The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) (in Persian: سپاه پاسداران انقلاب اسلامی, translit. Sepâh-e Pâsdârân-e Enghelâb-e Eslâmi, lit. ‘Army of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution’ or Sepâh for short) is a branch of Iran’s Armed Forces founded after 1979 Revolution on 22 April 1979 by order of Ayatollah Khomeini. Whereas the regular military (or Artesh) defends Iran’s borders and maintains internal order, according to the Iranian constitution, the Revolutionary Guard (pasdaran) is intended to protect the country’s Islamic Republic system. The Revolutionary Guards state that their role in protecting the Islamic system is preventing foreign interference as well as coups by the military or “deviant movements”.
The Revolutionary Guards have roughly 125,000 military personnel including ground, aerospace and naval forces. Its naval forces are now the primary forces tasked with operational control of the Persian Gulf. It also controls the paramilitary Basij militia which has about 90,000 active personnel. Its media arm is Sepah News.
Since its origin as an ideologically driven militia, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution has taken a greater role in nearly every aspect of Iranian society. Its expanded social, political, military and economic role under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration—especially during the 2009 presidential election and post-election suppression of protest—has led many Western analysts to argue that its political power has surpassed even that of the Shia clerical system.
The Chief Commander of the Guardians since 2007 is Mohammad Ali Jafari, who was preceded by Yahya Rahim Safavi from 1997.
In Iran, due to the frequent use of referencing government organizations with one word names (that generally denote their function) as opposed to acronyms or shortened versions, the entire general populace universally refer to the organization as Sepâh (سپاه). Sepâh has a historical connotation of soldiers, while in modern Persian it is also used to describe a corps sized unit, in modern Persian Artesh (ارتش) is the more standard term for an army. Pâsdârân (پاسداران) is the plural form of Pâsdâr (پاسدار), which means “Guardian”. Members of Sepah are known as Pāsdār, which is also their title and comes after their rank.
The Iranian Government, media, and those who identify with the organization generally use Sepāh-e Pâsdârân (Army of the Guardians), although it is not uncommon to hear Pâsdârân-e Enghelâb (پاسداران انقلاب) (Guardians of the Revolution), or simply Pâsdârân (پاسداران) (Guardians) as well. It should be noted though that among the Iranian population, and especially among diaspora Iranians, using the word Pasdaran normally indicates admiration for the organization.
Most foreign governments and the English-speaking mass media tend to use the term Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) or simply the Revolutionary Guards. In the US media, the force is frequently referred to interchangeably as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The US government standard is Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, while the United Nations uses Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The force’s main role is in national security. It is responsible for internal and border security, law enforcement, and also Iran’s missile forces. IRGC operations are geared towards asymmetric warfare and less traditional duties. These include the control of smuggling, control of the Strait of Hormuz, and resistance operations. The IRGC is intended to complement the more traditional role of the regular Iranian military, with the two forces operating separately and focusing on different operational roles.
The IRGC is a combined arms force with its own ground forces, navy, air force, intelligence, and special forces. It also controls the Basijmilitia. The Basij is a volunteer-based force, with 90,000 regular soldiers and 300,000 reservists. The IRGC is officially recognized as a component of the Iranian military under Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution. It is separate from, and parallel to, the other arm of Iran’s military, which is called Artesh (another Persian word for army). Especially in the waters of the Persian Gulf, the IRGC is expected to assume control of any Iranian response to attacks on its nuclear facilities.
History and structure:
The IRGC was formed on 5 May 1979 following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in an effort to consolidate several paramilitary forces into a single force loyal to the new government and to function as a counter to the influence and power of the regular military, initially seen as a potential source of opposition because of its traditional loyalty to the Shah. From the beginning of the new Islamic government, the Pasdaran (Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami) functioned as a corps of the faithful. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic entrusted the defense of Iran’s territorial integrity and political independence to the regular military (artesh), while it gave the Pasdaran the responsibility of preserving the Revolution itself.
Days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran on 1 February 1979, the Bazargan interim administration established the Pasdaran under a decree issued by Khomeini on 5 May. The Pasdaran was intended to protect the Revolution and to assist the ruling clerics in the day-to-day enforcement of the new government’s Islamic codes and morality. There were other, perhaps more important, reasons for establishing the Pasdaran. The Revolution needed to rely on a force of its own rather than borrowing the previous regime’s tainted units. As one of the first revolutionary institutions, the Pasdaran helped legitimize the Revolution and gave the new government an armed basis of support. Moreover, the establishment of the Pasdaran served notice to both the population and the regular armed forces that the Khomeini government was quickly developing its own enforcement body. Thus, the Pasdaran, along with its political counterpart, Crusade for Reconstruction, brought a new order to Iran. In time, the Pasdaran would rival the police and the judiciary in terms of its functions. It would even challenge the performance of the regular armed forces on the battlefield.
Although the IRGC operated independently of the regular armed forces, it was often considered to be a military force in its own right due to its important role in Iranian defense. The IRGC consists of ground, naval, and aviation troops, which parallel the structure of the regular military. Unique to the Pasdaran, however, has been control of Iran’s strategic missile and rocket forces.
Also contained under the umbrella of the more conventional Pasdaran, were the Basij Forces (Mobilization Resistance Force), a network of potentially up to a million active individuals who could be called upon in times of need. The Basij could be committed to assist in the defense of the country against internal or external threats, but by 2008 had also been deployed in mobilizing voters in elections and alleged tampering during such activities. Another element was the Quds Force, a special forces element tasked with unconventional warfare roles and known to be involved providing assistance and training to various militant organizations around the world.
Yahya Rahim Safavi, head of the IRGC since 1997, was dismissed as commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdarans) in August 2007. The dismissal of general Yahya Rahim Safavi disrupted the balance of power in Iran to the advantage of conservatives. Analysis in the international press considered the removal of Yahya Rahim Safavi to be a sign of change in the defense strategies of Iran, but the general policies of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are not personally determined by its commander.
In late July 2008 reports originating that the IRGC was in the process of dramatically changing its structure. In a shake-up, in September 2008 Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Pasdarans) established 31 divisions and an autonomous missile command.The new structure changes the IRGC from a centralized to a decentralized force with 31 provincial corps, whose commanders wield extensive authority and power. According to the plan, each of Iran’s thirty provinces will have a provincial corps, except Tehran Province, which will have two.
The Basij is a paramilitary volunteer militia founded by the order of the Ayatollah Khomeini in November 1979. The Basij are (at least in theory) subordinate to, and receive their orders from, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. However they have also been described as “a loosely allied group of organizations” including “many groups controlled by local clerics.” Currently, the Basij serve as an auxiliary force engaged in activities such as internal security as well as law enforcement auxiliary, the providing of social service, organizing of public religious ceremonies, and as morality police and the suppression of dissident gatherings.
The elite Quds Force (or Jerusalem Force), sometimes described as the successor to the Shah’s Imperial Guards, is estimated to be 2,000–5,000 in number. It is a special operations unit, handling activities abroad. The force basically does not engage directly.
Aerospace Force of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution
Once thought of as the IRGC’s air force, complete with air combat fighter aircraft, the Aerospace Force, now is more likely to be a combination of army aviation unit, the equivalent of the Iranian Army’s Islamic Republic of Iran Army Aviation, and as a strategic missile force.
IRGC started naval operations using mainly swarm tactics and speedboats during “Tanker War” phase of the Iran–Iraq War.
IRGC Navy and the regular Artesh Navy overlap functions and areas of responsibility, but they are distinct in terms of how they are trained and equipped—and more importantly also in how they fight. The Revolutionary Guards Navy has a large inventory of small fast attack craft, and specializes in asymmetric hit-and-run tactics. It is more akin to a guerrilla force at sea, and maintains large arsenals of coastal defense and anti-ship cruise missiles and mines. It has also a Takavar (special force) unit, called Sepah Navy Special Force (S.N.S.F.).
The Ansar-ul-Mahdi (Followers of Imam Mahdi (12th Shia Imam) Corps is primarily responsible for the protection of top officials of government and parliament (excluding the Supreme Leader). As an elite, secretive force within the I.R.G.C Ground force, its officers are entrusted with many other special assignments, such as Counter Intelligence & Covert Operations beyond Iran’s borders.
The corps has four layers of protection for top officials and the agents go to each layer according to their experience and loyalty. The current commander of Ansar-Ul-Mehdi is Colonel Asad Zadeh.
The IISS Military Balance 2007 says the IRGC has 125,000+ personnel and controls the Basij on mobilisation. It estimates the IRGC Ground and Aerospace Forces are 100,000 strong and is ‘very lightly manned’ in peacetime. It estimates there are up to 20 infantry divisions, some independent brigades, and one airborne brigade.
The IISS estimates the IRGC Naval Forces are 20,000 strong including 5,000 Marines in one brigade of three or four Marine Battalions., and are equipped with some coastal defence weapons (some HY-2/CSS-C-3 Seersucker SSM batteries and some artillery batteries) and 50 patrol boats (including 10 Chinese Houdang fast attack craft). The IRGC air arm, says the IISS, controls Iran’s strategic missile force and has an estimated one brigade of Shahab-1/2 with 12–18 launchers, and a Shahab-3 unit. The IISS says of the Shahab-3 unit ‘estimated 1 battalion with estimated 6 single launchers each with estimated 4 Shahab-3 strategic IRBM.’
- Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari (Commander-in-chief)
- Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi (Chief of the Joint Staff)
- Brigadier General Mohammad Pakvar (Revolutionary Guards’ Ground Forces)
- Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh (Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force)
- Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi (Revolutionary Guards’ Navy)
- Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi (Commander of the Mobilized Basij forces)
- Major General Qassem Suleimani (Quds Force) General Suleimani was responsible for negotiating several accords between Iraqi political figures.
- Brigadier General Abdol-Ali Najafi (Ansar-ol-Mahdi Corps)
Lebanon Civil War:
During the Lebanese Civil War, the IRGC allegedly sent troops to train fighters in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In Lebanon, political parties had staunch opinions regarding the IRGC’s presence. Some, mainly the Christian militias such as the Lebanese Forces, Phalanges, and most of the Christian groups declared war on the IRGC, claiming they violated Lebanese sovereignty, while others, including Muslim militias, were neutral to their presence. Groups such as the PSP and Mourabiton did not approve of their presence, but to preserve political alliances they decided to remain silent on the matter.
2006 Lebanon War:
During the 2006 Lebanon War, several Iranian Revolutionary Guards were reportedly killed by Israeli forces in Baalbek, a town close to the Syrian border. Israeli officials believe that Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces were responsible for training and equipping the Hezbollah fighters behind the missile attack on the INS Hanit which left four Israeli sailors dead and seriously damaged the vessel.
2006 plane crash:
In January 2006, an IRGC Falcon crashed near Oroumieh, about 560 miles northwest of Tehran, near the Turkish border, Iranian media reported. All fifteen passengers died, including twelve senior IRGC commanders. Among the dead was General Ahmad Kazemi, the IRGC ground forces commander, and Iran–Iraq War veteran.
Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, spokesman for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, told state radio that both of the plane’s engines had failed, its landing gear had jammed, and there was snow and poor visibility at the time.
Possible attacks on Quds Force:
On 7 July 2008, investigative journalist and author Seymour Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker stating that the Bush Administration had signed a Presidential Findingauthorizing the CIA’s Special Activities Division to begin cross border paramilitary operations from Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran. These operations would be against the Quds Force, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that had been blamed for repeated acts of violence in Iraq, and “high-value targets” in the war on terror.
October 2009 Pishin bombing:
In October 2009, several top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide bombing in the Pishin region of Sistan-Baluchistan, in the south-east of Iran. The Iranian state television said 31 people died in the attack, and more than 25 were injured. Shia and Sunni tribal leaders were also killed. The Sunni Baluchi insurgent group, Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack. The Iranian government initially blamed the United States for involvement in the attacks, as well as Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and later Pakistan for their alleged support of the Jundallah group. The United States denied involvement, but some reports of US assistance to Jundallah during the Bush administration have come from Western sources. The attacks appear to have originated in Pakistan and several suspects have been arrested.
In Syria, 2011–present:
Prior to the Syrian war, Iran had between 2,000 and 3,000 IRGC officers stationed in Syria, helping to train local troops and managing supply routes of arms and money to neighboring Lebanon.
General Qa’ani, Senior officer of Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, said: “If the Islamic Republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of civilians would have been twice as bad. Had physically and non-physically stopped the rebels from killing many more among the Syrian people.”
Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers, along with fellow Shi’ite forces from Hezbollah and members of Iran’s Basij militia participated in the capture of Qusair from rebel forces on 9 June 2013. In 2014, Iran increased its deployment of IRGC in Syria.
194 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops have been killed in Syria; almost all of these soldiers were officers, with several even reaching the rank of Brigadier. Additionally, 354 Afghan combatants died who were fighting under the command of the IRGC, as part of the IRGC-equipped and trained Fatemiyoun Brigade, which is part of Hezbollah Afghanistan. Another 21 Pakistanis also died as part of the Zainabiyoun Brigade. The Afghan and Pakistani immigrants volunteered to go to Syria in exchange for salaries and citizenship. The Afghans were recruited largely from refugees inside Iran, and usually had combat experience before joining the IRGC; their status as members of the Iranian military is only vaguely acknowledged and sometimes denied, despite the troops being uniformed fighters led by IRGC officers. They were trained and equipped in Iran, paid salaries by the Iranian military, and received state funerals involving uniformed IRGC personnel. Mid to late October 2015 was particularly bloody for the IRGC, due to them stepping up their involvement in offensives around Aleppo. During this time, 30 IRGC officers, including “three generals, battalion commanders, captains and lieutenants” and “one pilot” were killed in fighting in Syria, as were several Afghan and Pakistani auxiliaries.
The fallen include General Hossein Hamadani, Farshad Hosounizadeh (IRGC colonel and former commander of the Saberin Special Forces Brigade), Mostafa Sadrzadeh (commander of the Omar Battalion of the Fatmiyoon Brigade), and Hamid Mojtaba Mokhtarband (IRGC commander).
Two battalions of Revolutionary Guards were reported to be operating in Iraq trying to combat the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive. The IRGC is considered to be a principle backer of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a loose coalition of Shi’a militias allied with the Iraqi government in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In addition, Major General Qasem Soleimani has been an instrumental force in the Iranian ground mission in Iraq against ISIS, purportedly planning the Second Battle of Tikrit. In December 2014, Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, a veteran of the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq war, was killed by snipers in Samarra. In May 2017, Shaaban Nassiri, a senior IRGC commander was killed in combat near Mosul, Iraq.
2014 Israeli drone shoot down:
Iran revolutionary guards claimed that they had shot down an Israeli drone approaching the Natanz nuclear facility. According to ISNA, “The downed aircraft was of the stealth, radar-evasive type … and was targeted by a ground-to-air missile before it managed to enter the area.” The statement by revolutionary guards didn’t mention how they recognized it as an Israeli drone. Israel offered no comment.
Ayatollah Khomeini urged that the country’s military forces should remain unpoliticized. However, the Constitution, in Article 150, defines the IRGC as the “guardian of the Revolution and of its achievements” which is at least partly a political mission. His original views have therefore been the subject of debate. Supporters of the Basiji have argued for politicization, while reformists, moderates and Hassan Khomeini opposed it. President Rafsanjani forced military professionalization and ideological deradicalization on the IRGC to curb its political role, but the Pasdaran became natural allies of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when reformists threatened him. The IRGC grew stronger under President Ahmedinejad, and assumed formal command of the Basiji militia in early 2009.
Although never explicitly endorsing or affiliating themselves with any political parties, the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran (or Abadgaran), is widely viewed as a political front for the Revolutionary Guards. Many former members (including Ahmadinejad) have joined this party in recent years and the Revolutionary Guards have reportedly given them financial support.
As an elite group, members of Pasdaran have influence in Iran’s political world. President Ahmadinejad joined the IRGC in 1985, serving first in military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan before leaving the front line to take charge of logistics. A majority of his first cabinet consisted of IRGC veterans. Nearly one third of the members elected to Iran’s Majlis in 2004 are also “Pásdárán”. Others have been appointed as ambassadors, mayors, provincial governors and senior bureaucrats. However, IRGC veteran status does not imply a single viewpoint.
IRGC first expanded into commercial activity through informal social networking of veterans and former officials. IRGC officials confiscated assets of many refugees who had fled Iran after the fall of Abolhassan Banisadr’s government. It is now a vast conglomerate, controlling Iran’s missile batteries and nuclear program but also a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching almost all economic sectors. Estimates have it controlling between a tenth and around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.
The Los Angeles Times estimates that IRGC has ties to over one hundred companies, with its annual revenue exceeding $12 billion in business and construction. IRGC has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, as well as major infrastructure projects.
The following commercial entities have been named by the United States as owned or controlled by the IRGC and its leaders.
- Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters, the IRGC’s major engineering arm & one of Iran’s largest contractors employing about 25,000 engineers and staff on military (70%) and non-military (30%) projects worth over $7 billion in 2006.
- Oriental Oil Kish (oil and gas industry)
- Ghorb Nooh
- Sahel Consultant Engineering
- Ghorb Karbala
- Sepasad Engineering Co. (excavation and tunnel construction)
- Omran Sahel
- Hara Company (excavation and tunnel construction)
- Gharargahe Sazandegi Ghaem
- Imensazen Consultant Engineers Institute (subsidiary of Khatam al-Anbia)
- Fater Engineering Institute (subsidiary of Khatam al-Anbia)
In September 2009, the Government of Iran sold 51% of the shares of the Telecommunication Company of Iran to the Mobin Trust Consortium (Etemad-e-Mobin), a group affiliated with the Guards, for the sum of $7.8 billion. This was the largest transaction on the Tehran Stock Exchange in history. IRGC also owns 45% participation in automotive Bahman Group and has a majority stake in Iran’s naval giant SADRA through Khatam al-Anbia.
The IRGC also exerts influence over bonyads, wealthy, non-governmental ostensibly charitable foundations controlled by key clerics. The pattern of revolutionary foundations mimics the style of informal and extralegal economic networks from the time of the Shah. Their development started in the early 1990s, gathered pace over the next decade, and accelerated even more with many lucrative no-bid contracts from the Ahmadinejad presidency. The IRGC exerts informal, but real, influence over many such organizations including:
- Mostazafan Foundation (Foundation of the Oppressed or The Mostazafan Foundation)
- Bonyad Shahid va Omur-e Janbazan (Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs)
Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that the IRGC is “the spine of the current political structure and a major player in the Iranian economy.” The once theocratic state has evolved into a garrison state, like Burma, whereby the military dominates social, cultural, political, and economic life, protecting the government from internal rather than external opponents.
Greg Bruno and Jayshree Bajoria of the Council on Foreign Relations agree, stating that the IRGC has expanded well beyond its mandate and into a “socio-military-political-economic force” that deeply penetrates Iran’s power structure. “The Guards’ involvement in politics has grown to unprecedented levels since 2004, when IRCG won at least 16 percent of the 290 seats” in the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran. During the elections of March 2008, IRGC veterans won 182 out of 290 seats, helping Mahmoud Ahmadinejad consolidate power.
Half of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet was composed of former IRGC officers while several others were appointed to provincial governorships.
Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute contends that “While the presence of former IRGC officers in the cabinet is not a new phenomenon, their numbers under Ahmadinejad—they occupy nine of the twenty-one ministry portfolios—are unprecedented.” Additionally, Ahmadinejad successfully purged provincial governorships of Rafsanjani and Khatami supporters and replaced them not only with IRGC members, but also members of the Basij and the Islamic Republic prison administration.
The IRGC chief, General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, announced that the Guards’ would go through internal restructuring in order to counter “internal threats to the Islamic Republic.” Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst, argues the Guards was created to protect the government against a possible coup.
Since the disputed 2009 presidential elections, debate over how powerful the IRGC is has reemerged. Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh see the irreversible militarization of Iran’s government. Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, believes the Guards’ power actually exceeds that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Frederic Wehrey, adjunct Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation believes the Revolutionary Guards is not a cohesive unit of similar-minded conservatives but rather a factionalized institution that is hardly bent on overthrowing their masters.
From its origin as an ideologically driven militia, the IRGC has taken an ever more assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society. Its part in suppressing dissent has led many analysts to describe the events surrounding the 12 June 2009 presidential election as a military coup, and the IRGC as an authoritarian military security government for which its Shiite clerical system is no more than a facade.
Since its establishment, IRGC has been involved in many economic and military activities among which some raised controversies. The organization has been accused of smuggling (including importing illegal alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and satellite dishes, into Iran via jetties not supervised by the Government), training and supplying Hezbollah and Hamas fighters, and of being involved in the Iraq War.
In December 2009 evidence uncovered during an investigation by the Guardian newspaper and Guardian Films linked the IRGC to the kidnappings of 5 Britons from a government ministry building in Baghdad in 2007. Three of the hostages, Jason Creswell, Jason Swindlehurst and Alec Maclachlan, were killed. Alan Mcmenemy’s body was never found but Peter Moore was released on 30 December 2009. The investigation uncovered evidence that Moore, 37, a computer expert from Lincoln was targeted because he was installing a system for the Iraqi Government that would show how a vast amount of international aid was diverted to Iran’s militia groups in Iraq.
According to Geneive Abdo IRGC members were appointed “as ambassadors, mayors, cabinet ministers, and high-ranking officials at state-run economic institutions” during the administration of president Ahmadinejad. Appointments in 2009 by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have given “hard-liners” in the guard “unprecedented power” and included “some of the most feared and brutal men in Iran.”