IRGC History & Background
The name Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been intertwined and synonymous with the current clerical regime of Iran for the past few decades. From the Iran-Iraq War to several regional conflicts, to economic activities and internal crackdown of unrests across the country, the IRGC has had a major role in shaping the Iranian regime’s domestic and foreign policy.
Establishing The IRGC
Following the 1979 revolution, Islamic Republic founder Ruhollah Khomeini with the Velayat Faghih realized the need to have an advantage and apparatus to quell any domestic threats and unrest. Considering the fact that they could not trust the Iranian military, police and other state forces for this purpose, the ruling mullahs began the process of launching their own parallel forces.
The IRGC was established on May 5, 1979, less than three months after the revolution. What started as a paramilitary group of ideologically trained units loyal to the supreme leader has now grown to be the sole protector and backbone of the ruling mullahs in Iran.
The IRGC answers directly to the supreme leader, now Ali Khamenei, and is given unconstrained jurisdiction and authorities. The IRGC is actually above Iran’s classic army in the hierarchy, and provided with enormous economic and political power. The IRGC has now evolved to be a “parallel” or shadow government of Iran, accountable to Khamenei only.
The Revolutionary Guards have roughly 125,000 military personnel including ground, aerospace and naval forces. Its naval forces are now the primary forces tasked with operational control of the Persian Gulf. It also controls the paramilitary Basij militia which has about 90,000 active personnel.
The Chief Commander of the Guardians since 2019 is Hossein Salami, who was preceded by Mohammad Ali Jafari and Yahya Rahim Safavi respectively from 2007 and 1997.
Figure 1Hossein Salami
Figure 2Mohammad Ali Jafari
Figure 3Yahya Rahim Safavi
Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the regime ruling Iran, sacked Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) chief Mohammad Ali Jafari and appointed his deputy, Hossein Salami, as his successor, sending shockwaves among all Iran observers.
Mohammad Ali Jafari served as the IRGC commander-in-chief for the past 12 years and was considered an image of the regime’s strategy in recent years. The IRGC is specifically missioned to protect the mullahs’ apparatus and protecting the borders is the army’s responsibility. Under Jafari, the IRGC has specifically focused on domestic crackdown and exporting terrorism abroad.
The IRGC’s general hierarchy across the country witnessed severe changes, with new provincial corps and Basij paramilitary units launched. All these developments came under Khamenei’s new strategy to increase the IRGC’s crackdown ability against the entire Iranian population, while also entering non-conventional warfare abroad.
With Jafari calling it quits, signs are that this sacking has broader implications, indicating signs of significant crises at the top of the mullahs’ apparatus. Inside Iran, the IRGC has lost its previous posture and Iranian people and their growing protests have the upper hand. Iran’s development across the region is reaching a dead-end and the FTO designation is pushing this defeat into a major strategic setback.
Jafari’s role for the regime could be evaluated in the mission bestowed upon him. Hossein Salami, his successor, however, has been quite the opposite and only considered a propaganda tool.
During the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, Salami was a low-grade officer in the logistics and training branch of two different IRGC divisions. He was, however, very much involved in the IRGC massacre of Iranian Kurds and raids targeting dissident youths in Tehran. All the while, he was nothing in comparison to other senior IRGC members who are now serving under his command.
Salami also played a role during the 2009 uprising crackdown. Years later, following attacks against members of the Iranian opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) then stationed in Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, Iraq, Salami resorted to saber-rattling and lies. All his claims were easily debunked by the PMOI/MEK’s revelations.
Khamenei appointing Salami to this position shows he needs propaganda more than ever before as crises are engulfing his regime more than ever. Interesting how the regime’s own state-run media showed little attention to Salami’s appointment, further suggesting the fire simmering within the mullahs’ apparatus.
In late July 2008 reports originating that the IRGC was in the process of dramatically changing its structure. In a shake-up, in September 2008 Iran’s Revolutionary Guards established 31 divisions and an autonomous missile command. The new structure changes the IRGC from a centralized to a decentralized force with 31 provincial corps, whose commanders wield extensive authority and power. According to the plan, each of Iran’s thirty provinces will have a provincial corps, except Tehran Province, which will have two.
The Basij is a paramilitary volunteer militia founded by the order of the Khomeini in November 1979. The Basij are (at least in theory) subordinate to, and receive their orders from, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. However, they have also been described as “a loosely allied group of organizations” including “many groups controlled by local clerics.” Currently, the Basij serve as an auxiliary force engaged in activities such as internal security as well as law enforcement auxiliary, the providing of social service, organizing of public religious ceremonies, and as morality police and the suppression of dissident gatherings.
The elite Quds Force, sometimes described as the successor to the Shah’s Imperial Guards, is estimated to be 2,000–5,000 in number. It is a special operations unit, handling activities abroad. The force basically does not engage directly.
Figure 5Quds Force
Aerospace Force of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution
Navy of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution
IRGC started naval operations using mainly swarm tactics and speedboats during “Tanker War” phase of the Iran–Iraq War.
IRGC Navy and the regular Artesh Navy overlap functions and areas of responsibility, but they are distinct in terms of how they are trained and equipped—and more importantly also in how they fight. The Revolutionary Guards Navy has a large inventory of small fast attack craft, and specializes in asymmetric hit-and-run tactics. It is more akin to a guerrilla force at sea, and maintains large arsenals of coastal defense and anti-ship cruise missiles and mines.  It has also a Takavar (special force) unit, called Sepah Navy Special Force (S.N.S.F.).
The Ansar-ul-Mahdi (Followers of Imam Mahdi (12th Shia Imam) Corps is primarily responsible for the protection of top officials of government and parliament (excluding the Supreme Leader). As an elite, secretive force within the I.R.G.C Ground force, its officers are entrusted with many other special assignments, such as Counter Intelligence & Covert Operations beyond Iran’s borders.
The corps has four layers of protection for top officials and the agents go to each layer according to their experience and loyalty. The current commander of Ansar-Ul-Mehdi is Colonel Asad Zadeh.
The IISS Military Balance 2007 says the IRGC has 125,000+ personnel and controls the Basij on mobilisation. It estimates the IRGC Ground and Aerospace Forces are 100,000 strong and is ‘very lightly manned’ in peacetime. It estimates there are up to 20 infantry divisions, some independent brigades, and one airborne brigade.
Figure 6Ansar-ul-Mahdi Corps
The IISS estimates the IRGC Naval Forces are 20,000 strong including 5,000 Marines in one brigade of three or four Marine Battalions.,and are equipped with some coastal defence weapons (some HY-2/CSS-C-3 Seersucker SSM batteries and some artillery batteries) and 50 patrol boats. The IRGC air arm, says the IISS, controls Iran’s strategic missile force and has an estimated one brigade of Shahab-1/2 with 12–18 launchers, and a Shahab-3 unit. The IISS says of the Shahab-3 unit ‘estimated 1 battalion with estimated 6 single launchers each with estimated 4 Shahab-3 strategic IRBM.’
List of senior officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
THE IRGC’S TERRORIST HISTORY
The IRGC is designated as a terrorist organization by the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Over the past forty years, the IRGC has engaged in both domestic and international terrorism. The IRGC continues to violently crack down on protests and dissent within Iran, firing live rounds into crowds of people, conducting mass arrests, torturing detained protesters, and violently assaulting peaceful gatherings.
The IRGC has also been responsible for sponsoring and training proxy groups to commit terrorist acts. Over the past four decades, the IRGC and its proxies have been responsible for:
The U.S. Department of the Treasury has noted several different terrorist organizations that have been supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), and the Taliban. In the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s report, four IRGC senior officials, Hushang Alladad, Hossein Musavi, Hasan Mortezavi, and Mohammad Reza Zahedi, were specifically named for providing support to terrorist organizations. Hushang Alladad, a financial officer for the IRGC, was cited as personally administering financial support to terrorist groups including Hizballah, Hamas, and PIJ. Both General Hossein Musavi and Colonel Hasan Mortevazi were claimed to have provided financial and material support to the Taliban. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the IRGC commander in Lebanon, was claimed to have played a crucial role in Iran’s aid to Hizballah. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Zahedi served as a liaison to Hizballah and Syrian intelligence services as well as taking part in weapon deals involving Hizballah. The U.S. Treasury report goes on to detail the IRGC’s methods of support for terrorist groups: “The Government of Iran also uses the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and IRGC-QF to implement its foreign policy goals, including, but not limited to, seemingly legitimate activities that provide cover for intelligence operations and support to terrorist and insurgent groups. These activities include economic investment, reconstruction, and other types of aid to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, implemented by companies and institutions that act for or on behalf of, or are owned or controlled by the IRGC and the Iranian government.
Figure 7Statement from the President on the Designation of the IRGC as a Foreign
IRGC Influence In Iran’s Foreign Policy
Figure 8Quds Force
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official weekly Sobh-e-Sadeq published a recent interview with Brig. Gen. Yadollah Javani, political chief of the IRGC on its philosophy of existence. The weekly quoted him as saying that “the IRGC is the arm of the supreme leader,” Ali Khamenei and the Iranian regime’s “future is tied to that of the IRGC’s.”
He stressed that the “IRGC’s policy is nothing but that of the leader’s” and the IRGC “must follow the line of Velayat-e Faqih [absolute clerical supremacy].”
Javani responding to the question on the limits of IRGC’s involvement in politics quoted Khamenei as saying “the IRGC deeds are not just limited to military responsibilities. It also covers political and cultural areas.”
He added that the IRGC must have it’s own “political doctrine” and “must defend [the regime] against all other doctrines. “
“The IRGC must adopt military, political, security and cultural measures when the situation arises,” said he.
The IRGC’s top official was asked should the IRGC be neutral at the time of internal feuding among various political tendencies and groups?
Javani responded that although there has been a red line set by Khomeini not to identify itself with any political group, however one has to bear in mind that “it does not mean that the IRGC should stand aside and take no actions against these groups.”
“Any group that would stand in the way of the Velayat … must know that IRGC would act against it,” he added.
“Imam [Khomeini] never said that the IRGC must not act against the deviant groups. He never mentioned the IRGC must be indifferent.”
Javani said “the red line is applicable when all groups believe absolute clerical supremacy.”
He said the first step for the IRGC acting against these groups is to have a “political doctrine” but “the present conditions [in the country] have evolved such that having a doctrine is considered the IRGC’s interfering in political affair.”
He stressed that the IRGC and the paramilitary Bassij Force must have the “vision” to identify all groups and political tendencies to deter the enemies of the republic.
Growing Grip Of IRGC Over Iran’s Economy
The IRGC quest to gain full control over Iran’s economy began following the Iran-Iraq war. This grip grew significantly during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a former IRGC commander, from 2005 to 2013.
The IRGC has gained increasing influence in major sectors of Iran’s economy, such as oil and gas, and the construction industry. The exact number of IRGC-affiliated front companies remains unknown, simply due to the fact that they seek to evade sanctions through the use of various front companies and institutions in different countries.
Ironically, the IRGC benefited enormously from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) the regime signed with the world powers.
Of nearly 110 agreements signed since the JCPOA’s signing, worth at least $80 billion, 90 counts of these deals have been with companies owned or controlled by Iranian state entities, according a Reuters analysis.
IRGC first expanded into commercial activity through informal social networking of veterans and former officials. IRGC officials confiscated assets of many refugees who had fled Iran after the fall of Abolhassan Banisadr’s government. It is now a vast conglomerate, controlling Iran’s missile batteries and nuclear program but also a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching almost all economic sectors. Estimates have it controlling between a tenth and around a third of Iran’s economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.
The Los Angeles Times estimates that IRGC has ties to over one hundred companies, with its annual revenue exceeding $12 billion in business and construction.  IRGC has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, as well as major infrastructure projects.
The following commercial entities have been named by the United States as owned or controlled by the IRGC and its leaders.
In September 2009, the Government of Iran sold 51% of the shares of the Telecommunication Company of Iran to the Mobin Trust Consortium (Etemad-e-Mobin), a group affiliated with the Guards, for the sum of $7.8 billion. This was the largest transaction on the Tehran Stock Exchange in history. IRGC also owns 45% participation in automotive Bahman Group and has a majority stake in Iran’s naval giant SADRA through Khatam al-Anbia.
The IRGC also exerts influence over bonyads, wealthy, non-governmental ostensibly charitable foundations controlled by key clerics. The pattern of revolutionary foundations mimics the style of informal and extralegal economic networks from the time of the Shah. Their development started in the early 1990s, gathered pace over the next decade, and accelerated even more with many lucrative no-bid contracts from the Ahmadinejad presidency. The IRGC exerts informal, but real, influence over many such organizations including:
IRGC Controlling Iran’s Nuclear & Ballistic Missile Programs
The IRGC is now considered a huge conglomerate of different companies and assets. Parts of its holdings include controlling Iran’s missile drive and the controversial nuclear program.
The IRGC owns and controls dozens of companies, involved in procuring the technology needed to develop ballistic missiles and sensitive nuclear products. The IRGC has been entrusted to develop and pursue the ballistic missile program and all its aspects. A senior Iranian official once boasted about Iran having a sixth missile production line, including the Shahab-3/3B, with a range of over 2,100 kilometers.