On April 8, 2019, the US government announced it was placing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on its Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list. It was the first time the US had designated a part of a nation’s official military forces as a terrorist group.
“This action will significantly expand the scope and scale of our maximum pressure on the Iranian regime” and make it clear that doing business with Iran amounts to “bankrolling terrorism,” the White House statement said. The Trump administration’s thinking seems to be that if Iran is going to change — whether this means regime change or a massive overhaul to how it responds with the outer world — the Guards will have to be confronted and broken up.
Iran responded angrily but carefully. It immediately designated all United States Central Command (CENTCOM) forces, which are active in military operations in the Middle East, as terrorists, and labeled the US as a “supporter of terrorism.” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif slammed the move, describing it as "another dangerous US misadventure" in the region and a "misguided election-eve gift,” referring to elections in Israel, which resulted in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu securing a fifth term in office. But the IRGC and President Hassan Rouhani’s government, which have been busy dealing with massive floods across Iran, haven’t outlined any specific measures to counter or reverse the American decision.
The Guards’ vague and measured threat to an action that will seriously weaken it and reduce its influence in Iran and the region was predictable. Iranians and Iran-watchers are used to the IRGC’s secretiveness, unpredictability and unconventionality.
But who are the Revolutionary Guards and what is this elite military force’s real power? How does it shape politics, culture, the economy, education, science, healthcare and every other aspect of life in Iran?
The IRGC was established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, in 1979. It was intended to be the new regime’s loyal armed forces, since Khomeini and his acolytes didn’t trust Iran’s official army (Artesh) and feared it may stage a coup. The IRGC began as a start-up army of revolutionary Islamic anti-Western zealots who thought most of Iran’s problems were caused by “the Global Arrogance” — the US and its allies, especially Israel. The IRGC was then developed into a professional army with huge resources during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, and led many of its operations. European and American (as well as Soviet) support for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the war sowed further distrust toward the West among both IRGC commanders and the IGRC's rank and file soldiers.
The IRGC’s war legacy is a mixed bag, a series of heroic sacrifices and victories and bungling failures. Khomeini used the IRGC as his main instrument to “export” his revolution to other countries, mostly with deadly results. The Guards helped Lebanese militia to attack the US embassy and American marines’ barracks in Lebanon in 1983. The attacks killed a total of 258 Americans. The IRGC’s most successful “export” was the establishment of the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, which it trained and supported both financially and ideologically. Iran used Syria to send arms and technology to Hezbollah. Today, the IRGC and Hezbollah are the main protectors of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
After the end of the war with Iraq in 1988 and the death of Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the IRGC found a new ally and patron in Khomeini’s successor, Ali Khamenei. Since then, the IRGC has become Khamenei’s own private army. It has arrested, tortured and killed hundreds of people whose only crime has been to question Khamenei’s authority. In turn, Khamenei has allowed the IRGC to become a military and industrial conglomerate that has penetrated every facet of life and power in Iran and much of the Middle East. As Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Federation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank points out, “The Guard Corps is the dominant force in Iran, with control over Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, its economy, regional aggression and a vast system of domestic repression," adding, "The Guards threaten US security as well as American allies in the Middle East.”
Columbia University Professor Gary Sick, who served on the US National Security Council during the Jimmy Carter administration, says the IRGC has gone from a “rag-tag group of volunteers tossed together” to a “very professional organization that's taken quite seriously by other professional militaries” around the world. After September 11, 2001, the IRGC worked with the US and its allies in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, their common enemy. That temporary alliance between the IRGC and the US forces was an anomaly. During the most violent years of the war in Iraq, the IRGC killed hundreds of American troops through its proxies, mostly in southern Iraq. In recent years, Israel, America’s main ally in the region, has killed dozens of IRGC forces in Syria.
It is impossible to see Iran in the near future without the IRGC, in the same way that it was difficult to see a future Soviet Union or Russia without the KGB in the 1960s, 70s or the 80s. Saeid Golkar, political science lecturer at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, believes that any country or army that plans for regime change in Iran must take the IRGC’s power and influence into consideration. “The Guards must be seen as the main variable when considering the future of Iran,” he says. “They are very successful when it comes to providing security. There have been some terrorist attacks against the IRGC, but compared to the other countries in the region, there have been less terrorist activities in Iran.” Despite hostility from different forces in the region and their efforts to hurt the Guards, especially in the provinces of Khuzestan and Kurdistan, both bordering Iraq, and Sistan and Baluchistan, which borders Pakistan, the IRGC has successfully managed these challenges.
Golkar cites a Pakistani proverb that says every country has an army, but in Pakistan, the army has a country. “I think we can use this for the Guards as well. The IGRC is becoming like the Pakistani army — the country has an armed force, but the Revolutionary Guards Corps has a country. It’s significant to go back to its penetration in society, culture, the economy, politics — foreign politics and domestic politics. Right now, you cannot find any aspect of Iran’s domestic or foreign policy that the IRGC is not involved with. The future of the political system in Iran is mainly dependant on the Guards."
Similar to the Pakistani army, the IRGC has a finger in every lucrative pie in its country. The Corps own banks, film companies, dairy farms, and universities across Iran. In many cases businesses are forced to sell part of their shares to the IRGC or join IRGC-led industrial projects knowing well that they will be harshly punished or lose their licenses if they don’t work with the force. In most cases, companies are discouraged from revealing their partnership with the IRGC. The circumvention of international sanctions is the main reason for such surreptitiousness. In 2018, critics objected to the US Treasury listing the “privately-owned” Parsian Bank on its sanctions list because the bank is one of the main institutions involved in the import of food and medicine in Iran. But further research revealed that Parsian Bank is controlled by the IRGC.
The Guardians of the Regime
President Rouhani and his ministers have criticized the ubiquitous presence of the IRGC in Iran’s economy and have pointed out that this presence has made life very difficult for Iran’s government. But Rouhani has been quick to minimize the importance of his administration’s battles with the IRGC by referring to them as “family quarrels.”
“Overall the IRGC is so intertwined with the regime that they depend on each other,” says Gary Sick. As a result, the Iranian regime has not faced any threats of a military takeover. “The key thing is that the Guards may be dependent on the Supreme Leader, but he is truly dependent on them — basically for his security overall.”
The Guards and the Basij, the extensive volunteer paramilitary group under the Guards, have clearly been successful at upholding the regime’s power in Iran, says Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at FDD and former CIA analyst. “They have demonstrated repeatedly, sometimes in rather ferocious ways, that they are quite capable of handling popular protests, be they political or non-political in nature. The regional impact is profound given its role in overseeing, developing, maintaining the foreign Shia legion that Iran has developed, which is historically a very impressive achievement. There is really no comparable military, missionary effort that I am aware of in modern times.”
Saeid Golkar says the IRGC’s decentralization of its operations is key to its power. When the IRGC set up headquarters for the Basij in each of the country’s 31 provinces, he says, “they created a very complicated and sophisticated network that controls the society. In particular, it has wielded power through its success at internal security — and crucially, this means clamping down on dissent. "The IRGC is the lynchpin of the clerical-military dictatorship that is today’s Islamic Republic,” says Mark Dubowitz of FDD. In many ways, it is more important that the clerical establishment itself. “In Iran’s internal politics and economy, given the dominant influence of the Guards, the choice is between hard hardliners and the hardest of hardliners.”
A Corrupt Schizophrenic Socialist/Capitalist Behemoth
Gary Sick points out that the IRGC's biggest weakness could be its unwieldy sprawl. “This is not the way the organization began, with a very tight-knit group of people fighting for the revolution, fighting to defend the country against Saddam Hussein. It is now a behemoth of an institution that builds subways and handles telephone communications and fights foreign wars and runs part of the oil business. The problem with that is that different aspects of the group can develop their own interests and they're not always the same. So this idea of the IRGC being a totally monolithic organization that speaks only with one voice I think is not true.” The Guards alumni is also massive, giving former Guards members the opportunity to potentially cause problems for the force it once served. Many Iranian reformist politicians, some of whom have been jailed or forced into exile, have been IRGC commanders at some point over the last 40 years. And some of them once again wore the Guards uniform when the US announced it was designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, a sign of defiance and pride in the regime and its chief protector.
From Reuel Gerecht's perspective, the Guards’ weakest point is corruption. “Obviously, they're not good capitalists. The entire Iranian system is a corrupt state-controlled socialism/capitalism ...The more they take control of parts of the Iranian economy, those are parts of the economy that will of course deaden.” Saeid Golkar also points to the Guards’ destruction of the economy and the rife corruption that drives it. At the same time, he points out that its real power seems hard to measure. "I always think of the Revolutionary Guards as a bodybuilder. From outside it is very beautiful, very strong. But we don't know in reality how strong it is.”
Many current IRGC commanders have no real ideological affiliation to the Guards and are members so that they can make money through its corrupt system. The situation is so bad that former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a former IRGC commander, called IRGC units in charge of anti-narcotics operations “our smuggling brothers.”
Why the Terrorist List? Why Now?
Designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, says Mark Dubowitz of FDD, “provides the US government with a more expansive set of tools to target the full scope of IRGC influence in the Iranian economy and to deter international businesses from any involvement in any sector of the economy where the Guards are players. It also accurately captures the full extent of the IRGC’s role in terrorism as not merely a supporter of terrorism but as one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world. If you do business with the Guards, you’re doing business with terrorists. Full stop."
Golkar believes that the listing of the IRGC as a FTO enhances its power to crack down on people’s basic freedoms. “Right now, if anyone criticizes the Revolutionary Guards, he will be blamed,” Golkar says, “and branded as an American spy, or as trying to undermine the regime. Externally it won't constrain or limit the Guards’ activities in the region, and the last group that the sanctions will hurt is the political elite.”
Those who oppose the sanctions and listing the IRGC as an FTO say that this new announcement could mean further pressure on ordinary people. “As an Iranian, with almost all of my family in Iran, I'm against the sanctions,” says Golkar. “Because sanctions hurt everyone, especially the poor and the middle class, first and foremost.” He compares the current situation with the sanctions against Iraq. “Just think about Saddam Hussein, for example, when there were sanctions affecting the Iraqi economy. But even before 2001, if you watch the videos of Iraq, you will realize the politicians, the political elite, are enjoying their lives, they have the most advanced cars — but the people are suffering."
For the FDD’s Gerecht, the FTO announcement was mostly about US negotiations with other Western countries concerning the nature of the Iranian regime. “It obviously does have an impact on Western investment. It particularly has an impact on American Democratic politics in 2020 if they were to win the election. The Guard Corps like to see themselves as the saviors of the revolution and the Islamic Republic. They certainly don't like to be called a terrorist organization. They prefer to define terrorism differently. So I think there is a certain anger about it and there's a certain efficacy in doing it. The real question is not what the Guards Corps thinks, the real question is what the Iranian people think. So only time will tell.”
Columbia professor Gary Sick sees a number of reasons why the US made the decision, and why it made it now. “The Trump administration wants to demonstrate in every way that it can that it's absolutely opposed to the regime in Iran and that it's willing to go far beyond what any administration would do. It reinforces this idea of the ‘America First’ concept.” He says the administration is set on making sure the regime is dismantled. “In that sense, the symbolic aspect of it is very important.”
Sick identifies another tactical reason. On the same day of the announcement, American officials also announced that 16 Saudis had been banned from the US, including an aide to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a response to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “That announcement got totally buried because of the IRGC announcement. If it hadn't been for the IRGC announcement, the newspaper headlines would probably have been: ‘Why isn't the Crown Prince included in that list?’ And nobody asked that question, or nobody asked it very loudly, because they were so busy talking about the Revolutionary Guards.”
Sick suggests the listing was also about the future and securing a powerful legacy. “It makes it very, very difficult for any future US administration to change policy because basically to certify to Congress that the IRGC is not a terrorist organization takes a lot of political capital and is a very costly thing to do. Clearly the IRGC does support Hezbollah, for instance, and trains people for it. And from the point of view of the US government, that is technically terrorism, so how do you certify anything? It makes it almost impossible for the next government, the next administration, to back away entirely from US policy because it's going to be very difficult to undo what has been done.”
Will the FTO Listing Lead to the Demise of the IRGC?
Transparency has never been the IRGC’s strongest suit. In fact, whenever there has been an attempt to make part of the organization more transparent, that part of the IRGC has been weakened as a result of exposures. Since the beginning, the Guards Corps has operated in the shadows. It has mastered the challenge of dodging sanctions through dealing with the most odious regimes and characters, including North Korea, as well as Venezuelan and Lebanese drug cartels. But it has also attempted to trade legitimately through investing in established Iranian banks and corporations.
Listing the IRGC as an FTO will expose the true nature of the IRGC. “Economically, they are putting the pressure on the Revolutionary Guards, without any doubt,” says Golkar. And because of the organization’s influence in all aspects of Iranian business and finance, it will inevitably mean a dark period for the economy in the near future. The FTO listing will mean more transparency, making it more difficult for the IRGC to conceal its presence in different Iranian banks, companies and industries. Foreign banks and corporations that have had transactions with IRGC-owned or partly-owned companies will have to stop dealing with them if they don’t want to be subjected to US sanctions.
In the short term, the IRGC will, most probably, act harshly and try to regain power through what it knows best — brute force. There may be attacks on the US and its allies in the region through Iranian proxies and allies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, among other places. The IRGC will try to make it difficult for the US to make deals with various factions in the region, especially in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Yet, at the end of the day, the IRGC and the regime as a whole will need a longer-term plan to repair the damage to themselves and the country. They need a plan to survive. That will be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
In the coming weeks and months, the Guards will use the Foreign Terrorist Organization classification as a way to awaken people’s nationalist feelings and win the sympathy of Iranians. That will also be difficult to achieve. As many Iranians have pointed out on social media, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps doesn’t even have the word “Iran” in its name. According to Saeid Golkar, the IRGC has also failed to carry out its main mission – to Islamicize the Iranian society. “In my opinion, Iran is the most secular country among the Islamic societies. They cannot reach the society, they cannot reach the opposition, or even people in the grey areas, apolitical people.” The mass demonstrations by mostly poor and disenfranchized Iranians in early 2018 showed that they have no confidence in any part of the regime, especially the IRGC. For many, the Guards are both a symbol of the failure of the Islamic Revolution, but also the force behind this failure. But this damage and fracture have served Iran's political and military elite well, and as long as that is the case, the ordinary people of Iran will continue to have no other choice but to try to build their lives within the tragic rubble the IRGC has created.
Read IranWire's series on the Revolutionary Guards: