TEHRAN – When two British boats with 15 Royal Navy personnel were seized by Iran last week, all eyes turned to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The corps’ naval force carried out the operation, which Britain says happened in Iraqi territorial waters, and its commanders hold the key to the crisis.
The guards are at the sharp end of Iran’s recent confrontations with the West. They are deeply involved in its nuclear and ballistics programme, and are accused of “interference” in Iraq and Lebanon.
When British servicemen were captured in the summer of 2004, it was widely interpreted as an exercise in muscle-flexing by the guards, who wanted to show Britain and the United States that their presence in Iraq was unwelcome. Some analysts also believed they wanted to force more pragmatic Iranian strategists into a harder line against the West.
Who are the guards?
The guards emerged from the tumult of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s followers were unwilling to trust the police or the army to maintain discipline, so formed the guards as a nationwide militia. They patrolled the streets, enforcing strict Islamic mores and attacking opposition supporters.
When Iraq invaded in September 1980 the untrained and poorly armed guards joined the regular army on the front line. Over the next eight years they evolved into a disciplined military force that extolled martyrdom and battled the better-equipped Iraqi soldiers for God, Khomeini and country. Since the war ended in 1988, they have become Iran’s crack troops.
When students demonstrated in 1999, top guardsmen signed a letter threatening a coup if the reformist president Mohammed Khatami failed to rein them in. But there are signs the rank and file are less politically hardline, with some reports suggesting a majority actually voted for Khatami.
How strong are they?
There are 150,000 guards armed with the best weapons the Islamic republic can buy. By comparison, the conventional army has 300,000 troops but is ill-paid and less well-equipped. The guards have a naval force of 20,000 men, and are believed to operate Iran’s ballistic missile programme and to be developing other weapons systems.
A large militia, the Basij, is directed by the revolutionary guards. With several million recruits of all ages and both sexes, it was known in the war for ideological fervour and courage. Today it organises pro-regime demonstrations and violently breaks up anti-government protests. Membership can help ease applications for government jobs and places at university. Iran’s special forces, the Qods Brigade, are under the guards’ control and have close ties to the intelligence services. The brigade has been inconclusively linked to terrorism and assassinations outside Iran.
Who do they answer to?
In Iran’s unique political system, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sits above the elected Government, run by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and controls large parts of the state. Unlike the conventional forces, the revolutionary guards answer to his office. The supreme leader appoints top guardsmen, who profess themselves his “devotees”.
During the Iran-Iraq war, when Khamenei was President, he worked closely with the guards and developed personal relationships with its top leaders. But it has never been clear how close an interest he takes in tactical decisions. It is also uncertain how far commanders who disagree with his policies him are able to push their own ideas or take unsanctioned, independent action. The top commander, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, is reported to have strongly criticised talks with Europe on the nuclear issue – talks that were endorsed by the supreme leader himself. As a protege of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, Safavi is unlikely to be overawed by his successor Ayatollah Khamenei.
Is their importance growing?
Over the past three years, some analysts have speculated that the revolutionary guards are trying to move into politics. Many of the conservatives who won seats in the Majlis, or parliament, in 2004 were old members of the guards.
In presidential elections the following year, three candidates had close connections to the guards, including the mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There are rumours the President was involved in special forces operations. Since taking office, he has been accused of militarising the Government. Many of his cabinet appointees come from the guards and he has awarded enormous contracts – worth billions of dollars – to engineering companies run by them.
What have they got against Britain?
As the confrontation between Iran and the West has increased, it is the guards who have felt the heat. Some of the Iranians captured by US forces in Arbil in northern Iraq in January were corps members. The raid is reported to have angered guardsmen, who hold Britain, as US partners in Iraq, partly responsible.
Accusations of interference in Iraq and Lebanon have also been directed at the guards. Top commanders they see such charges as hypocritical, lambasting Britain and the US for occupying neighbouring countries and making threatening noises about attacking Iran.
And with the nuclear crisis growing worse, the guards have come under sanction. Under a UN resolution co-sponsored by Britain and agreed on last Saturday, revolutionary guards leaders, including Mr Safavi, will have their assets frozen.
What’s happening to the servicemen now?
British diplomats have been told the servicemen are in good health and are being treated well. Iran has said it may charge them with entering Iranian waters illegally – something Britain denies. In 2004, the captured servicemen were shown blindfold on Iranian television. Britain has told Iran that if that happens again, it would be seen as a serious escalation.
The Iranians have so far denied access to the servicemen. But the likelihood is they are still being held by the revolutionary guards.