Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has emerged as a key player in the shifting power balance of the Middle East, serving as the Iranian government’s primary power projection tool abroad. Formed in the aftermath of the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in 1979, the IRGC’s paramount mission is to preserve and expand the Islamic Revolution. This prime directive in mind, the IRGC operates a military force that is wholly separate from the conventional Iranian armed forces, reporting only to the Supreme Leader of the IRI. It also controls much of the Iranian economy, which provides it with ample funds to execute operations around the world. These missions range from Lebanon and Syria to Yemen; in each of these war-torn nations, the IRGC represents the will and influence of the Iranian government by working with proxy forces against rivals of the regime. As a result, IRGC fighters have often found themselves indirectly and directly opposing US and US-backed forces. This has obviously not endeared them to the USA, which labels the group a “Designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO)”. Regardless of this categorization and its accompanying sanctions, the IRGC remains Iran’s premier expeditionary force and the chief vanguard of its revolution, a status it is highly unlikely to lose in the near-term.
The 1979 revolution that swept the Shah from his rule in Iran was quickly followed by a period of intense power consolidation. While the chief representative of the Islamist revolutionary faction, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was at this point undoubtedly the most significant of the revolutionaries, his grip on the Iranian system was still vulnerable to rival revolutionary groups. After all, not all the revolutionaries were his ideological comrades and many of them retained influence within the post-revolution interim administration. Most concerning for Ayatollah Khomeini was the Iranian military, which was largely viewed as having pro-Shah sympathies. In order to prevent a military coup from destroying his nascent Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini consolidated several large paramilitary groups and created the IRGC. It was designed from the start to be loyal only to the revolution and its supreme leader. The IRGC rather soon found its commitment to this mandate tested when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 with the goal of (among other things) dismantling the revolutionary Shia government that controlled the Persian nation. The IRGC acquitted itself in this conflict, fighting zealously and savagely to defend the Islamic Revolution (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, CFR, 2019).
The Iran-Iraq war ended inconclusively in 1988. Both Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government in Iraq and the Islamic Revolution in Iran remained intact, but both nations suffered heavy casualties and economic disruption. As it was the site of much of the fighting and the target of indiscriminate Iraqi missile attacks, Iran suffered grievous damages to its civilian and military infrastructure. The IRGC was tasked with rebuilding Iran, a role that catapulted it to economic prominence in the nation. Moreover, its position as guardian of the Islamic Revolution and representative of the Supreme Leader endowed it with considerable leverage in negotiating with the broader Iranian economic landscape. As it stands now, the IRGC is estimated by some to control approximately 1/3rd of the contemporary Iranian economy (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, CFR, 2019). This portfolio is naturally diversified; from banking to heavy industries, the IRGC remains a key commercial player in Iran. This ensures that it has more than enough finances and resources to operate with relative impunity within Iran and spearhead its foreign policy in the region and beyond (Reuters 2023).
These foreign policy goals deploy the IRGC in several conflict zones in the Middle East, the most prominent of which include Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In Lebanon, Iran through the IRGC funded, armed, and trained the Shia insurgency group called Hezbollah, enabling its ongoing fight against Israel. This comprehensive support is ongoing; the US Department of State estimated in 2020 that Hezbollah receives around 700 million USD annually from Iran (What is Hezbollah, CFR). The IRGC’s connection to Hezbollah is as much a practical military move as it is an ideological defense of fellow Shia Muslims; Hezbollah, with its arsenal of Iranian missiles and rockets, is a looming threat to Iran’s archrivals in Israel and can unleash its weapons on them in the event of this rivalry morphing into open conflict (Iran International 2022). A similar rationale exists for the IRGC’s assistance to the embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Having Syria friendly to Tehran gives it yet another potential staging ground for military operations against Israel, should a full-scale war with Tel Aviv commence (Frantzman 2023). It should here be noted that the specific arm of the IRGC that carries out unconventional or else specialized warfare like this is called the Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force, reflecting the well-known fact that Iran sees the destruction of the Israeli state and an Islamic reclamation of Jerusalem as one of its primary foreign policy goals.
The IRGC’s activities in Iraq are likewise a combination of practically and ideological fervor; ever since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s government, Iran has sought to ensure that its Arab neighbor never again poses a threat to its own territorial integrity. Moreover, Iraq is a predominantly Shia nation and is also home to some of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Iran therefore uses the IRGC to sponsor various Shia militia groups and public figures in Iraq, many of whom possess considerable pull in the current Iraqi government (Cafiero 2023). As for Yemen, Iran has used the Shia Houthi rebellion as a thorn in the side of its other historic rival in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have targeted critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia with Iranian-made missiles and drones and similarly tied up the Arab kingdom’s military resources in Yemen (Alasrar 2022). While the recent Chinese-sponsored rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh might cool this conflict down immensely, the IRGC’s ability to use the Houthis to target Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be soon forgotten by the Saudi leadership (Al Jazeera 2023).
Essentially all these activities have put the IRGC directly at odds with American interests in the Middle East, leading to no shortage of enmity towards the organization in Washington D.C. Whether it be threatening Israel, the USA’s chief ally in the Middle East, or arming militias in Iraq, the US considers the IRGC a malign actor that causes destabilization in the region (US Department of State, 2019). Even with working towards common goals, such as the elimination of the so-called Islamic State, US forces have no positive contact with their IRGC counterparts. Quite the contrary, open conflict between elements of the IRGC and the American military have occurred many times. The Trump Administration estimated that IRGC supplied weapons killed hundreds of American soldiers during the occupation of Iraq, and it decided to designate the organization as an FTO in early 2019 (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, CFR, 2019). This put the organization under extensive international sanctions, though the ultimate effectiveness of these is debatable (Reuters 2023).
Later in 2019, an IRGC sponsored militia group in Iraq struck a US military base with rockets, killing one American and injuring many more. In retaliation, the USA launched coordinated airstrikes against this group, killing many of its members (Starr 2019). This launched a spiral of mutual provocation and escalation, culminating in the US assassination of the then commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020. The IRGC, at the command of the Iranian Supreme Leader, launched a ballistic missile strike against a major US airbase in Iraq as a response (AP News 2023). While the two sides were able to deescalate the situation soon afterwards, the situation between them remains best characterized as a “hot” peace. Should a direct war erupt between the USA and Iran, it is undoubtable that the IRGC would spearhead Iranian military action against the American military as they did in 2019-2020 (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, CFR, 2019).
The IRGC importance as a political force within and without Iran cannot be understated, as it has demonstrated resourcefulness and flexibility in creating a power base in Iran and carrying out the foreign policy of the Iranian regime in other nations. From the very start it was designed to be the protectors of the Islamic revolution, empowered to utilize whatever means necessary to defend it and its implementation. Its mission has seen it fight in many nations around the Middle East, making an enemy out of the most powerful military force in the world in the process. And yet, the IRGC persists as Iran’s chief method of exerting influence abroad. This will undoubtably remain the case, so long as the Islamic Revolution remains the governing force in Tehran.
Alasrar, Fatima. “Iran Is Spoiling the Truce in Yemen.” The National Interest, 12 Oct. 2022, nationalinterest.org/blog/middle-east-watch/iran-spoiling-truce-yemen-205286.
Cafiero, Giorgio. “Analysis: Iran’s Influence Prevents Iraq’s Arab Reintegration.” Www.aljazeera.com, 20 Mar. 2023, www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/20/analysis-irans-influence-prevents-iraqs-arab-reintegration. Accessed 23 Mar. 2023.
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“What Is Hezbollah?” Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-hezbollah#chapter-title-0-2.