The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), better known in abbreviated form as the Revolutionary Guards, are the ideologically-driven military force of the Islamic Republic in Iran that are tasked with guarding the revolutionary Islamist values at home as well as exporting them to the other parts of the world.
The Guards are distinct from the classic Iranian army. Iran has had a regular army in the manner of modern Western armies since the early 20th century. However, after the Islamist revolution of 1979, the army was not considered “revolutionary” enough by the standards of the revolutionary leaders. As a result, the leaders decided to create an ideological militia that would compensate for the army’s lack of ideological zeal. And so were born the Revolutionary Guards.
However, before the revolution in Iran, the core of the Guards, which was composed of various hardline Islamist and Leftist individuals, had been trained and battle-hardened in Syria and Lebanon during the ongoing internal and international conflicts, most important of them all the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Indeed the regional and later global reach of the Guards stems from the fact that they started their fight as part of an international anti-Western and anti-Israeli effort that still continues today.
In the course of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Guards gradually replaced the regular army as the main military force of Iran. After the war – which ended in a stalemate slightly in favor of Iraq, and with the Islamists’ ambitions directed towards a different kind of overseas adventure, the Guards became the main instrument of the regime for exporting its Islamist brand of imperialism to the wider Middle East and the rest of the world.
The notorious Quds Force branch of the IRGC was formally established in the early 1990s to systematically carry out the program of extending the ideological and political influence of the Islamist regime beyond the borders of Iran. Since its establishment, the Quds Force, in line with its mandate, has been engaged in some of the bloodiest conflicts worldwide, including the Bosnian War (1992-1995), the Afghan Civil War (1992-1996), the Israel-Hezbollah War (2006), the Syrian Civil War (2011-present), and the Yemeni Civil War (2015-present).
The Quds Force is tasked with organizing and supporting the pro-Iranian-regime non-state actors such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestinian Territories, Houthis in Yemen, and Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. The Quds Force is also known to have occasionally worked with and supported operations of Sunni Islamist forces that are not necessarily affiliated with the Shia Islamist regime in Iran, including Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS. In those cases, the common targets have usually been Westerners, especially Americans.
The Guards initially took little part in overt politics in Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution and the founder of the Islamic Republic, issued an injunction forbidding the Guards from entering the political arena. However, after the Iran-Iraq War and due to Khomeini’s death and Khamenei’s leadership, which sparked a domestic power struggle and brought about a seachange in strategic priorities overseas, the Guards started to overtly enter Iranian politics.
Similar to all military forces in ideological, totalitarian regimes such as the Brown Shirts/SA/SS in Nazi Germany, the Red Army in the Soviet Union, and the Chinese and Cuban armies, the Revolutionary Guards are not the subsidiary branch of an overarching civil government. Rather, they are the embodiment of revolutionary ideology, and as such see it as their mandate to enforce and advance that ideology through any means possible. In the case of the Guards, ideology mandates the establishment of a global Islamist government through subduing all the enemies and conquering the whole world.
To fulfill that goal, the Revolutionary Guards not only have dominated the military but also the economy and politics in Iran. Today Iranian officials in any capacity are mostly members – former or present – of the IRGC. It is surmised that around three-fourth of the Iranian MPs are/were Guards’ members. In addition, almost all of Iran’s trade, industry, and banking is run by the Guards or their affiliates. Along the same line, the Guards maintain a tight monopoly on import/export and overseas investment, which is their main conduit for laundering money on the international stage. As such, it can be said that the Guards have taken the Iranian nation hostage to fulfill their dream of an Islamist world government.
During their history, in line with their goal of exporting Islamist ideology, subduing “enemies of Islam” and establishing zones of influence around the world, the Revolutionary Guards have committed some of the most heinous acts of terrorism across the globe. It can be said that almost every major act of terrorism targeting the West – especially the USA, the Jews, and the Sunni Arabs has been either directly or indirectly orchestrated or conducted by the Guards.
Some of the better-known of these terrorist attacks by or involving the Revolutionary Guards are the Beirut Barracks Bombings (1983) during the Lebanese Civil War where 307 American and French peacekeeping forces were killed; the Lockerbie Bombing (1988) during which the Pan American Flight 103 was bombed over Scotland, killing all the 259 onboard; the AMIA Bombing (1994) during which the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association building was bombed, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds; the Khobar Towers Bombing (1996) during which the living quarters of the Coalition forces in Saudi Arabia were bombed, killing 19 U.S. Air Force personnel and injuring close to 500 others; the September 11 Attacks (2001) where the World Trade Center was targeted, resulting in the deaths of 2996 and injury of over 6000 people; and the Benghazi Attack (2012) during which the United States government facilities in Libya were attacked, resulting in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
In addition to these iconic terrorist attacks, the Revolutionary Guards and their proxy forces such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hashd al-Sha’bi in Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan are responsible for the ongoing killing of the Coalition forces in the Middle East; creating unrest as well as mass trafficking of narcotics in Latin America; taking hostage Western, including American, citizens in the Middle East; and war crimes in Syria and Yemen. That is why the Trump administration recently designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, granting them the unenviable title of “the only state military force in history to have been outlawed as terrorist.”