In 1979 when the Islamic revolution swept through Iran, the new regime established a paramilitary force called the Revolutionary Guard Corps, formed on the orders of Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of the regime.
The aim was to defend his Islamic regime from both internal and external threats but today this force has outsized its role and outstretched its purpose. It has a say in almost everything the regime does.
It executes the regime’s foreign policy, wields control over society, runs vast segments of the economy, looks after military operations, and even dictates the country’s politics.
To put it simply IRGC has become a state within a state. A visible manifestation of a deep state is that its power reaches into Iran’s furthest corners and its network runs across the length and widths of West Asia. Some even say that you cannot understand Iran without understanding the IRGC.
The IRGC has been making headlines of late. And these are just some of the headlines: On the 6th of December 2022, the IRGC Navy harassed American ships in the Strait of Hormuz. On the 8th of December 2022, reports indicated that IRGC flights to Beirut were carrying weapons for Hezbollah.
On the 28th of November 2022, a Canadian Court declared that IRGC is a listed terrorist group and on the 19th of November 2022, a drone launched from an IRGC base targeted a Liberian-flagged oil tanker. These are just a few instances, there are many more.
The IRGC is involved in various violations, crimes, cyber-attacks, and espionage operations. This is why it has been designated a terrorist organization by several countries.
The question is how did it become so powerful? And to answer that we will have to go back in history. After the Shah was toppled in 1979, its cruel secret police, the SAVAK, was namely dissolved. But in practice, many of its members started to cooperate with the new regime and educate them on tactics to quell dissident voices.
The mullahs’ established the IRGC to safeguard their rule at all costs, especially against opposition groups.
And that is not all. They even produced a new Constitution which provided for both a regular army and the IRGC. What this basically meant was that the IRGC was given both a constitutionally legitimate existence and the legal right to take political decisions. Initially, the group operated as a domestic force quelling the protests against the regime.
Since the end of the Iran-Iraq in 1988, the IRGC has expanded into 31 divisions, one for each of Iran’s 30 provinces and a central division in Tehran. Besides this, the body also has a command structure with various wings and branches spread across Iran.
The first one is the Basij or plain clothes militia. It looks after civil affairs, the most visible symbol of the IRGC’s strengths. Basij officers can be seen on the streets daily, where they harass ordinary citizens based on the regime’s Sharia law and suppress any signs of dissent.
Today the IRGC has a strength of 90,000 cadres and over 300,000 reservists who are summoned in times of crisis. The second branch of the IRGC is the elite Quds Force. This is a special operations unit responsible for unconventional warfare and Military Intelligence operations, mainly abroad.
The Quds force primarily looks after extra-territorial operations. It supports non-state actors in many countries, mainly organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shia militias in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
It is comprised of around 2,000 to 5,000 members, and they function all over West Asia. Their operations are shrouded in secrecy. Besides these two the IRGC also has an aerospace force, a navy wing, a ground force unit a nuclear command core, and a separate intelligence agency.
If we put all these wings and branches together the overall strength of the IRGC ends up being over 250,000. that is nearly half the strength of Iran’s Armed Forces which stands at 610,000 personnel. Yet the IRGC is much more powerful than the Armed Forces primarily because it’s not just a defense force. It also controls a huge slice of the Iranian economy.
According to some estimates, the IRGC controls nearly two-thirds of Iran’s economy. The IRGC virtually controls every sector of the Iranian market for construction, engineering, automobile, real estate, and manufacturing.
Reports say that in 2019 the organization was awarded over 750 contracts in different construction fields, including dams, highways, tunnels, water supply systems, and oil pipelines. These contracts are mostly executed by the Khatam-al Anbiya, the construction arm of the IRGC which controls 812 registered companies both within Iran and outside.
Today Khatam al-Anbiya is the most powerful wing of the IRGC and the largest contractor for industrial and developmental projects. the IRGC also operates in part through ‘Bonyads’. These are ostensibly charitable foundations that operate as huge holding companies. They are used for the enrichment of the clerics and to maintain control over civil society.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the IRGC has an annual revenue of 12 billion dollars. There is no saying how much of this goes into the coffers of the clerics. This tells us that the IRGC runs like a corporation if basically a business conglomerate with guns, a conglomerate that has once again strung into action against the recent anti-regime protests.
And since then, there have been a plethora of attacks, arrests, detentions, and killings, most of which have been carried out by the IRGC. If the world wants to support the people of Iran, it must first have to call out the atrocities of the IRGC. It will have to work on dismantling this body’s financial structure, its illicit activities worldwide, and its vast network of operatives worldwide.