Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps: A force to reckon with

Loyal to the Supreme Leader at home, IRGC functions as an expeditionary force abroad through proxies like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Houthis.

Published : Feb 08, 2024 09:30 IST - 12 MINS READ

A pedestrian passes by a billboard of Qassem Soleimani in Tehran. Soleimani, the commander of Quds Force, was killed in a US air strike in January 2020 in Baghdad.

A pedestrian passes by a billboard of Qassem Soleimani in Tehran. Soleimani, the commander of Quds Force, was killed in a US air strike in January 2020 in Baghdad. | Photo Credit: MAJID SAEEDI/Getty Images

Some time in late 2001, US State Department officials secretly met an Iranian delegation in Geneva. Responding to the US request for advice and intelligence on Taliban targets in Afghanistan, the Iranian delegation readily pointed out specific locations on a map, recommended a sequence of attack, and supplied the military logic necessary.i As the Americans returned the favour by providing details of Al Qaeda operatives in Iran, it soon became apparent to them that the man really in charge of this unlikely cooperative effort between Tehran and Washington against the Taliban was Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the ‘Quds Force’ of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Soleimani and the IRGC were instrumental in bolstering support to anti-Taliban Afghan groups in the decade prior to 9/11 and propping up the pre-Taliban mujahideen government (1991-96) until Kabul fell to the Taliban for the first time. In the next two decades, however, the IRGC became the principal opponent to US forces in the region, as both Iran and the US increasingly found each other at cross purposes in post-Saddam Iraq, conflict-ridden Lebanon, and Assad-ruled Syria. Characteristic of the intense hostility that would define the Tehran-Washington relationship in the two decades since their brief cooperation, Soleimani would be assassinated in a US air strike in Iraq in 2020.

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For 30 years since 1988, the Quds Force built and sustained a vast and deep network of armed militias, each born out of intra-state conflict in Iran’s neighbourhood. Today, as the post October 7 crisis expands in West Asia, all of these groups have emerged as direct belligerents in the conflict, actively fighting US and Israeli forces. While the relationship of each group with Tehran varies, the IRGC and its Quds Force serve as the nerve centre for these relationships. What, then, is the IRGC, and what role does its Quds Force fulfill in Iran’s assertive regional foreign policy? The answer begins in 1979.

Looking beyond Iran

In the tumultuous days following the February 1979 revolution in Iran, the interim government in Tehran comprised old-guard nationalists of the ilk of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (infamously deposed by the CIA in 1953). This short-lived government, gave way to Shia theocratic rule directly under Ayatollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader, by December. Among Khomeini’s priorities was to placate an old characteristic fear of most successful revolutionaries, that is to ensure that the state’s pre-existing, organised, well-armed military does not pose a threat to the new regime. Even as the Artesh (Iran’s state military) largely stood by, a number of powerful local armed groups centred around clerical establishments, consolidated across the state. As the locus of supreme clerical authority came to exist in the single office of the Supreme Leader, these groups, eventually ironing out factionalism, merged into one, officially becoming the IRGC (Pasdaran) by 1982. Today, the IRGC boasts a parallel army, air force, navy, as well as a special unit, the Quds Force.

Houthi fighters stage a rally in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the US-led airstrikes on Yemen, in Sanaa, on January 29. 

Houthi fighters stage a rally in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the US-led airstrikes on Yemen, in Sanaa, on January 29.  | Photo Credit: Osamah Abdulrahman/AP

Even as the Guards’ raison d’etre was to protect the revolution internally, right from its provenance it was ascribed the external role of “exporting” the revolution to Iran’s neighbouring states. In any case, its role beyond Iran’s borders was sculpted and honed through the Iran-Iraq war or the “Sacred Defence”—a bloody, protracted war of attrition that seared itself into the memories of the Guards’ rank and file and created an indelible fraternal bond among what is today the IRGC’s senior leadership. This burst of martial experience for the Guards was invaluable for the Iranian regime which, centred around the Supreme Leader, was conceptualised with a pan-Islamic rather than an Iranian identity. A revealing note on the website of Ali Khamenei (Iran’s current Supreme Leader), addressing the identity of the IRGC, states:

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“Preserving and safeguarding the Revolution does not mean preserving its current situation. Why? Because the Revolution is by nature a progressive movement, and an accelerated movement at that…. The ultimate goal is transcendence, perfection and closeness to God. A less important goal is self-education. A less important goal is to establish an Islamic society in which all the characteristics of an Islamic society are present, including justice, monotheism and spirituality.”ii

This reflects the IRGC’s Islamic character and its necessary dynamism, above all else. In its name, the IRGC is the Islamic  Revolutionary Guard Corps (Sepah-e-Pasdaran-e-Enqelab-e-Islami) rather than the “Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps”. In the Guards’ logo, the graphical representation of the globe (instead of Iran) symbolises internationalism and a rejection of nationalism.iii

IRGC Coat of Arms

IRGC Coat of Arms | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is asserted despite the revolution being executed on the shoulders of a popular uprising which included nationalist groups. The Guards have always had the duty to “export the revolution” based on Khomeini’s conception of a unified Islamic people, regardless of territorial boundaries—what Mohammad Javad Larijani (senior adviser to Khamenei) termed as Umm-al-Qura.iv It is this pan-Islamist outlook which is at the heart of the IRGC’s identity and the most powerful ideological driver of its Quds Force; Quds literally translates to “Holy City”, Jerusalem.

As a result, the IRGC has been a characteristically non-nationalist force. This is summarised well by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi—whose teachings are incorporated into the IRGC’s training modules—who refers to nationalism (the age of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911, Mohammed Mossadegh’s premiership and the politics of the 1953 coup) as the motto of the age of jahilliya (ignorance).v 

The current Iranian Constitution itself carefully calibrates the external goal. Since Iran cannot afford to explicitly propagate a principle that might run contrary to the global norm of non-interference in the affairs of other states, the Constitution chooses to express the concept of “exporting the revolution” in more passive and ideological, rather than active political or militant, terms. Rejecting non-interference, it “supports the just struggles of the mustad’afun (the oppressed) against the mustakbirun (the oppressor) in every corner of the globe.”vi The IRGC, then, is a modern praetorian guard in character due to its loyalty to the Leader, but an expeditionary force in outlook. The latter role is fulfilled by its Quds Force—the working instrument through which the global vision is given life, with the Force Commander reporting directly to the Supreme Leader.

Highlights
  • The Quds Force has been the premier force of the IRGC, with constant military/political activity against the Taliban in Afghanistan, US forces in Iraq, Israel at the Lebanese border, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
  • It was commanded by Qassem Soleimani between 1998 and 2020, adopting greater independence in external operations. During and after the Arab Spring, the (mostly Shia) youth flocked to groups associated with Soleimani and his Quds Force.
  • The Quds Force is actively engaged in fighting Israeli and US-led forces, with the Houthis opening a fresh maritime front against international shipping in the Red Sea. Its ability to maintain multiple active fronts by proxy remains potent.

The Quds Force and proxy groups

Established in 1988, the Quds Force was commanded by Qassem Soleimani between 1998 and 2020, inextricably tying him with the Force’s evolution. Under him the Force adopted greater independence in external operations, even as the rest of the IRGC focussed on domestic affairs, and received some of the Guards’ best trained members.vii Himself resolutely devoted to Khamenei, it was Soleimani’s personal ability, charisma, and influence that elicited remarkable loyalty from non-Iranian militant groups in the region.viii

While the Quds Force focussed on establishing “relationships with people, often building on existing socio-economic ties with the well-established Shia diaspora”,ix Soleimani himself evolved into a cult-like personality, embedding himself within regional armed groups and cultivating a large bank of goodwill by participating in community engagements and strategic and tactical decision-making. Consequently, during and after the Arab Spring, when jehadist forces virulently opposed to Shia Islam (such as the Islamic State) rampaged across Iraq and Syria, the (mostly Shia) youth flocked to groups associated with Iran’s Soleimani and his Quds Force, given his reputation.x Four groups in particular have benefited from the web of arms, funds, and influence that Soleimani weaved in return for a degree of loyalty to Iran’s revolutionary and anti-Israel cause— the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestine’s Hamas, Iraq’s Hashd-al-Sha’abi, and Yemen’s Houthis. While the former two were products of Israel’s war in Lebanon and the Palestinian Intifada in the 1980s, the latter two were born out of Iraq’s popular mobilisation against ISIS, and Yemen’s deadly civil war, in the early and mid 2010s, respectively. Except for Hamas (which finds common anti-Israeli cause with Tehran), all other groups are predominantly Shia. The relationship between each group and the Quds Force was carefully crafted by Soleimani, conceding operational autonomy wherever necessary.

A building  hit by a missile attack launched by the IRGC in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region on January 16.

A building hit by a missile attack launched by the IRGC in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdish region on January 16. | Photo Credit: Kurdistan 24/AFP

By the time of his assassination, each of these groups had achieved a significant degree of political and military entrenchment within their respective states, some even enjoying political power in state institutions (Lebanon, Iraq), securing sustained Iranian influence.

Currently, in its continuing relationship with each group, despite Soleimani’s absence, the Quds Force is drawing from the large reserve of trust that his legacy carries. Notably, the new chief of the Force is former Deputy Commander Esmail Ghani, appointed directly by Khamenei, and belonging to the IRGC old-guard—steeped in the revolutionary principle crafted in 1979 and nourished by the Iran-Iraq war.

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Notwithstanding the distant future, the current ranks of the Quds Force (with years of experience under Soleimani) are evidently able enough to exploit these long-standing ties—all of the above-mentioned groups are actively engaged in fighting Israeli and US-led forces.

On the one hand, the Houthis have opened a fresh maritime front against international shipping in the Red Sea to increase the economic cost of supporting Israel, even as Hezbollah is mounting a limited campaign of striking Northern Israel with rockets from South Lebanon. On the other hand, the Hashd in Iraq (especially subgroups more loyal to the Quds Force) are engaging US forces that remain—a new cost-effective approach by Tehran that aims to harass US troops in Iraq, regardless of where the locus of any fresh escalation of tensions lie.

Hamas, as is now well known, is the principal belligerent in the war against Israel, following their October 7 terror attacks. While terming these groups as “proxies” risks being reductionist, the net effect of their actions directly fitting Iran’s own interests as their primary sponsor sufficiently warrants such characterisation. That the Quds Force continues to be the nerve-centre for these groups’ collective (notwithstanding how disjoint) decision-making is evident in Israel specifically targeting Quds Force commanders in the region—just as it did in Syria in December 2023.xi

Remaining in the shadows

For years, the Quds Force has been the premier force of the IRGC—one that has seen constant military/political activity across two decades— against the Taliban in Afghanistan, US forces in Iraq, Israel at the Lebanese border, ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Today, as multiple crises spin-off from each other in West Asia (and South Asia as evident in the exchange of air strikes between Pakistan and Iran), the Quds Force remains the umbilical cord between Tehran and key regional groups—the Houthis’ drones, Hezbollah’s rockets and the Hashd’s guns all boast Iranian manufacturing. While the US designated the IRGC and its Quds Force as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in 2019, Israel now reflects greater willingness to publicly take on Iran directly due to the Quds Force’s continuing operations. In December 2023, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett broke from Israel’s traditional approach of not claiming responsibility for overt strikes in other states and detailed at least two operations he had ordered against Iran—part of Bennett’s advocacy for a more Iran-centric approach to national security.xii There are two reasons, however, that continue to incentivise the Quds Force for sustaining its operations:

* Its long experience of working from the shadows to increase Tehran’s plausible deniability has resulted in limited direct losses; the true number of Quds Forces personnel at any point in time in any of these states is unknown and difficult to discern.

* The shifting of Arab public sentiment (away from the Abraham Accords and against Israel) provides it greater buffer in its anti-Israel cause, giving Tehran more leeway in its relationship with these groups.

The latter is further reflected in growing Arab unity in advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza, while remaining reluctant to join any Western coalition against the Houthis in the Red Sea. Objectively then, there is no space for either Israel or the US to fight the Quds Force directly in all theatres, leading to a dependence on targeted airstrikes and assassinations. However, the ability of the group to withstand such retaliation and maintain multiple active fronts by proxy remains potent. Even with a ceasefire in Gaza, it shall not be unreasonable to expect an increase in Israeli confrontation with Iran, in an effort to weaken the IRGC’s Quds Force and bring it out of the shadows.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a Research Associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. Views expressed are strictly his own.

Footnotes

i Afshon Ostovar (2016), ‘Vanguard of the Imam’, Oxford University Press. Pg 161.

ii “How was the IRGC established”, 2020, https://english.khamenei.ir/news/7489/How-was-the-IRGC-established

iii Afshon Ostovar (2016), ‘Vanguard of the Imam’, Oxford University Press. Pg 102.

iv Kasra Aarabi, Beyond Borders: The Expansionist Ideology of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, London, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2020, https://institute.global/policy/beyond-borders-expansionist-ideology-irans-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps, p. 33.

v “Beyond Borders: The Expansionist Ideology of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”, p. 27.

vi Article 154 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran of 1979, with amendments through 1989.

vii Vanguard of the Imam. Pg 6.

viii Arsh Azizi (2020), ‘The Shadow Commander’, Oneworld.

ix Alma Keshavarz (2023), ‘The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’, Bloomsbury. Pg. 43.

x Ibid.

xi https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-air-strike-syria-kills-senior-iranian-revolutionary-guards-member-2023-12-25/

xii https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-us-and-israel-need-to-take-iran-on-directly-proxies-hamas-threat-7f67a238

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