By Research Fellow Gabriela Billini
Aspiring to grow its clout across the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East, Iran has increasingly engaged its military in other countries in the region. From intervening in civil wars to fighting terrorism in foreign states, Iran’s security forces are playing a larger role in regional affairs and have thus emerged as a critical focus of the West.
The U.S. media typically covers Iran’s military involvement abroad as unfoundedly aggressive or destabilizing, without examining the broader role these organizations play within Iran itself, or Iran’s interests and goals for participation abroad. This media guide will focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the al-Quds force of the military with the aim to demystify these organizations, their role, as well the reasons and timing behind the government’s decisions to use them in foreign interventions.
● How is Iran’s military organized and how big is it?
Pursuant to Iran’s constitution, the military branch reports exclusively to the Supreme Leader, not the elected government. The military is comprised of three major branches: the Islamic Republic Army of Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its law enforcement. Within the Revolutionary Guard there are sub-organizations: the Basij, Khatam al-Anbia, and the al-Quds Force. This guide will focus on the IRGC and to a lesser extent its sub-group the al-Quds Force.
● What is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps? What are its missions and objectives?
The IRGC is Iran’s most powerful security entity due to its involvement in Iranian security, political life, and society. It is an elite military unit with 120,000 men and is the most visual element in what many call “the exportation of the Iranian Revolution." The responsibilities of the IRGC include internal security, external defense and regime survival. Its tools are a standing army, a navy and an air force.
The Iranian Constitution provides that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is to “continue in its role of guarding the Revolution and its achievements. The scope of the duties of this Corps, and its areas of responsibility, in relation to the duties and areas of responsibility of the other armed forces, are to be determined by law, with emphasis on brotherly cooperation and harmony among them.” In practice, this wraps the IRGC in the revolutionary spirit and permits the Supreme Leader to enlist the IRGC in protecting the regime however he sees fit. Over the years, this has resulted in the IRGC’s deployment to foreign countries that present political and military strategic interests to Iran, which are described in more detail in the sections below.
The IRGC is also known to have supported, funded and trained organizations and militias like Hezbollah, the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, and the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces, which the United States, Israel and their Western allies see as destabilizing actors in the region. By aiding these organizations, the IRGC helps maintain an officially distant, but nonetheless strong relationship between such groups and the Islamic Republic. More information about these militias and Iran’s involvement with them can be found in the sections below.
Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute Alex Vatanka describes the IRGC as “a state within the state, a parallel government that is driven by its own narrow organizational political and economic interests. It wields such significant power in Iran that it can even threaten to remove an elected president, as it did with Mohammad Khatami, who was in power from 1997 to 2005, or send repeated warnings, as has been the case with President Hassan Rouhani on a number of occasions.” Its strength is not limited to the security sector and extends well into the political realm.
● About al-Quds force- what are its missions and objectives?
The al-Quds Force is the clandestine paramilitary wing of the IRGC that specializes in external issues such as foreign missions and provides training and weapons to Shi’a militia groups. While the IRGC primarily seeks to defend the regime domestically, the al-Quds branch seeks to first protect Iran from external threats and simultaneously carry out the regime’s missions and policies abroad. It has at least 15,000 men and was founded during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) as a special force delegated to carry out foreign policy missions, especially in Iraqi Kurdish areas with the goal of building relations among the Kurds and Shi’a Iraqis. Today, the Al-Quds force provides advice, support, and arranges weapons deliveries to pro-Iran groups across the Middle East including Iraqi insurgents, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
● Where are the IRGC and al-Quds forces involved?
The Revolutionary Guard is involved both in foreign military operations and in domestic civilian life.
Iran is involved in quite a few wars, proxy and otherwise, throughout the Middle East.
§ Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia
Iran is involved in Iraq through efforts to extend its sphere of influence and defeat Daesh (ISIS). Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, a Shi’a Muslim, has seen gaps in his efforts to drive Daesh out of Iraq since the Iraqi Army is still not strong enough to handle the task. The state therefore depends on Iran’s Shiite militias in its fight against ISIS. The al-Quds force had considerable influence in the Iraqi state, even before the emergence of ISIS. The al-Quds Commander Qassem Suleimani has been involved in Iraq for years, and has a solid understanding of Iraq’s security and military conditions. With him at the helm of the al-Quds force, many anti-Daesh offensives have been launched over the last few years, especially in the strategic city of Mosul.
Beyond the support Iran provides Iraq through its al-Quds and IRGC men on the ground, Iran also supports the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – a popular militia group with an estimated 60,000 men – which formed after Sistani’s fatwa on 14 June 2014, asking all Iraqis to join forces in fighting Daesh. These forces quickly became comprised of Shi’as because of Sistani’s power in the Shi’a community, which increased sectarian tensions. Still, the PMF has been critical to the fight against Daesh.
The Jihad and Construction Brigade was also formed as a result of the Sistani fatwa and its Secretary-General Brigade is Hassan al Sari, who has a long history of deep involvement in government affairs. This brigade has close ties with Khamenei through the Iraqi government, commands 3,000 fighters, and is one of the most religious insurgent militias in Iraq.
Iran has supported a variety of other militias in Iraq, including the Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigade), which gets significant support from al-Quds such as training, logistical support, and weapons. They were designated a terrorist organization by the United States on 2 July 2009. Geneive Abdo, scholar of the Middle East and author of “The New Sectarianism,” states that “[f]rom 2007-2011, the KH directed a majority of its attacks against US-coalition forces in Iraq and often posted recordings of the attacks on their website.”  This group is also considered an enemy of local Sunni groups in the Anbar province.
Iran is also involved in the Syrian Civil War in order to support its leader Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite sect in Islam. One of the reasons for Iran’s dedicated support for Syrian leadership is due to the aid it provided during the Iran-Iraq War. It was an extremely vulnerable time for the newly founded Islamic Republic when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. Syria was a staunch supporter of Iran at the time, both diplomatically and militarily. Later into the decade, Hafiz Assad also enlisted the help of Iran when Israel invaded Syria. These strong historical ties are further buffeted by the strategic depth Syria now provides Iran; and so, by November 2016, Iran had sent approximately 10,000 IRGC soldiers to Syria to help defend Assad in the fight against Daesh and anti-government rebels. Aside from men, Iran also offers weapons, training and strategic advice to the Assad regime, as well as bases from which Russian planes launched an attack on Syrian rebel targets.
One of the places where the Iran/Saudi Arabia confrontation has existed the longest is in Lebanon. For years, both countries have competed for influence there. Iran has done so through Hezbollah, and Saudi Arabia through Lebanon’s Sunni population. At the start of November 2016, Michael Aoun, a member of the Maronite Christian community, was elected President after two years without consensus on a candidate. Aoun has strong ties to Hezbollah and political support from Iran. Aoun’s election therefore represents a success for Iran as it continues to compete with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East for regional power.
As in Lebanon, forces fighting in the Yemeni civil war receive military training from the IRGC. This is yet another arena in which the Iranian/Saudi proxy war is playing out. Yemen’s war is being fought between the Houthi Shi’a ‘rebels’ and the Sunni ruling party. Iran has become involved with the goal of bringing the sizeable Shi’a minority to power. Saudi Arabia is financially and militarily supporting the Sunni ruling group, both financially and militarily, in the hopes of preventing a Shi’a government from emerging in its backyard.
o IRGC Civilian role: Economy, politics
In addition to their traditional military role, the Revolutionary Guard also plays a role in Iranian politics. For example, the regime occasionally uses the Revolutionary Guard as an instrument of propaganda. The IRGC demonstrated its effectiveness in 2009 during the Green Movement protests, when it was used as a tool for civilian control and maintaining public order. During that time, Khamenei bribed the IRGC with political, economic, and ideological influence; in return, the military silenced demonstrations by a variety of means, including targeting dorms and shooting scores of protesters.
Former members of the IRGC are increasingly turning to politics by running for and holding public office, as well as working closely with the clergy. The most well-known former IRGC member turned-politician is former President Ahmadinejad. Former IRGC-turned-government employees have the opportunity to promote the interests of the IRGC, especially in Parliament (Majles), where the number of former IRGC members-turned-MPs are increasing. One result of having more IRGC members in Parliament is the approval of large budget increases for the Guard. The sixth (2000-2004) and seventh (2004-2008) Majles also used their power to steer the political body away from investigating IRGC finances.
Beyond politics, the IRGC also finds itself involved in domestic affairs through its economic investments, which include a variety of sectors, including laser eye surgery clinics, construction companies, and car manufacturing. The IRGC also regulates the black market in Iran, which emerged as a result of heavy sanctioning against Iran before the JCPOA. The IRGC is the authority tasked with controlling and weakening the black market, with no other body monitoring its actions. As a result, the IRGC has found a way to benefit from this underground industry. Indeed, some argue that sanctioning Iran has actually contributed to the IRGC’s increased economic strength.
The IRGC also gains economic power through the use of and control over subsidiary companies. Some of these companies are actually controlled by Khamenei, who often appoints their chiefs and gives the IRGC government contracts. Some estimates put the IRGC’s connections at over 100 companies controlling $12 billion of construction and engineering contracts. One of the largest companies tied to IRGC’s economic pursuits is Khatam al-Anbia. The directors of this subsidiary company are high-ranking IRGC members, who reap economic benefits when their company wins government contracts over other privately-owned companies. Further, it is estimated that 10% of its 25,000 personnel are IRGC members. Setad Ejraiye Farman-e Hazrat-e Emam, another subsidiary company that is overseen by Supreme Leader Khamenei, has received contracts worth over $11 billion since sanctions relief was implemented under the JCPOA.
The IRGC often uses its history of post-Iran-Iraq War reconstruction to justify its involvement in the Iranian economy. They point to the Constitution’s Article 147, which states, “In time of peace, the government, in complete respect for the criteria of Islamic justice, must utilize the army’s personnel and technical equipment for relief operations, educational and productive endeavors, and the Reconstruction Campaign (jehād-e sāzandegi), to the degree that the army’s combat-readiness is not impaired.” Many IRGC members, especially higher-ranking officers, see this as clear permission to engage in Iran’s economy. The surge in the IRGC’s economic involvement occurred during the late Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, in the years 1989-1997 as part of the post-war reconstruction effort.
These economic investments, however, have a negative effect on ordinary Iranians. First, independent businesses cannot remain competitive to subsidiary companies of the IRGC, reducing genuine economic growth. Second, IRGC involvement in the economy increases corruption, with large contracts being granted to hand-selected companies that divert funds to government agencies as incentives. Third, IRGC's economic presence deters foreign investment since investors fear falling afoul of remaining sanctions should they tangentially become involved with one of the many IRGC-linked companies.
The regime uses Article 44 of the constitution as its rationale for providing government contracts and business to the IRGC and its subsidiaries. Article 44 states that the Iranian economy has three sectors: the state, cooperative and private sectors. It regulates and describes in detail which industries fall into the hands of each sector. This rationalization does not come without criticism; just recently, President Rouhani criticized the regime and the IRGC’s sizable involvement in the economy. He argued that reallocating parts of Iranian industry into the private sector per Article 44 has been misinterpreted by the regime, hurting independent private businesses and benefiting the state through the IRGC. The President views this as an economic takeover of the state and instead advocates for proper privatization of the economy, without IRGC control. In September 2017, the Financial Times reported that President Rouhani has been cracking down on the IRGC’s economic involvement. Rouhani has had senior IRGC members arrested, and has required many to “restructure some holding companies and transfer ownership of others back to the state.” Others were obligated to return personal profits earned from these companies.
● There is talk of the Trump administration naming the IRGC a terrorist organization. Why would it do so, and what are the implications if it is done?
The Trump Administration has discussed designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization because of its active role in foreign intervention. The United States sees the IRGC as countering American interests abroad due to its activity in the aforementioned countries and conflicts. In support for this bill, Senator Ted Cruz has stated, “[a] grand détente with the Muslim Brotherhood and a blind eye to the IRGC are not pathways to peace in this struggle; they guarantee the ultimate success of our enemy. It is time to call this enemy by its name and speak with clarity and moral authority.” The co-sponsor of the original bill Republican Representative of Texas Michael McCaul said, “[a]s obvious as that seems, for years the IRGC has been allowed to operate clandestinely using front companies and illicit networks to evade formal designation.” It should be noted that on many occasions, invited by the host state to intervene and help with the conflicts in question, such as in Syria and Iraq.
Another impetus for designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization is because the unofficial “charge” of the group is to “export” the Islamic Revolution. This concept poses a strategic threat to the United States and its allies, limiting their influence in the Middle East.
○ Iran reciprocal sanctions (Army CIA)
In March 2017, Iran imposed reciprocal sanctions on 15 American companies through the Majles. These companies are sanctioned based on their support for Israel, whose behavior is seen as terroristic from Iran’s perspective. In the legislation, it added that if the IRGC, a branch of its government’s army, is categorized as a terrorist organization by the American government, Iran will do the same for the US military and the CIA. Though mostly symbolic, it sends the message that Iran is displeased with this proposed American policy and is determined to establish the IRGC’s presence in the region as unshakable Iranian foreign policy.
 Geneive Abdo. The New Sectarianism. Page 22.
 Geneive Abdo. The New Sectarianism. Pages 29-30.
 Geneive Abdo. The New Sectarianism. Page 29.
 M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi. Evaluating the Political and Economic Role of the IRGC. Page 592.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2012.689528
 M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi. Evaluating the Political and Economic Role of the IRGC. Page 591.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2012.689528
 M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi. Evaluating the Political and Economic Role of the IRGC. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2012.689528
 M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi. Evaluating the Political and Economic Role of the IRGC. Page 590.http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2012.689528