Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is Iran’s premier military force. It’s also much more. As the official protector of the 1979 revolution that overthrew Iran’s monarchy and established an Islamic Republic, the Guard exerts political and economic power and has a direct line to the country’s highest authority. Through the years it’s been accused of supporting militant organizations and terrorist activities around the world. Most recently it’s been accused of involvement in the explosions that damaged two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13.

1. What is the Revolutionary Guard?

At 100,000-man strong, the corps is one-quarter the size of Iran’s traditional army, navy and air force. But it has its own ground, air and naval divisions, controls Iran’s ballistic missile program and has a chain of command separate from the military that leads directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Scholars estimate that the Guard controls 20% to 40% of Iran’s economy; as the owner of one of Iran’s largest engineering conglomerates, the Guard directly and indirectly employs some 200,000 people in construction jobs. At least 229 Iranian companies are significantly under the influence of the Guard, according to one study. The Guard also incorporates a sizable volunteer paramilitary organization, the Basij, that is seen as vital to maintaining the Islamic Republic’s influence on wider society.

2. Why does it exist?

It was established at the outset of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when the military’s loyalty to Iran’s new leaders was unclear. The Islamic Republic’s founding supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “intended for the IRGC to protect the new regime from a coup d’état,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The Guard helped defend the country during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, then redirected its resources to postwar reconstruction. In recent years, Guard members have provided military support in Syria, a strategic ally of Iran, to help President Bashar al-Assad’s regime beat back rebel forces.

3. What’s its alleged connection to terrorism?

The U.S. has listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. In April, President Donald Trump’s administration specifically named the Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, the first time the U.S. has applied that designation to a state institution. It said the Guard, notably through its Qods Force, or international brigade, “provides funding, equipment, training, and logistical support to a broad range of terrorist and militant organizations, totaling approximately $1 billion annually in assistance.” Along with earlier sanctions, the designation means foreign companies risk breaking the law if they work with the Guard.

4. What does Iran say?

Iranian officials say the Guard isn’t a separate entity but a vital institution that helps protect Iran from external threats and ensure its national security and sovereignty. Iran also denies any involvement in the June 13 explosions aboard the two tankers.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ladane Nasseri in Dubai at lnasseri@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Amy Teibel, Lisa Beyer

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.