Journal Essay

Review Essay: Iran's Revolutionary Guard

Sadiq al-Husna | independent Scholar

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

The Pasdaran: Inside Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, by Emanuele Ottolenghi. Foundation for Defense of Democracies Press, 2011. 132 pages. $9.99, paperback.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard: The Threat That Grows While America Sleeps, by Steven O'Hern. Potomac Books, 2012. 288 pages. $29.95, hardcover.
Iran Unveiled: How the Revolutionary Guards Is Turning Theocracy into Military Dictatorship, by Ali Alfoneh, AEI Press, 2013. 272 pages. $83, hardcover.
The Military in Post-Revolutionary Iran: The Evolution and Roles of the Revolutionary Guards, by Hesam Forozan. Routledge, 2015. 268 pages. $160, hardcover.
Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Politics: Elites and Shifting Relations, by Bayram Sinkaya. Routledge, 2015. 234 pages. $145, hardcover.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard (RG) is not as different from other similar organizations as one would expect. The story of its evolution is explained rather similarly by different scholars who have written on the topic. Among them, Nikola Schahgaldian (1987), Sepehr Zabih (1988) and Kenneth Katzman (1993) are better-known. Other publications on the RG include policy papers from various think tanks, notably the RAND Corporation's paper by Frederic Wehrey et al. (2009). In addition, several departments of the U.S. government have published reports on the RG. One can find examples by reviewing the publications of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Congressional Research Service. Of course, there is classified information that the general public does not have access to. Yet, needless to say, the information kept secret by the U.S. government is probably neither complete nor infallible, since the RG is a military organization and therefore tries to keep its activities undisclosed, particularly to its prime enemy, the United States. All these shortcomings considered, what we know about the RG is still revealing.

The RG's fame or infamy has grown since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and particularly since the Syrian civil war and the fight against ISIS. Current affairs in the Middle East have facilitated the rise of the RG, or at least put it under a microscope. Iranian sources aggrandize the heroism and military dexterity of the RG forces and leaders, such as the much-heralded Brigadier General Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, one frequently comes across writers who emotionally describe the RG as the anti-Christ, an organization responsible for killing American soldiers in Iraq and innocent Syrians fighting the Assad regime. More nuanced accounts make reference to the role of the RG in recent events in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria without going over the top. Yet, since 2011, only a handful of authors have put forth detailed studies of the RG, among them Emmanuel Ottolenghi, Steven O'Hern, Ali Alfoneh, Hesam Forozan and Bayram Sinkaya. (Among recent works, also see Afshon Ostovar, Guardians of the Islamic Revolution: Ideology, Politics, and Development of Military Power in Iran [1979-2009], PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2009.) Each of these scholars examines one or more aspects of the RG's evolution.

The story of the RG is straightforward. The RG was born, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran, in 1979 and institutionalized by a decree of Ayatollah Khomeini in the same year. The RG is constitutionally under the command of Iran's supreme leader, who appoints the heads of the RG and sets its general direction. The president of Iran has no command over it, although he is linked to the military forces through the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces. The RG was initially responsible for protecting the Islamic regime from internal threats (particularly the national army and ethnic and political opposition groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, the Fadayan-e Khalq, the Kurds and the Arabs), and external dangers, meaning mostly the United States. Astonishingly, from an embryonic paramilitary organization, the RG rapidly grew into a major political and economic actor. In addition, the RG's fighting strategies, capabilities and missions — emphasizing the export of revolution — have made it an intercontinental military force. Although the authors whose works are examined here emphasize different factors and subject matters, the general story is similar.

The rise of the RG begins in the 1980s under Ayatollah Khomeini, when the corps mercilessly put down internal opposition and fought a war against Iraq. This turned the RG into an experienced armed force with a resolute ideology that valued unquestioned loyalty to the vali faqih, Ayatollah Khomeini. Although Khomeini repeatedly asserted that the armed forces should be excluded from politics, after his death in 1989, the RG commanders interpreted Khomeini's words elastically enough to legitimize the RG's involvement in every aspect of state and society. The entrance of the RG into the political and economic spheres was also caused by the challenge that post-Khomeini Iran faced and the policies that its leaders adopted to surmount them.

After the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini, President Rafsanjani attempted to merge the RG and the Iranian Army in order to force the RG from the center of power, diminish the bureaucratic cost of running dual armed organizations (the RG and the Army), and exercise more civil supervision over the unruly RG. Rafsanjani met with staunch resistance from the RG commanders, and the plan failed. Under Rafsanjani, the RG received a green light to participate in economic activities. This was supposed to be a good idea for several reasons. The RG could put its veterans returning from the Iran-Iraq War to work in reconstructing heavily damaged post-war Iran. The employment and reconstruction efforts were desired by both the RG and the Rafsanjani administration. In addition, it seemed to be a lucrative arrangement for the RG and the state. By allowing the RG to enter the economic sphere, the government made the RG partially responsible for financing itself, which also financially unburdened the government. It was a win-win outcome. At least, this is how things were viewed at the time.

One crucial factor in the RG's entrance into economic affairs was the establishment of the Base of the Seal of the Prophets, directly under the RG, along with indirect control over similar foundations and businesses. The RG's economic empire ran a variety of activities in the oil and gas sectors, building infrastructure, shipping, food production, real estate, tourism, media and telecommunications, among other things. The RG's economic development positively affected its military capabilities and political ambitions. The capital it gained financed its military agendas, which augmented not only its power but also its political leverage and resources. Together these assets reinforced its economic privileges, military investments and prestige. In effect, after the war with Iraq and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the RG threw itself into a self-perpetuating cycle of enrichment. However, this squeezed the private sector, which could not compete against an RG protected by special favors from the state such as no-bid auctions and exemption from taxation.

Regarding the RG's economic growth sketched above, all five of the authors narrate a similar story. Ottolenghi, in his small book, explains a quandary labeled "Diaper-Missile Dilemma." He argues that in order to stop the RG's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs and its financing of proxy groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the West needs to choke off the RG's resources, from which it earns capital to spend on military programs. The difficulties in doing so are multiple. For instance, RG companies are disguised, so identifying them is quite challenging. Moreover, they produce everything from diapers to missiles, making it difficult to pinpoint who should be sanctioned. Ottolenghi proposes a list of suggestions for opposing and sanctioning the RG's economic activities. He also provides several appendices that list RG companies, ships, shipping companies and individuals identified by the United States, the EU, the UN and other Western entities. All in all, one may find Ottolenghi's work useful in understanding the RG's economic evolution and how it should be restrained — although the former is not original nor is the latter well-developed.

Economic expansion of the RG under President Rafsanjani was made easier because of the status of the new supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Since Khamenei was not quite qualified as a marja (model for emulation), he could not fully rely on the support of his clerical colleagues. His lack of charisma, one of Khomeini's greatest assets, limited his popular support as well. Moreover, the war against Iraq had ended and nationalist sentiment was fading away by the time Khamenei reached high office. Hence, he was forced to turn elsewhere for support: towards the RG. His choice was both organic and clever; as a wartime president he had established ties with the armed forces. The new supreme leader needed the RG's backing for his survival, and the RG needed the supreme leader's backing for its expansion — win-win, at least at the time.

The closeness of Supreme Leader Khamenei and the RG became particularly important towards the end of Rafsanjani's presidency and the rise of President Khatami. Under Khatami, the RG became the principal force in pushing back the reformists and reopening space for the conservatives. The reformists and conservatives clashed when paramilitary forces raided the University of Tehran's dormitories in 1999 to quell a student demonstration against the closure of a reformist newspaper. The crisis certified the RG's further engagement in politics. More than at any other time, individuals affiliated with the RG or having an RG background entered the parliament and held senior posts in government. This process accelerated and expanded during the presidency of Ahmadinejad, under whom a great many RG members occupied critical positions in government, including several ministries and parliamentary seats. The flood of RG personnel into government militarized politics.

This militarization of Iranian politics developed concurrently with the rise of the neoconservative Ahmadinejad administration, in the context of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Syrian civil war, and the possibility of going to war against the United States and Israel, should the talks on Iran's nuclear program fail. The RG was granted more power over foreign policy as well as domestic security, in view of the chaos in the region and the regime's vulnerability, which had become a serious issue after the 2009 riots in Iran and the Arab Spring, in general. In order to cope with the situation, the RG was reorganized under a new commander-in-chief, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari. According to Alfoneh, after the appointment of General Jafari in 2007, the Basij force was merged into the RG, which was divided into 31 units, one for each province and two for Tehran. More authority could now be delegated to individual units, which could act more effectively in case of domestic riots or a foreign invasion. Another topic that Alfoneh examines closely and deserves notice is the Office of the Representative of the Imam to the Guards, the "eyes and ears" of the supreme leader in the RG to ensure its personnel are kept in line. (Alfoneh also has a separate chapter on the indoctrination of the RG.) Regarding the supreme leader's representatives, Alfoneh concludes that the RG has been largely successful in escaping the commissars' supervision.

The RG uses its freedom, political leverage and economic resources to advance its military capabilities, particularly the development and handling of matters related to the ballistic-missile and nuclear programs. Since Iran has been under U.S. military embargo, self-sufficiency in arms production, mostly through Iran's Defense Industry Organization, has been a core objective of the RG. A network of front companies abroad serves as RG intermediaries to acquire sophisticated military equipment, to be copied and mass produced through reverse engineering. The RG has also been buying more advanced weapons from Russia and China. By using proxy groups and orchestrating terrorist attacks around the globe against its enemies, it not only retaliates but also warns its other potential foes to stay neutral. Another deterrent doctrine on which the RG capitalizes is its ability to close the Strait of Hormuz and attack oil tankers and terminals. One fine point that O'Hern mentions is the RG's long reach into virtually every continent in order to keep the fighting away from Iran's borders and protect its interior. A core Iranian defense doctrine is to avoid conventional wars with more powerful enemies, particularly on its borders. O'Hern's military background serves as an asset in understanding the RG's military capabilities, doctrines and tactics.

O'Hern believes that we know Hezbollah is present in the United States, and that the RG financially and militarily takes advantage of this. Yet we are still too slow to react. He argues that by selling knock-off products and by various deceptions (phony burglaries, credit-card fraud, etc.), many business owners in the United States (presumably Lebanese Shiites) make large donations to Hezbollah. Hezbollah also makes handsome profits in Latin America, where its activities include international cocaine smuggling and money-laundering operations. O'Hern believes that American citizens have not yet recognized the potential of the RG and Hezbollah to attack the United States from the Mexican border, or even from within the United States. More ominously, he suggests that Iran has the capability to conduct an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack against the United States, which could send Americans "back to being hunter/gatherers" (O'Hern, pp. 181, and 183-4). After telling the reader about the magnitude of this danger, he discusses why a war with Iran may be inevitable, warning that the United States can prevail — but only if it wakes up. "U.S. failure to effectively respond when it is next attacked may later be remembered as the last best chance we had to prevent catastrophe" (p. 212). If a firm stand against the RG has not yet taken place, the blame should be put on American politicians and citizens, who "shift their interest from being concerned about war casualties to what's on Facebook and Twitter" (O'Hern, pp. 196-7).

O'Hern was an army counterintelligence officer, and to some degree, he is defending his comrades in arms (for example, see pp. 57-8, and 78-9). By alluding in the title of his book to Winston Churchill's While England Slept, O'Hern implies that the RG is to the United States what the Nazis were to England. This seems to be making a mountain out of a molehill, a strategy for legitimization of a preemptive war against Iran. It is noteworthy that Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Alfoneh a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. These establishments have their own agendas regarding how Iran should be dealt with. It is important also to note that their books were written when the Iraq War, the Syrian civil war, and Iran's nuclear ambitions were acutely troubling to the United States. These authors were particularly cautious about adversaries like the RG, yet their exaggerations can backfire, enhancing RG prestige and power. It also perpetuates the fear that the United States is preparing to invade Iran. This enables the RG to act as the savior of the Iranian state, gaining easier access to vast economic, political and military resources. It is ironic that the RG benefits handsomely from the writings of these scholars. O'Hern, Ottolenghi, Alfoneh, and Sinkaya also exaggerate the power of the RG at home, assuming it is "the king-maker." The RG is indeed an immensely powerful organization; nonetheless, since the Iranian polity is a closed system, it is impossible to unequivocally conclude that the RG are Praetorians, unless these authors have access to inside information. As it stands, their exaggerations are unsupported and their arguments unconvincing, yet negatively consequential.

Alfoneh, Forozan and Sinkaya accessed original sources in Persian, whereas Ottolenghi and O'Hern were confined to secondary sources, due to the language barrier. The three scholars who know Persian provide much more detailed analysis of the RG. However, unlike Alfoneh's work, which is original and comprehensive, Forozan's and Sinkaya's contributions are unoriginal. They provide a wealth of detail, enriching their portrayals, yet they add little that is new.

Another concern is the matter of the validity of authors' sources. Alfoneh's text heavily uses memoirs of Iranian politicians, particularly Rafsanjani, Ahmad Khomeini and Ayatollah Montazeri, as well as the RG's journal Payam-e Enqelab. Similarly, O'Hern relies on a former RG officer (Ross) whom he interviewed. To what extent can one trust an interviewee to be an objective and knowledgeable source of information? Ross is referred to as "the former IRGC officer," yet his rank and affiliation — and therefore the extent and depth of his knowledge — remain unknown. It makes a difference whether a former RG officer is a driver at one of the RG's publishing companies, for instance, or a general in the Quds Force. Moreover, it is debatable to what degree it is prudent to write history based on the sayings of a shrewd politician like Rafsanjani. Similarly, too much reliance on a military journal is hazardous; the articles do not always represent the stance of their establishments. They are written by a plethora of authors for myriad reasons — some of which are personal — and are not programmed by a central command.

It is understandable for some editorial negligence to occur, yet Ottolenghi's incoherent citations throughout the book make it very sloppy. His account also lacks a narrative and thus resembles an informational pamphlet. At the other extreme, O'Hern is an engaging storyteller. Some may find his account frustrating and even offensive, as some of my students and a peer of mine did. Others may enjoy its content and style.

Forozan's and Sinkaya's works have two similar problems. They do not add much to what we know about the RG, and they use unnecessary theories and comparisons. Forozan believes the current literature suffers from several shortcomings, being mostly descriptive, ideologically biased, and lacking a serious theoretical approach. He aims to rectify this in his first chapter by using theories from civil-military relations and institutional studies, particularly of the garrison state. He also makes reference to certain regimes and armies in Latin America, the Middle East, communist China and Nazi Germany. Such theories and comparisons might have assisted Forozan in understanding the RG, but they do not help the reader. They are distracting, break up the narrative flow and take up too much space (the first 40 pages of a 208-page book). It would have been better to actually write about the RG. Sinkaya has a similar problem, as if the RG and Iran's history are bound to meet the criteria set forth in Sinkaya's theories and models. Constructing an argument in terms of theories, models and variables might be normal in social science, but they are less appreciated by fans of historical research, who want to learn about the RG, and not about theories and models derived from different case studies. Forozan's and Sinkaya's contributions are the wealth of information that their works contain.

None of the authors discussed in depth the relationship between the RG and the Army or the impact of the RG on the Iran-Iraq War and vice versa, although there are some sporadic references. Likewise, although the relationship between the RG and the state is a central theme in all five works, none of them analyze the connections between the RG and the key state figures. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Iranian regime — and the RG within it — behaves like a politico-military fraternity or a household. Without knowing the members of this family and their relationships, one cannot claim to know the RG. Deep knowledge of the RG requires familiarity with its members. Alfoneh provides brief personal details on some key figures. In future research, it would be worthwhile to see more extensive profiles of RG members that include more than age, occupation and education. Of course, it is not easy to produce such a work on the Iranian polity, to a large extent a family business itself. In order to know how this business is run, one needs to know the family members. In addition, it would be fascinating to read a work that unpacked the RG's networks outside of Iran — for instance, its transnational links to local militias and weapons smugglers (O'Hern touches upon this matter).

Overall, Ottolenghi, O'Hern, Alfoneh, Forozan, and Sinkaya assist us in understanding the RG and have made respectable contributions to the literature on the organization. It is entertaining to read about Iran's Revolutionary Guard, some of whose exploits can only be seen in Hollywood films.