The IRGC or “The Iranian Revolutionary Guards” was formally created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on December 4, 1979 following the end of the Iranian Revolution. Khomeini, a Shia Muslim and leader of the Iranian Revolution thereafter became the Supreme Leader of Iran. Khomeini established the IRGC to counter the regular military in order to prevent a potential coup. Khomeini did not trust Iran’s military, and thus the IRGC was created to contend for influence. The commanders of the IRGC were advised by Khomeini, who became Iran’s top decision maker. The statute of the IRGC, created by a group of Guards and ratified by the Council of the Revolution, which was considered the “de facto highest governing body” at the time, provided the initial legal framework for IRGC actions. The group was founded on the basis that it would defend the Islamic Republic against internal and external threats. The Guards specifically quashed any and all budding opposition to Khomeini’s vision.
The IRGC was initially considered a “people’s army,” like the United States National Guard, but over time, the group gained power far beyond its original basis. Currently, the IRGC oversees the entire power structure of Iran and has influence over most parts of Iranian life. The Guards are better supplied than the regular army, boasting superior weaponry and nuclear potential. The IRGC’s superiority has created a fear in the regular army and ultimately they are inferior and powerless against the IRGC. IRGC force is made up of about 150,000 men divided into land, sea and air forces. The group also has authority over the ministry of intelligence in Iran.
Despite Khomeini’s last will in 1988 testament, which asked that the military forces stay out of politics, the IRGC has infiltrated the government. The IRGC role in Iranian politics has been ruthlessly debated for years. While reformists believe Khomeini clearly forbid the Guards from having involvement in politics, specifying that the Guards’ sole purpose was to defend the regime, supporters of the politicized Guards believe they are more than a military organization, but a political and ideological force. According to Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the IRGC is “the spine of the current political structure [in Iran] and a major player in the Iranian economy.”
In an interview for Deutsche Welle, a German news channel, Bahman Nirumand, an Iranian political analyst, publicist and author stated that he believes the IRGC can be described as the true rulers of Iran, since their missions and powers have extended so immensely. He further states that Iran has never seen such a concentration of power as the IRGC is the sovereign authority in Iran, politically, economically and militarily. Former IRGC commanders have taken numerous governmental positions, cementing the IRGC influence into the Iranian political sphere.
When asked if the IRGC has experienced the same increase in power in the economy, mutating into an economic giant. Nirumand states that they are by far the largest economic power in Iran. They have control over the ports and airports which gives them power over imports, exports and the black market. The IRGC maintains powerful holds on the military, industrial, and financial spheres, while also expanding its power into the underground economy. Their role in the underground economy has led to a designation as a mafia-like cartel. Their economic influence does not depend on a single person or central administration, but a far-reaching web of contributors. The underground economy in Iran has flourished under the weak rule of law. According to an IMF study, Iran’s underground economy has a value of about $140 billion. As Iran’s main smuggler with control of the sea, air and land border, the IRGC gains a substantial amount of money from illegal trade. The underground economy remains a very valuable asset for the IRGC. The income allows for the IRGC to be financially dependent from Iran’s government. It also allows for the IRGC to have complete control of Iran’s gangs and underground culture.
Nirumand states that there isn’t anywhere that the IRGC lacks influence. They hold many important government positions, and have a strong network of up and comers. The IRGC may be the most well equipped a sophisticated group of the time, with the will and ability to build a worldwide network. Mohsen Sazegara, a founding member of the IRGC and now a U.S.-based dissident, stated that “I don’t know of any other organization in any country like the Revolutionary Guards,” comparing the Guards to the Communist Party, KGB, a business complex, and the Mafia.
While initially the Islamic Republic was based on the alliance between the government and Revolutionary Guards in which the government ruled the country and the Guards protected the republic, the dynamic has shifted with the Guards ruling both areas. While some analysts believe the increase in IRGC influence has set up the IRGC to challenge the Iranian government others believe that the acrimony and competition within the IRGC ranks will deter the IRGC from taking such control. Either way, with the current pace of IRGC growth, the group may solidify its role as the leading governing power within the Iran.