminate his rivals. It also fought against insurgent groups, notably in the brutal campaign against Kurdish separatist groups in 1979-1980.   

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) transformed the IRGC from a hastily organized militia into a more classical military institution. The Guard Corps was instrumental in the decision at the top of the Iranian hierarchy in 1982 to invade Iraq to topple the Ba’athist Saddam Hussein after the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Iranian territory. The longest conventional conflict of the 20th century – perhaps best known for Iranian human wave attacks and Iraqi chemical weapons use - ended following the reversals of Iran’s gains in Iraqi territory, but it was a pyrrhic victory for Saddam. During the war, a network of IRGC commanders formed close bonds in the trenches, later rising to dominate the top military and security posts in the Islamic Republic. The importance of the war, or Sacred Defense as it is also known, to the IRGC and the Islamic Republic’s ethos cannot be overstated; the Guard Corps perceives that era positively and a test in which pious and revolutionary values manifested themselves.  

The IRGC underwent a significant re-organization in the 2000s under the tenure of then-chief commander Mohammad Ali Jafari. The pillars of his restructuring were merging the Basij paramilitary into the IRGC and decentralizing the IRGC units for more focus on provinces. He was also the originator of the “Mosaic Doctrine,” an asymmetric strategy designed to impose heavy costs on an invading US force.

The IRGC employs mostly legacy Western, Chinese, and Soviet-era weapon systems, with some newer domestically produced systems. The Islamic Republic regularly projects military capability in its propaganda that’s beyond its actual means, though its core strength lies in its large ballistic missile inventory, littoral naval capabilities, and proxies abroad, as the US Defense Intelligence Agency has noted.

Since 1989, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has relied heavily on the IRGC to assert and expand his position, creating a symbiotic relationship that has greatly enhanced the IRGC’s formal and informal influence, transforming it into a center of power. Khamenei blessed the expansion of IRGC’s intervention in domestic Iranian politics, particularly during the era of Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). The IRGC has long viewed the Reformists, the former Islamic left in the 1980s, with deep suspicion and as agents of the West. During the 1999 student protests, the top IRGC command penned a letter to Khatami warning him of a coup d’état if he didn’t take a more forceful position in cracking down on students. The Guard Corps was also instrumental in cracking down on the 2009 post-election protests and was at the forefront of developing and expanding the capability of the police state. An example of that has been deeper cooperation with the Law Enforcement Forces. The IRGC and Basij paramilitary were instrumental in cracking down in the December 2017-January 2018 and the November 2019 protests, the latter of which was especially bloody, in which at least hundreds were killed. 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.” Today, the IRGC is poised to shape succession for the next Supreme Leader.

The IRGC has also assumed a pervasive 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. During the 2005-2013 presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this process accelerated 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. The IRGC Cooperative Foundation and the Basij Cooperative Foundation are also vehicles through which the IRGC has intervened in the Iranian economy, controlling and overseeing vast networks of companies in virtually every sector. The IRGC furthermore holds vast stakes in the underground and shadow economy.

The Guard Corps’ business ventures generate revenues for its operations, making it difficult to estimate the actual full budget at its disposal. The official budgets passed in the Parliament are not fully transparent either. For instance, the final budget passed for the IRGC in the 2021-2022 fiscal year was reportedly 62% greater than the proposed budget at 89 trillion tuman ($7.7 billion calculated at a budget exchange rate of 11,500 tuman to the dollar).

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 but does not answer to the Presidency. The IRGC’s mission combines traditional military roles with a relentless focus on pursuing domestic dissenters.

IRGC Overall Commander, who since 2019 has been long-time senior commander Major General Hossein Salami, oversees the entire Guard Corps. His second-in-command is Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, who previously was the IRGC Navy chief.

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. Islamic Republic 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 technically falls under the Armed Forces General Staff. The staff itself, however, is dominated by IRGC commanders. The staff also oversees the Artesh and the national police force.

Quds Force

The Quds (Jerusalem) Force is a distinct branch of the Guard Corps tasked with external operations. A US official described it as “a CIA, Pentagon, and State Department all rolled into one.” The force’s primary task, and its greatest success, has been sponsoring, training, and overseeing paramilitary groups in the Middle East.

Historical records indicate that a Quds Corps existed during the 1980s, which undertook some sponsorship of foreign paramilitary groups. After the Iran-Iraq War and organization structuring around 1990, the Quds Force was established as a distinct branch of the IRGC. It recruited veterans from IRGC intelligence and the Ramezan Base, which orchestrated Iraqi insurgent support against Ba’athist Saddam Hussein during the war. The force’s first deployment was during the Bosnian war.

The Quds Force has played an active role in providing training and weapons to extremist groups, including Iraqi insurgents, Lebanese Hezbollah, and others. The group’s commander was Major General Qassem Soleimani, who oversaw the force’s insurgency against US and coalition forces in Iraq, and grew to one of the most powerful players in Iraq who’d shape the selections of several prime ministers. Soleimani played an instrumental role in directing the Islamic Republic’s intervention in Syria to defend President Bashar al-Assad at any cost. Soleimani became an internet celebrity and superstar after photos of him next to fighters started emerging following the Islamic State incursion into Iraq in 2014. The Islamic Republic cultivated a cult of personality around Soleimani. 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 beyond their national geography. 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.

Ground Forces

Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour has acted as the IRGC Ground Forces Commander since 2010. The Ground Forces are divided into 32 provincial units and have several regional headquarters. The Ground Forces have special forces units called the Sabereen, who are attached to the provincial units. The Ground Forces oversee and train Basij paramilitary units in the provinces. The Ground Forces were deployed in the Syrian war to augment the Quds Force. Ground Forces units stationed in periphery areas of Iran are experienced in counter-insurgency, with units fighting Kurdish groups in the northwest and heavily deployed in the conflict. The Ground Forces are organized to step into as a last resort in their provinces in case protests and unrest spiral out of the control of security forces like anti-riot police.

Navy

The IRGC Navy is primarily in charge of the Persian Gulf operational area, while the Artesh Navy oversees the Sea of Oman operational zone. Its chief commander since 2018 has been Read Admiral Alireza Tangsiri, who was previously the Navy deputy commander. The Navy has been known for aggressive encounters with the US Navy in the area. Its doctrine is oriented toward waging asymmetric warfare against the technologically superior US. The Navy has invested immensely in honing its asymmetric warfare capabilities, such as naval mines, small boats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and fast-attack craft.

Aerospace Forces

The Aerospace Forces control the strategic missile arsenal, the largest in the Middle East. Since the Air Force was restructured into the Aerospace Forces in late 2009, its commander has been Ami-Ali Hajizadeh. Missiles have constituted a pillar of the Islamic Republic’s long-range striking capabilities since it has not updated and upgraded warplanes and jets following international sanctions. Initially trained by Libyans and Syrians, the Guard Corps Aerospace Forces has steadily progressed and developed the scope and range of its arsenal. It has developed missiles based on North Korean technology. The Aerospace Forces have also invested heavily in drone technology, steadily developing an increasingly robust fleet. In 2020, the Aerospace Forces launched the Nur-1 military satellite into orbit.

Intelligence Organization 

The importance of the IRGC Intelligence Organization merits it to constitute the unofficial 5th branch of the IRGC. Following the 2009 post-election protests, the top commander upgraded the IRGC Intelligence Directorate into an organization, expanding its budget and activities. The organization has been primarily in charge of counterintelligence and internal security, and has been behind the arrests of dual citizens in recent years. The intelligence organization has been led by Hossein Taeb, former Basij paramilitary chief and close to Mojtaba Khamenei, the most politically active of the Supreme Leader’s children.

The Basij

The Basij militia—whose name means “mobilization”—is a paramilitary organization that falls under the IRGC. 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 presents itself as a popular volunteer association, although it is very much an organ of the state. Officials claim the Basij overall has millions of members. But the actual figure is estimated to be far lower.

Since its establishment after Iran’s 1979 revolution, the Basij militia has overseen state-sanctioned domestic abuses. 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 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.

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 AfghanistanArgentinaAustriaBahrainGermanyIndiaIraqIsraelMexicoSaudi 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. In October 2019, the IRGC’s intelligence organization lured dissident Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, who had written critically of the regime’s brutal suppression of the protests that erupted in 2017, out of exile in Paris to Iraq and subsequently abducted him and returned him to Tehran. Zam was hanged in December 2020 by the Iranian regime after being convicted on charges of “corruption on earth.” 

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 the 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.”

On September 4. 2019, the U.S. issued a reward of up to $15 million for information leading to the disruption of the financial mechanisms of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its branches, including the IRGC-Quds Force (IRGC-QF).

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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