The fifth session of the Iran Working Group, jointly organized by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the United States Institute of Peace, was held on November 13, 2008, at the Brookings Institution. The featured speakers were Dr. Michael Connell, director of Project Iran at the Center for Naval Analyses, and Dr. Kenneth Katzman, specialist in Middle East Affairs at the Congressional Research Service and author of The Warriors of Islam: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The discussion focused on the structure, strategy, and capabilities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The topic and speakers were introduced by Suzanne Maloney of the Saban Center and Daniel Brumberg of the United States Institute of Peace.
The session began with a discussion of the history of the IRGC, dating back to its development from the loosely organized, irregular militia groups active in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Its difference from Iran’s regular army (or Artesh) has made it a unique force in the world since its creation – unlike the Artesh, which is charged with the defense of the territory of Iran, the IRGC was explicitly designed to defend the revolution itself; this has been interpreted as a justification for a variety of domestic and foreign activities. The Qods Force, used by the IRGC to engage in missions abroad, is seen as being rooted in the 1979 Constitution, which called for the support of liberation movements worldwide.
Over time, the IRGC has attained a position of dominance vis-à-vis the Artesh, with its officers, or sardars, more trusted and better compensated than Artesh officers, who have expressed discontent at their marginalization. Coordination problems and rivalries between the two forces have led to talk of combining them surfacing as early as the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but these have been suppressed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He wishes to conserve the independence of the IRGC, which ultimately reports directly to him, in spite of an official joint staff body which was ostensibly created to oversee both branches of Iran’s military.
Khamenei himself held high positions in the Iranian defense architecture during the 1980s, developing close personal ties to IRGC officers, and as Supreme Leader he has consistently surrounded himself with senior advisers drawn from the ranks of the force. One participant suggested that he has relied on strong support among the IRGC to compensate for his weak clerical credentials that have left him deprived of a strong base among the ulema for someone of such a high position. The participant also asserted that this reliance has crafted a bureaucratic echo chamber, with the Supreme Leader’s information and assessment of military affairs coming from the same school of thought, irrespective of the turnover among those advising him.
The discussion then turned to the political influence exerted by the IRGC throughout its history. One participant summed up the manner in which the force justifies political intervention by quoting Yadollah Javani, the head of the IRGC’s political bureau: “If the duty of the Guard is to counter threats, it does not make any difference what the nature of the threat is. If we say the duty of the Guard Corps is only military confrontation, then the Guard Corps can no longer be expected to guard and protect the Islamic Revolution. But if according to the Constitution we consider the mission and philosophy of the Guard Corps is to be guarding the Islamic revolution and its gains, obviously the Guard Corps must have all of the necessary mechanisms for countering any threat, whether military or civilian.”
This philosophy has led to a variety of political activities by the IRGC. In the years immediately following the revolution, the corps was heavily involved in the crushing of domestic opposition parties such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq and Tudeh, and remained prominent in internal politics throughout the duration of the Iran-Iraq war before retreating somewhat from the political sphere between 1989 and 1997. However, the election of Mohammad Khatami as president prompted a fear among IRGC leaders that reformists constituted a potential third column that could threaten the very principles of the revolution. This led to joint efforts with Khamenei to essentially create a shadow government that strengthened the Supreme National Security Council, removing the nuclear program from Khatami’s purview, and violently put down the student protests of 1999 via the use of its Basij militia arm. Further, 24 senior IRGC officials published an open letter to Khatami condemning the student unrest as “intolerable”, which, as one participant suggested, was a subtle message that if Khatami didn’t take action to restore stability in the nation, they would.
The Ahmadinejad era has seen a more overt political role for the IRGC. Ahmadinejad himself served in the Basij during the Iran-Iraq War. Elected largely due to popular discontent with many elite ruling clerics who were widely associated with corruption by much of the public, the president seized on the opportunity to usher in a new ruling class in which IRGC affiliation became a valued credential. Nearly half of his cabinet is made up of IRGC veterans. In addition, the veteran class established a strong presence in the Majlis – in the elections for the Eighth Majlis held earlier this year, 31.5% of approved candidates were veterans, including 80 of the 290 who won election. The elections themselves were overseen by Alireza Afshar, Deputy Minister of the Interior and a former IRGC commander.
These political activities, it was noted, have incurred criticism from some members of Iran’s political elite. The influential conservative cleric Hassan Rowhani has spoken against the IRGC’s heightened political power, and Seyed Hasan Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founding leader, was quoted as saying that the presence of the military on the political scene is “tantamount to an end to political discourse” and threatens his grandfather’s political legacy. However, the younger Khomeini was loudly attacked for this statement by hardline supporters of the President and the military elite, including Major General Firuzabadi, head of the Joint Staff.
The topic of the involvement of the IRGC in the economy was then discussed. Article 147 of Iran’s constitution is seen as an endorsement of the force’s economic activities, as it demands that the government must use the personnel and equipment of the army “for productive ends” during peacetime. Subsequently, the IRGC has undertaken a vast range of industrial projects, many through its Khatam ol-Anbiya (KoA) construction branch, which boasts 40,000 employees and an estimated annual turnover of $12 billion. It expanded from military engineering to rebuilding Iran’s infrastructure after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, serving as a way to use unemployed soldiers for government projects. As privatization began under Rafsanjani, the IRGC ironically found opportunities to take part and to start its own firms. In addition to linking itself with parastatal bonyad organizations, it has succeeded in building front organizations that have enabled it to circumvent sanctions. After building up extensive business in the transportation, construction, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors, it has also expanded into the oil and gas sector, with a $1.3 billion contract for a domestic pipeline and a $2.3 billion contract for development of two phases of the South Pars gas field, defeating a better qualified Norwegian company to win the latter deal.
The changing nature of the IRGC’s military structure was also discussed. A series of reforms to create a “Mosaic Defense” has been enacted with Ayatollah Khamenei’s approval, establishing 31 provincial commands to foster greater decision-making at the local level. The official reason for the reforms is to enhance the IRGC’s “combat capability” – one participant suggested this likely means that the force is seeking greater responsiveness to a potential US invasion and insurance against a decapitation strike of its leadership. The same participant also suggested that the move could be inspired by a desire to be better able to deal with local dissent activity in an immediate manner. Further, the decentralization is meshed with an enhanced emphasis on popular resistance and guerilla tactics – with strategies relying heavily on the Basij – that could be used to respond to an invasion. It was suggested that this localization does not remove the oversight of senior leaders from repeated actions, but can allow for some actions to be taken independently, such as when immediate crises arise.
The IRGC Navy and its activities have been expanded, particularly in the Persian Gulf. One participant suggested that this fact, coupled with the new move toward decentralization of command, could make the prospect of an unexpected conflict with American or British naval vessels in the Gulf much more likely. In addition, one participant suggested that the IRGC considers its ability to wage asymmetric warfare among its greatest strengths. In the naval sphere alone, it has built up considerable capabilities toward this end, such as small boats, mines, and training in hit-and-run tactics.
Another recent shift in the IRGC has been an increased emphasis on strategic thinking. Three years ago, the guard set up its own think tank, the Strategic Research Center, which is reported to be fairly dynamic, according to one participant. It is already firmly entrenched in the highest echelon of the IRGC – current commander Jafari was the director of the Center before assuming command, and the current head of the Center, Ali Akbar Ahmadian, was chosen from his previous post as head of the IRGC Navy.
The IRGC’s activities abroad were discussed as well. One participant argued that the Qods Force is the IRGC’s most successful unit, supporting well-established foreign groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, giving the latter an estimated $200 million in arms yearly. It appears to be well established in the supply network of the Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) in Iraq, with an estimated two Qods supervisors in each province in which the militia is active, funding the pro-Sadr forces and arranging shipments on their behalf. There is even evidence that some in the force have transferred explosives to certain members of the Taliban – a longtime enemy of Iran – for use against NATO troops. International sanctions have also been levied on many IRGC commanders for involvement in proliferation activities, but these have been weak measures, largely in the form of trade and travel bans that have gone unenforced by some nations.
One participant suggested that, overall, the increasing role of the IRGC in Iran’s national security decision-making is likely to exert great influence on the regime’s worldview in addition to undermining the importance of the clergy in the regime’s highest corridors. Eventually, it was suggested, the IRGC could become the main source of the Supreme Leader’s power, and become tantamount to an Iranian Praetorian Guard. Alternatively, it was suggested by the same participant, the expansion of the IRGC’s activities could also lead to overreaching and a loss of cohesiveness, eventually diminishing its power as an organization.
Another participant discussed what can be interpreted as signs of weakness for the IRGC, seeking to dispel any exaggeration of its strength. Among other evidence, this participant cited the resignation of longtime commander Mohsen Rezai after the electoral victory of Khatami in 1997, failed tests of prominently touted long-range ballistic missiles, the force’s collapse at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, and the fact that Khamenei did not appear to have enough confidence to launch an invasion of the joint military forces into Afghanistan after the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats in 1998. This participant also suggested that the IRGC itself has suffered from overestimating its own capabilities, reminiscent of its willingness to engage with US warships during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 that resulted in the loss of approximately half of its fleet. It was suggested that Khamenei knows the realistic catastrophic outcome that would likely come from a conflict with the US and works to restrain the IRGC’s zeal on occasions, whereas Ahmadinejad tends to prefer to act provocatively, encouraging a belligerent attitude from the IRGC leadership.
Current commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari has emphasized the potential threat from a “velvet revolution”, which he and other leaders believe could spring from civil unrest supported by Washington. Given this fear, one participant asserted that the Guard leadership sees ideological weakness as a major threat from within, due to the decrease in devotion to the ideals of the revolution among both the general population and the IRGC soldiers. This is seen as one reason for the increasing role of the Basij, whose mainly volunteer members tend to be more zealous believers in the revolutionary ideology. But the lack of strong indoctrination among much of the force was analyzed by one participant as a potential existential threat to the regime’s stability should a massive street movement arise on the level of that which brought down the Shah – much as many in the Shah’s security forces rejected their orders and refrained from violently cracking down on their fellow citizens, IRGC soldiers ordered to fire on a million-strong throng in Tehran might refuse to side with their commanders.
Further, participants suggested that although popular perceptions among the Iranian population are difficult to discern, it appears that the force is tied to the regime in the eyes of most Iranians. There appears to be discontent with the Guard among the traditional commercial elements of Iranian society, such as the bazaar, who are troubled by the heavy incursions of the force into the economy. While the IRGC has taken advantage of opportunities to gain influence in the economic, political, and military spheres of Iranian society, the unintended consequence is that any romantic, idealized view of the Revolutionary Guard is virtually non-existent in Iranian society.