Once a ragtag force protecting Iran's nascent Islamic regime, the Revolutionary Guard Corps is now the nation's most powerful security institution — and has come under fire from the Trump administration.
On Friday, President Trump announced his new strategy toward Iran, adopting a more aggressive stance on everything from the nuclear deal to Iranian ballistic missiles.
A major part of the strategy, however, will include targeting the Revolutionary Guard, or IRGC. In a wide-ranging speech that slammed Iran and picked apart its nuclear deal with world powers, Trump directed the Treasury Department to impose additional sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard as supporters of terrorism in Washington's view.
The White House on Thursday called the Revolutionary Guard, which is separate from the regular armed forces, a “primary tool and weapon in remaking Iran into a rogue state.”
“It is hard to find a conflict or a suffering people in the Middle East that the IRGC’s tentacles do not touch,” the White House said in a strategy document, referring to the Revolutionary Guard's presence in places such as Syria and Iraq.
“The IRGC . . . threatens all nations and the global economy,” the White House said. “… For all of these reasons, we want to work with our partners to constrain this dangerous organization.”
It was still unclear what measures would be taken. A number of IRGC leaders and affiliates are sanctioned by the U.S. government. Trump did not order the State Department to designate the Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization, one of the government’s most punishing tools for sanctioning terrorists. But he used an existing executive order to sanction the IRGC for terrorism, according to people familiar with the broad points of Trump’s strategy. Still, the moves against an official branch of Iran's armed forces would probably have implications in Iran and the region.
“If U.S. officials commit this strategic mistake, the Islamic Republic of Iran will surely reciprocate,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said this week of any measures to further target the Revolutionary Guard. “The IRGC is an honor for our country and a guarantor of the defense of our homeland.”
Founded following the 1979 revolution, in which a cleric-led uprising overthrew the shah, the IRGC was an ideological enforcer for the new Islamic government. Now, while still loyal to Iran's supreme leader, it affects almost every aspect of Iranian life.
With between 120,000 and 150,000 active personnel, the IRGC has land, sea and air defense capabilities, including domestic paramilitary forces and a ballistic missile arsenal. Its elite Quds Force, which the Treasury Department designated a terrorist organization in 2007, is responsible for external operations. At home, the IRGC controls an extensive network of paramilitary volunteers known as the Basij, giving the Revolutionary Guard eyes and ears in just about every corner of the country.
“The IRGC has now eclipsed [Iran's] conventional forces,” the Rand Corporation wrote in a policy paper for the U.S. Air Force in 2009.
“It operates substantial and independent land, sea and air forces,” Rand said, and “maintains tight control over the development and deployment of Iran’s ballistic missiles.”
Its forces are no real match for the U.S. military in any conventional conflict, but the IRGC has honed its skills in asymmetric warfare and could retaliate against U.S. troops on the Iraqi or Syrian battlefields.
But while the Revolutionary Guard has expanded militarily, it has also evolved into a powerful political and economic actor, holding sway over matters from foreign policy to domestic policing and even major energy investments. Current and former guardsmen hold critical posts across the government.
“For over three decades, the hardest of the hard-liners have been in charge of Tehran’s foreign and security policy,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “And that will continue to be the case.”
As a fighting force, the IRGC cut its teeth in the Iran-Iraq War, a devastating conflict that spanned nearly a decade. The Revolutionary Guard led the country's postwar reconstruction, gaining an economic foothold that also allowed it to enter into domestic politics.
While the IRGC is not monolithic politically (it is a conscript army, reflecting all walks of Iranian life), its leaders tend to be hard-line, nationalist and even populist. In the 1990s, IRGC allied with conservatives to challenge then-reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Its heyday came when hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, formerly affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard and its grass-roots Basij network, was elected president in 2005.
During his two terms, the IRGC was awarded lucrative no-bid contracts for massive infrastructure projects and used international sanctions to expand its black market activities. It maintains holdings in media, manufacturing, construction, banking and nearly every sector of the Iranian economy.
The IRGC “has tried to gain control over large portions of Iran’s economy and choke off competition,” the White House said Thursday.
The United States will “oppose IRGC activities that extort the wealth of the Iranian people.”
But among Iranians, that rhetoric may ring hollow. Their own president, Hassan Rouhani, has sought to curb the Revolutionary Guard's economic excesses in recent months, offering rare public criticism of its outsize role in the economy. Rouhani seeks to open Iran to further foreign investment, something that has so far been hindered, among other things, by IRGC activities.
But pressure from an outside enemy may only unite Iranians against the external threat.
“Politically speaking, the IRGC will be the ultimate winner in Iran,” said Reza Akbari, a researcher on Iranian politics at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Rouhani, once critical, has since “announced his administration's support for the Guards,” Akbari said.
“The IRGC is also enjoying a boost in popularity,” Akbari said, owing in part to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. “Any potential sanctions will unify the country's factions.”
Still, any harsh measures could impact European investment — a key part of the nuclear deal that curbed Iran's atomic activity in exchange for sanctions relief.
If the administration targets IRGC-linked companies, that could “change the calculus of some European and Asian banks and businesses” that have entered the Iranian market over the past year, Taleblu said.
But “it would also enable the U.S. to better impede the illicit activities of Iran's IRGC front companies, some of whom are active on the Tehran stock exchange,” he said.
Others have pointed to the fact that the IRGC has survived — and even thrived — under both U.S. and international sanctions.
“There is a powerful correlation between the intensification of multilateral sanctions on Iran and the expansion of the political and economic influence of the Revolutionary Guards,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said in congressional testimony in 2015.
Indeed, “there have been various U.S. Treasury sanctions imposed against the IRGC since 2007,” Akbari said. “But Iran's paramilitary force has managed to operate effectively regardless.”