The 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.
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 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. 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.
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 13382, 13553, 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.