Key point: The IRGC is a fanatical and elite unit.
No other branch of the Iranian military can claim the notoriety that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has earned for itself over the last several decades.
Earlier this year, the White House took the unprecedented step of designating the IRGC as an organization that “actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.” It was an IRGC fast attack craft that almost sparked open military conflict between the U.S. and Iran in June by staging an unprovoked attack against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
The IRGC continues to comprise a substantial part of the Iranian armed forces, but their influence—both within Iran and across the Middle-East region—extends far beyond raw combat capabilities. To understand the full extent of IRGC’s current role within the Iranian military, we must go back to back to the birth of the Iranian Islamic Republic.
The IRGC was founded in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Skeptical of the intentions of the inherited government and wary of a counter-coup, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini founded the IRGC as a counterweight to the existing Iranian security apparatus.
Whereas the Iranian Army is sworn to defend the Iranian government, the IRGC was conceived as a “people’s army” meant to safeguard the ideals of the revolution against internal opposition. That opposition was swiftly crushed by Khomeini and his allies, who had successfully consolidated power by the early 1980’s. With its original purpose fulfilled, IRGC seized on the ongoing Iran-Iraq war as an opportunity to rebrand itself as a major regional player. As Syracuse University Professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi put it, “Before the war the IRGC militiamen were nothing more than bodyguards to the clerics. Their performance in the war gave them a seat at the proverbial power table.” Their ranks swelled with new recruits, reaching 125,000 troops over the coming years, and the IRGC was formally integrated into the Iranian Armed Forces. Now a quasi-independent organization working within the Iranian military, the IRGC’s operations expanded to include naval, air force, paramilitary, special forces, and cyberwarfare roles.
Belying the IRGC’s broad mandate is a generally well-defined division of labor between the Guards and Iran’s conventional military forces. For instance: the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) operates all of Iran’s jet fighters, while the IRGC’s own air force branch controls most of the ballistic missiles. The IRGC wields what is arguably the most destructive weapon in Iran’s power projection arsenal: the Quds Force, an elite unconventional warfare unit that spearheads Iranian military and intelligence operations across the Middle East.
The Quds Force has been a constant thorn in the side of American interests in the Middle East, providing military aid and direct combat support to anti-US militants in such hotspots as Iraq and Afghanistan. From arming the Taliban against the pro-US Karzai government in Afghanistan to an alleged assassination attempt against the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US, the Quds Force has been no less proactive in military operations against American allies. Most recently, Quds agents were deployed in Syria to stage ground offensives against anti-Assad rebels as the Russian Air Force conducted airpower campaigns against rebel-held outposts.
Iran is no slouch in raw military power, boasting the world’s 14th strongest army by the GlobalFirepower ranking system. It is, however, still grossly outmatched by the US military in every relevant category.
But the IRGC, with its aptitude for asymmetric and unconventional warfare across the Middle-East, emerged from the chaos of the 1979 revolution to challenge the US in ways that Iran’s conventional military forces never could.