Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards
by Afshon Ostovar
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 306 pp. $34.95
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
One of the biggest holes in scholarship about Iran has been a deep, detailed analysis of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) since the 1993 study, Warriors of Islam by Kenneth Katzman, a Library of Congress specialist. That has now changed, first with Danish scholar Ali Alfoneh's 2013 Iran Unveiled and then with Vanguard of the Imam by Ostrovar, a long-time Iran analyst, now at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Ostovar traces the growth of the IRGC from its origins as a rag-tag militia, through its role in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), to its current position as perhaps Iran's major internal power center. He also explores the organization's "export of revolution" and its sponsorship of groups such as Hezbollah and various Iraqi militias. For Ostovar, the IRGC is not just an ideological military; its contours are the product of "pro-clerical, coercive activism," devotion to the Iranian supreme leader, and the outgrowth of military conflict during its formative years.
Still, the book is not without faults. The author sometimes sacrifices detail to fluidity of narrative. He pays only passing attention to the IRGC's considerable economic empire, something that effectively gives it autonomy from political control. Ostovar assumes the sincerity of Iran's purported reformers and does not consider that their posture toward the United States might simply be part of a (successful) good-cop, bad-cop strategy. Indeed, so-called reformist politicians have openly bragged that their moderate rhetoric provided cover for a rapid expansion of Iran's nuclear program.
Ostovar places too much faith in the legitimacy of Iranian elections and, most bizarrely, embraces the debunked notion that in 2003, the Islamic Republic offered the United States a "grand bargain" to resolve all outstanding issues. To believe that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei endorsed such a deal flies in the face of decades of Iranian negotiating behavior, let alone the emails of Iran's then-U.N. ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif, and raises questions more broadly about Ostovar's other assessments.
Nevertheless, at least for an understanding of the foundation and development of the IRGC, Vanguard of the Imam is a good place to start and a welcome addition.
 Boulder: Westview Press.
 Washington, D.C.: AEI Press.
Related Topics: Iran | Michael Rubin | Spring 2017 MEQ
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