In the short run, at least, President Donald Trump’s beef with Iran has more to do with its aggressive, destabilizing foreign policy in the Middle East than with its nuclear program, which, experts agree, is years away from producing even a single nuclear device.
The chief institution responsible for implementing the political warfare and military aspects of that foreign policy is the Pasdaran—better known in the West as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The IRGC was forged on the anvil of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It has grown steadily in power and influence over the Republic’s turbulent 40-year history. Today the Guard is a unique, and uniquely powerful, politico-military organization within Iran. It has no exact counterpart in any Western nation.
The Pasdaran functions as both the sword and shield of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Shiite theocracy over which he presides, and it remains outside the chain of command of Iran’s conventional armed forces. The Supreme Leader commands the IRGC, and his imprimatur, in the eyes of the soldiers of the Guard, legitimizes every act of violence it perpetrates.
The Guard’s primary missions are to defend religious orthodoxy at home and to spread Iran’s anti-Western, pro-Islamic ideology throughout the Muslim World. The IRGC’s senior leadership sees its primary enemies as the United States, Israel, and their allies in the Middle East. At home, it wages a constant struggle against secularism, liberal reformers, moral laxity, atheism, and anyone that challenges the righteous path of True Belief.
The organization’s view of the world comes through very clearly in this excerpt from an early, official IRGC publication:
“Imperialism and global Zionism, with the help of governments and their henchmen, are everyday involved in plots against the spread and penetration of the Islamic revolution among the hearts of the people of Iran and the world… Therefore we can and must… shoulder the global message of Islam. We have no recourse except the mobilization of all the faithful forces of the Islamic revolution and must, with the mobilization of forces in every region, strike fear into the hearts of our enemies so that the idea of invasion and destruction of our Islamic revolution will exit their minds. If our revolution does not have an internationalist and aggressive approach, the enemies of Islam will again enslave us culturally and politically.”
The organization’s extraordinary success in exporting the revolutionary ethos by any means necessary explains in large part why it’s the only foreign government entity labeled a terrorist organization by Washington. President Donald Trump made that determination this past April, but the IRGC has been at the epicenter of what historian David Crist calls the “twilight war” between America and Iran for almost 40 years.
The Corps today consists of about 125,000 men, but its influence is much greater than that number would indicate. Experts estimate the organization controls as much as one third of the Iranian economy, with an especially strong presence in construction, energy, and telecommunications. The Guard has its own television news channel. Many of the country’s leading politicians are former Guardsmen, and the organization is regularly called upon to thwart the efforts of groups like the Mujahedin-e Khalq that seek to liberalize Iran’s hardline political institutions and diminish the power of the Supreme Leader.
To quash dissent or mobilize Iranian society behind a particular cause or project, the IRGC leadership deploys the Basij—a vast paramilitary organization of some 10 million people with chapters in many schools, businesses, government offices, and mosques. The Basij is a cross between a cultural organization and a militia that provides basic religious and military instruction. Recruits are all volunteers noted for their religious zeal.
Western powers, especially the United States, are most concerned with the activities of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite special forces, the Quds Force; its navy, which is a distinct from the country’s regular naval force; and its ballistic missile force, which is rapidly expanding in capability and would bear responsibility for managing nuclear weapons if Iran somehow found a way to develop them.
The Quds Force consists of about 5,000 men. It’s a kind of hybrid of the CIA’s Special Operations Group and the Green Berets. According to New Yorker journalist Dexter Filkins, its members are "divided between combatants and those who train and oversee foreign assets." The force has branches focusing on intelligence, finance, politics, sabotage, and unconventional warfare.
From Washington’s point of view, the Quds Force’s most troubling activity has been its role as a “force multiplier.” Quds operatives have trained, funded, and armed a vast network of proxy forces throughout the greater Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, a handful of Shiite militia groups in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite military units in Saudi Arabia, to name but a few. According to Iran expert Ray Takeyh of the Rand Corporation, this proxy force network today consists of 200,000 fighters.
Iran’s proxies have been deployed against the United States or its allies in the Lebanese Civil War of the ’80s; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the U.S.-led coalition in the civil war in Syria, and the Saudi-Houthi struggle in Yemen, among other places. Interestingly, Iranian-supported Shiite forces fought with the American coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Major General Qassem Soleimani, the charismatic commander of the Quds, is a national hero in Iran. Dexter Filkins describes him as "the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today" and the principal military strategist and tactician in Iran's effort to combat Western influence throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Many experts believe he has been one of the leading strategists for the Assad regime in the ongoing Syrian Civil War for the last several years.
The IRGC’s “mosquito navy” of 20,000 men may be small, but it remains a significant concern for the U.S. Navy in the current crisis because of its highly developed asymmetric warfare capabilities. It has more than a thousand small attack boats, a formidable array of anti-ship missiles and naval mines, and it is highly skilled in hit-and-run and swarming tactics.
The IRGC’s ballistic missile program is the most robust in the Middle East, and it continues to progress. The program’s Revolutionary Guard commanders are determined to transition from liquid to solid propelled systems, which are more sustainable. They are also striving to improve accuracy, which still leaves much to be desired.
According to one of the leading experts on the Pasdaran, Afshon Ostovar, the Guard is at once “a champion of Iran’s revolutionary ethos and a pragmatic organization with an approach to strategic affairs that comes closer to realpolitik than Islamism… the organization’s history is in many ways a microcosm of the Islamic Republic, from the struggle to carve and independent path to its controversial rise into a regional power.”
Some knowledgeable observers of Iranian politics believe the Guard has a significant voice in the making of Iran’s foreign policy as well as its implementation. Given its symbiotic relationship with Khamenei, and deep roots in the country’s political life, this seems entirely plausible.
Cobbled together by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from a wide array of Shiite militia and armed gangs during the revolution, it served as a counterforce to the regular army and police force, which were regarded as untrustworthy because of their close association with the Shah of Iran. The Guards spent most of 1980 and 1981 conducting assassinations and marginalizing non-clerical elements of the revolution, including liberals and Marxists.
When the regular army performed lethargically in the face of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, the IRGC stepped into the breach, activating the Basij, and employing hundreds of thousands of partially trained warriors—including young teenagers—in massive human wave assaults against the invaders. Often they defeated the Iraqis, but incurred horrendous casualties in the process.
After it appeared that Iran might defeat Iraq and come to dominate the region, the United States, France, and the Arab Sheikdoms threw their support behind Iraq. According to Ostovar, the Iran-Iraq War contributed significantly to the IRGC’s “paranoid view of the outside world.” The war, of course, ended in stalemate in 1988, but not before the IRGC orchestrated a campaign to halt the flow of oil to and from Iraq through the Straits of Hormuz.
Protecting the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz has been a mission of the U.S. Navy since 1949. When an Iranian mine badly damaged the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts, a guided missile cruiser, the U.S. Navy launched Operation Praying Mantis, one of the largest naval surface actions since World War II. American ships and aircraft destroyed roughly half of Iran’s naval forces in one day—April 18, 1988.
It was during the early years of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) that Revolutionary Guard covert agents cobbled together diverse Shiite militia groups in Lebanon into an umbrella organization the world soon came to know as Hezbollah. The IRGC was intimately involved in the training, funding, and arming of the Hezbollah terrorist cells that bombed the American embassy in Beirut in April 1983, and the much more costly suicide truck bombing that destroyed the barracks of a battalion of U.S. Marines in that city, killing 241 men.
After much dithering, President Ronald Reagan decided to withdraw the Marines without retaliating against Iran.
Nonetheless, IRGC-trained proxies continued to make life a misery for Americans in Beirut, capturing, torturing, and killing CIA station chief William Buckley, and partially blowing up the U.S. embassy annex on September 20, 1984, killing 24 people.
In the ’90s, says Ostovar, the Guard “became the standard-bearer for hardline politics in Iran,” and was amply rewarded for its work with hundreds of contracts for reconstruction projects. Its network of proxies expanded. The Quds Force played a pivotal role in planning the suicide bombing of an Argentine Jewish Community Center in 1994 that killed 80, and the destruction of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, where U.S. Air Force personnel flying missions over Iraq’s no-fly zones were housed. Nineteen servicemen were killed, and almost 500 civilians wounded.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States greatly enhanced the profile and standing of foreign policy neoconservatives in Washington who wanted to use American military power to reconfigure the Middle East along pro-Western, democratic lines. The abject failure of this project is due at least in part to the IRGC’s dexterity in spreading its pro-clerical, anti-Western message throughout the region.
Ironically, the Bush administration’s early successes in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in Afghanistan and Iraq had the effect of strengthening the IRGC at home and abroad. The GWOT seemed to confirm suspicions that the Americans were conducting covert operations inside Iran with a view to overthrowing the Ayatollah’s hardline regime and replacing it with reformers receptive to democratic ideas and institutions. According to Ostovar, the GWOT “not only failed to contain the IRCG, it was a boon to the organization, and both directly and indirectly encouraged its political involvement, domestic expansion, and entry” into the Iraq War against the Americans and their allies.
The Quds Force in Iraq went into high gear, expanding its training, arming, and funding efforts, as well as providing strategic and operational advice to combatant groups. It did the same thing on a lesser scale in Afghanistan. The Bush administration was so concerned about Iran’s support for Shiite insurgents in Iraq that in 2005 in began to make detailed plans for attacking Iran directly.
According to the Trump administration, the Quds Force was directly involved in operations in Iraq that killed 600 American service members.
Today, Iran wields a great deal of political influence in Iraq through its allies, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution and the Badr Corps. Members of both groups hold important positions in the Iraqi government.
In 2012, Quds force operatives attempted to orchestrate the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States in a swanky Georgetown restaurant. The plot fell apart when one of the operatives tried to hire the assassin through an intermediary who turned out to be a DEA informant. Not for nothing has the Trump administration called Quds “Iran’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorism.”
The current crisis between Washington and Tehran has made Gen. Soleimani even busier than usual, as his naval forces retain responsibility for defending Iran’s interests in the Persian Gulf, and have been directly involved in attacking tankers, shooting down a U.S. drone, and seizing the British tanker Stena Impero on July 19.
Should the United States decide on a military response, the chances are very good that American forces will be engaging the warriors of the Republican Guard.