IRGC stands for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of the Iranian armed forces. It was founded shortly after the Iranian revolution in 1979 specifically to consolidate the ayatollahs’ grip over post-revolutionary Iran. Starting small, it has mushroomed into an enormously powerful organization, deeply entrenched in Iran’s body politic and highly influential both at home and across the Middle East. Forty-two years on from the revolution, the IRGC is now operating as a state within a state with its own military, economic, cultural, political and intelligence arms.
In April 2019 then-US President Trump designated the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Officials explained that the IRGC was an “active and enthusiastic participant in acts of terror,” including the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in which 241 American serving people lost their lives, and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 US Air Force personnel were killed and 498 of many nationalities wounded.
Recently rumors emanating from Vienna, where a revitalized nuclear deal with Iran is being negotiated, suggested that President Joe Biden is considering removing the IRGC from the US’s terror blacklist. Accounts of what the quid pro quo might be for this major concession are vague – which might explain remarks made recently by ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, head of Russia’s delegation to the Vienna talks: “Iran got much more than it could expect, much more…This is a matter of fact.”
The rumors were backed by former US Vice President Mike Pence, when he visited Israel recently and told prime minister Naftali Bennett and foreign minister Yair Lapid that a delisting of the IRGC as a terrorist organization was on the table. Pence claimed that the delisting would be in return for a commitment that the IRGC would not target Americans.
Accordingly, on March 18 Bennett and Lapid issued a joint statement deploring the idea of delisting the IRGC. They described the IRGC as: “Hezbollah in Lebanon, they are Islamic Jihad in Gaza, they are the Houthis in Yemen, they are the militias in Iraq, The IRGC is responsible for attacks on American civilians and American forces throughout the Middle East, including in the past year…They are an integral part of the brutal machine of oppression in Iran. Their hands have on them the blood of thousands of Iranians…The attempt to delist the IRGC as a terrorist organization is an insult to the victims.”
The IRGC has become a major military, political and economic force in Iran, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and many other senior figures including, significantly, the recently elected president, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi.
The IRGC controls the Basij Resistance Force, an Islamic volunteer militia of about 100,000 men and women. The Basij are loyalists to the revolution who are often called onto the streets to use force to dispel dissent. The IRGC and Basij are active in suppressing the mass opposition protests that erupt from time to time, for example in 2009 after the disputed re-election of then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Dozens of opposition supporters were killed and thousands detained.
With some 190,000 active personnel, the IRGC is considerably smaller than the regular military, but it is considered the dominant military force in Iran. It operates its own armed, naval and air forces, and is behind many of the country’s key military operations.
The IRGC navy is tasked with patrolling the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway connecting the Gulf to the Indian Ocean through which 20% of the world’s oil supply passes. The force’s small boats have intercepted US warships that it says have approached Iran’s territorial waters, and detained or diverted international shipping. Its air force is responsible for Iran’s missiles. Iran is believed to have more than 10 ballistic missile systems either in its inventory or in development, and a stockpile of hundreds of missiles.
The IRGC also has a powerful presence in Iran’s civilian institutions. It controls around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of charitable foundations and trusts known as the bonyads, which run a considerable part of the economy. Apart from military industries, the IRGC is active in housing development, dam and road construction, oil and gas projects, food, transportation, engineering and even educational and cultural activities.
The most prominent IRGC entity in recent years has been the Quds Force, used to implement its foreign policy goals. Considered Iran’s primary instrument for cultivating terrorist groups across the Middle East, Quds actively supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Palestinian Islamic Jihad with funding, training, weapons and equipment. Iran has acknowledged its role in the conflicts in Syria, where it has advised forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and armed thousands of Shia Muslim militiamen fighting alongside them, and Iraq, where it has backed a Shia-dominated paramilitary force that helped defeat IS.
Iranian president Raisi is intent on further empowering the IRGC. The ageing Supreme Leader, in dubious physical health, is seeking to ensure a hardline Islamist regime after his death. His chosen successor, it is widely believed, is Raisi. Raisi is fully aware that if he is to become the next supreme leader, he will need the IRGC’s backing, since anti-regime sentiment is rising among the Iranian population In expanding the power of the IRGC, Raisi will be seeking to boost his support when the time comes to select Khamenei’s successor.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change believes that the IRGC will be a critical element in any possible scenario for Iran’s future. Understanding the dynamics of the IRGC’s higher echelons, it asserts, is therefore of the utmost importance. Western and international policymakers must be able to read the Guard’s inner workings, it says, and the Institute has accordingly published a new model to aid understanding of the internal structures, relationships and intra-elite alliances and rivalries within the IRGC.
“Know your enemy,” said the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, “and know yourself; and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.”