Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is an Iranian government agency tasked with defending 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
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 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.
The Quds Force is a special branch of the IRGC tasked with achieving 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 group’s commander is Major General Qasem Soleimani, who serves 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 is also said to coordinate much of Iran’s support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. Soleimani’s prominence has aroused jealousy in some circles, and he has clashed at times with IRGC commanders over the extent of his authority.
As a government body, the IRGC enjoyed a budget of approximately $1.7 billion for the 2013-2014 year. The IRGC is also Iran’s most powerful economic actor, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, which 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.”
While Iran was under sanctions for its nuclear program, the IRGC controlled economic deals worth billions of dollars. For example, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the IRGC control over a large part of Iran’s South Pars natural-gas field in 2010 after European companies withdrew. Contracts for the field were reportedly worth $21 billion.
Since Iran and world powers reached their 2015 nuclear deal in exchange for lifting economic sanctions, the Iranian government has reportedly sought to separate the IRGC from the Iranian economy. While economic sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear deal have been lifted, sanctions against the IRGC remain in place and could prevent 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 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 worlds, 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. The United States has also accused the Quds Force of training and mobilizing Shiite militias in Iraq.
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.
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.
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, including Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani.