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Nearly all of Iran's headline-grabbing provocations in the last few months, from sabotaging and seizing oil tankers to drone attacks on Saudi pipelines, are the work not of its traditional military service branches, but of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
This shadowy paramilitary institution was established by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini with the constitutional mandate of "guarding" the 1979 revolution that gave rise to Iran's Islamic Republic from enemies at home and abroad. It has been extraordinarily effective in both stamping out internal dissent and battling external adversaries.
The roughly 125,000-strong IRGC grew out of the protection forces that guarded Khomeini and other senior clerics (who distrusted military and police bodies inherited from the Shah) in the early days of the revolution.
It soon moved on to assassinating opponents of the nascent Islamic republic, violently enforcing its strict social codes, and muscling its way into every corner of Iranian society. Its volunteer paramilitary militia, the Basij (Nirou-ye Moqavemat-e Basij, Mobilization Resistance Force), infamous in the West for organizing human wave attacks during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, has millions of members.
The university branch of the Basij, the Student Basij Organization (SBO), has played a critical role in monitoring and suppressing anti-government dissent among students, as shown by Middle East Quarterly author Saeid Golkar, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. It was instrumental in suppressing the massive nation-wide protests that erupted following Iran's 2009 presidential election.
The IRGC does not answer to elected officials, only to the Supreme Leader.
Unlike Iran's traditional military and police, the IRGC does not answer to elected Iranian leaders and has frequently stirred opposition to their policies. But the wishful assumption of many Westerners that the IRGC is a "rogue" institution (the antidote to which is invariably engagement with elected "moderates") is false. "The group has seldom engaged in activities not sanctioned by the Iranian leadership," concludes Middle East Quarterly author Michael Rubin, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute. Answering directly, without intermediaries, to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it is the purest expression of the Islamic Republic's authority.
That's not to say the IRGC is an obedient lapdog or doesn't have an agenda. Elected Iranian leaders – especially President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) – found that the easiest way to blunt IRGC interference was to lavish state contracts on companies owned by current and former IRGC officials. However, as Middle East Quarterly author Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains, in so doing they gave rise to massive IRGC conglomerates that dominate the Iranian economy – especially the energy, construction, and telecommunications sectors – and "a unified and consolidated elite" vested in protecting these interests.
Former IRGC commanders have risen to the fore of the political and cultural spheres.
Moreover, former IRGC commanders have risen to the fore of the political and cultural spheres in Iran. President Hassan Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and nearly half his cabinet ministers were former IRGC officers. Alfoneh then warned that the IRGC's growing power could "make Khamenei a prisoner of his own Praetorian Guard, paving the way for a military dictatorship."
However, so long as Khamenei and the IRGC maintain a united public front, it's difficult to determine precisely who is calling the shots. The recent succession of unprecedented violent operations against Iran's foreign enemies by the IRGC and its proxies (see below), which began two weeks after Khamenei abruptly replaced IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari with his more bellicose deputy, General Hossein Salami, is consistent with either reading of the Iranian power structure.
The IRGC's forty-year war against the Islamic Republic's foreign enemies – spearheaded by its elite Qods Force – is a masterpiece of asymmetric warfare.
Early on, the Qods Force proved adept at cultivating regional proxies and clients well-suited to the geographic, political, and demographic conditions of their host countries. In Lebanon and southern Iraq, home to deeply aggrieved minority Shi'a communities, it established full-blown revolutionary movements in Khomeini's image (Hezbollah and what's now known as the Badr Organization, respectively). In Palestinian areas, where there were no Shi'a to waken, the IRGC supported both the Sunni Islamist Hamas movement and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a purely military organization characterized by MEF Ginsburg/Ingerman Fellow Jonathan Spyer as a "wholly owned franchise of the IRGC." In northern Iraq, where there were few Shi'a but conditions were ideal for insurgency, the Qods Force assisted Kurdish peshmerga fighting Saddam Hussein.
The IRGC is adept at cultivating proxies well-suited to local conditions.
Strategically, the IRGC aspired to create a contiguous corridor of control from Iranian territory to the Mediterranean. However, opportunities for establishing an IRGC presence in most Arab states (including Syria, despite the Assad regime's alliance with Iran) were limited prior to 2011 by their relative political stability. Since the so-called "Arab Spring," however, the contraction or collapse of state authority in several key countries has made the Qods Force "an instrument perfectly suited for the moment that the region is currently passing through," writes Spyer, and turned its leader, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, into a household name in the Middle East.
In Yemen, the IRGC provided weapons and supplies to Houthi rebels who seized the capital in 2015 and have doggedly resisted in the face of Saudi-led intervention on behalf of the internationally recognized government. This success is testimony to the IRGC's "unsurpassed skill in the practice of political and paramilitary warfare," writes Spyer, and the Saudis having "no parallel ability to use clients."
Profiles of IRGC-backed Syrian Militias
Its skill in counterinsurgency has proven to be equally unsurpassed. Spyer credits the IRGC with saving the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Rather than seeking to beef up the country's uniformed military as per the West's counter-insurgency playbook, the IRGC helped recruit, train, and finance a network of indigenous pro-government militias, supplemented by thousands of foreign Shi'a fighters.
Research on IRGC-backed groups in Syria by MEF research fellow Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, (see sidebar) illustrates the IRGC's desire to operate within the system of an Assad-led Syria, rather than completely independent of it (as in Lebanon). Thus, most IRGC-backed groups are on the registers of the Local Defense Forces (LDF) and therefore affiliated with Syria's official armed forces.
Though the LDF network is jointly overseen by Syrian military and IRGC officers, by 2015, according to Tamimi, Qods Force officers had taken over effective command of pro-regime assault forces seeking to recapture the Syrian interior. With the war in Syria now largely over, the IRGC has continued to expand its infrastructure in Syria, incurring periodic Israeli airstrikes.
Roughly the same thing happened in Iraq, where uniformed security forces of the Iranian-backed regime buckled before a 2014 ISIS onslaught that claimed large swathes of the country. As in Syria, an IRGC-led network of mostly (but not exclusively) Shi'a militias spearheaded the drive to reconquer the country. Iraqi Shi'a militias operating under the direct control of the IRGC include the Badr Organization, Ktaeb Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Hezbollah al-Nujaba. They dominate the 150,000-strong Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Under American pressure, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi issued a July 2019 decree mandating the integration of Shi'a militias into the Iraqi security forces, but Spyer argues that it's a sham.
All told, the number of non-Iranian armed combatants in the region who answer to the IRGC has soared to more than 200,000.
In addition, the IRGC has directly orchestrated terrorist operations against Israeli/Jewish and American targets overseas, most notably the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1992 and 1994 bombings of Jewish targets in Buenos Aires, and the 1996 Khobar barracks bombing in Saudi Arabia.
The IRGC and its surrogates have "played a lead role attacking Americans," writes Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes, who estimates that more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives at the hands of Iranian proxies, mostly in Iraq after the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The IRGC's overseas operatives maintain extensive contact with the (mostly Iranian and Lebanese) Shiite diaspora, giving it influence in places as far away as Africa and Latin America. In Venezuela, according to MEF Fellow Joseph M. Humire, the motorcycle-riding pro-government militias known as colectivos are "clearly modeled on and trained by Iran's paramilitary Basij militia."
In partnership with the IRGC, Hezbollah has developed a global criminal network estimated to earn over a billion dollars annually, enabling it to achieve "significant financial autonomy from Iran," notes MEF Fellow Todd Bensman, and making its operations effectively sanctions-proof.
The IRGC commands a large fleet of fast-attack boats, poised to cut off roughly one-third of the world's seaborne oil supplies that flow through the Strait of Hormuz by way of asymmetrical hit-and-run attacks on tankers – a tactic the IRGC perfected during the Iran-Iraq war. After years of inaction, in May 2019 the IRGC's "navy" carried out sabotage attacks on four commercial ships off the coast of the UAE, followed by two more in June. In July, the IRGC changed tactics and seized three tankers.
The IRGC and its proxies control an array of ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets throughout the region. Last year, the IRGC itself twice fired missiles at targets beyond Iran's borders – seven Fateh-110 missiles hit the bases of Iranian Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, and a barrage of Zulfiqar and Qiyam missiles struck one of the last remaining ISIS enclaves in Syria (ostensibly in response to an attack on an IRGC parade by Arab separatists in Iran's Khuzestan province weeks earlier).
In addition, the IRGC maintains its own air defense systems, particularly in the Gulf region. On June 20, it downed a $130 million American RQ-4 Global Hawk drone
The IRGC has a unit specializing in deployment of Iran's sophisticated arsenal of drones. In February 2018, an IRGC drone was shot down after entering Israeli airspace. In July 2019 the IRGC openly boasted that this unit had struck Kurdish dissidents encamped near its border with Iraq. More importantly, it has trained its militia proxies to use drones. On May 14, 2019, drones launched from southern Iraq hit Saudi oil installations, an attack initially credited to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran to dismantle its nuclear program put it squarely on a collision course with the IRGC. The IRGC thrived under sanctions during the Obama administration, which granted waivers allowing substantial Iranian oil exports to continue and didn't fully exert its discretionary power to punish violators – in effect, creating an environment where the IRGC's illicit international connections and carte blanche from Khameini gave its enterprises an advantage over competitors. No longer.
The breaking point for the IRGC came in April, when the White House announced that it was designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization. In addition to broadening the administration's ability to punish third parties who illicitly trade with Iran, the measure was a warning, according to MEF Fellow Seth Frantzman, that Washington "views Iran as responsible for its proxies' behavior."
The Trump administration's 'maximum pressure' campaign on Iran has put it squarely on a collision course with the IRGC.
The Trump administration's reaction to the subsequent wave of IRGC violence has been uncharacteristically soporific – largely confined to the dispatch of a naval task force to the Persian Gulf to protect shipping.
Pipes, who for years has urged that the U.S. "respond to IRGC atrocities with the language of force that Iranian leaders only understand," finds the Trump administration's underwhelming response to the provocations concerning. "Look at what they've done, and so far no response from the United States," he said in a June 22 interview, inaction that is sure to embolden IRGC leaders. "If I were in their shoes, I'd certainly be feeling quite confident myself." Trump, he added, "should have responded by knocking out some of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure."
Israel appears less inclined to let IRGC outrages go unanswered. It has carried out frequent air strikes in Syria on the IRGC and its proxies over the course of the civil war, and it appears now that IRGC assets in Iraq are no longer safe from Israeli reprisal. In mid-July, a senior Al-Qods commander in Iraq was killed in the first of four mysterious air strikes in Iraq that the IRGC has blamed on Israel.