HomeFeaturesDailyBriefingsRapidReconSpecial ReportsAbout Us

Iran's IRGC: Rogues Or State Arm?

It is, in my view, a purely rhetorical question which answers itself in reading.

At the Middle East Quarterly, Michael Rubin writes a good backgrounder titled Iran's Revolutionary Guards - A Rogue Outfit?. The answer, of course, is "Hardly."

The perception otherwise was one of my principal objections to labeling its Quds Force as a State Department-defined terrorist organization. Terrorist organizations are non-state actors, and it is dangerous to begin the process of potentially delineating the IRGC and/or its revolution-exporting Quds Force from its rightful state arm. Both, in my view, are State-Established Sponsors of Terrorism - regardless of whether they sponsor and at times execute terrorist attacks as well.

Rubin writes, in part, describing what we know of how the IRGC functions and receives its orders. It is as virtually impossible to extrapolate this from state control just as it is to separate Marine Force Recon from American state control.

On a day-to-day basis, the supreme leader exerts control through the Office of the Supreme Leader and a system of handpicked representatives who act as his commissars. Very little is known about the internal functioning of this office, but it probably controls at least 2,000 clerical commissars who permeate every bureaucracy and power center inside Iran and, quite possibly, a few Iranian embassies and cultural centers outside the Islamic Republic's borders. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's network of representatives allows him to manage the structure and trajectory of state policy without controlling every lever of power. Should any political or policy problem arise, Khamenei's network warns him long before the news would reach his level through the formal hierarchy of power. Khamenei can, therefore, maintain control through veto.

If Khamenei's will is supreme, the IRGC is his Praetorian Guard. It emerged in the wake of the Islamic Revolution as a privileged counterpoint to the Iranian army, which the first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, distrusted. Throughout the twentieth century, the Iranian army was subordinate to the person of the shah rather than acting as an institution charged with defending the state. Especially after the challenge from and, eventually, the coup against Mohammad Musaddiq, the shah became dependent upon the army to maintain his rule. He placed family members in key commands and lavished patronage upon senior officers to buy their loyalty. Junior officers and enlisted men felt no such loyalty, however, and as the tide turned ahead of Khomeini's return, many defected to the revolutionary mobs. Upon seizing power, Khomeini may have needed the army to ensure order and national defense, but he never trusted it. At best, he felt the army was comprised of opportunists who joined the revolutionary forces to save their own lives. At worst, he believed they had been loyal to the shah even if they did not choose to fight for him. As Khomeini purged what remained of the senior officer corps, he formed the Revolutionary Guards as the ideological guardians of his new theocracy and a trusted counterbalance to the army.

The IRGC's structure suggests the organization adheres closely to the Islamic Republic's values and goals, if not outright to regime command and control.

I don't argue with the Administrations aims in designating them at all. There has been some additional measure of at least targeted sanctions success in this regard. But I have always wondered why we could not achieve precisely the same by calling the IRGC what it is: A state arm sponsoring terrorism. It's our definition and our sanctions.

Nit-picky? Perhaps.

1 Comment

You would then be talking of engaging the Iranian regime as an actively hostile entity . Such decisions are based for now on pragmatic tolerance at diplomatic levels , probaly nescessary regarding effective or sanctionable engagement. If we atribute direct authority to the regime openly, we then loose a diplomatic safety mechanism in our response to any minor confrontation, at the expense of being more permissive to such actions. Probably best to leave Iran guessing as much as possible as to our intent, and to pick out those directly known to be openly involved, there may also be a need to maintain a certain free room for domestic Iranian political manouvering . The closer to open confrontation we aproach, I suspect the more the measure of blame will be shifted centraly.