Wednesday, October 12, 2011

CFR: Backgrounder - Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)


Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was founded in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution to defend the regime against internal and external threats, but has since expanded far beyond its original mandate. Today, the Guards has evolved into a socio-military-political-economic force with influence reaching deep into Iran's power structure. The Guards' involvement in politics has grown to unprecedented levels since 2004, when IRGC veterans won at least 16 percent of the 290 seats. Analysts say the organization, with its control of strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises, has evolved into one of the country's most influential domestic institutions.

Crackdowns on protestors in the wake of the disputed June 2009 presidential elections have brought new scrutiny of the Guards' role. Some analysts believe IRGC influence in the political arena amounts to the irreversible militarization of Iran's government (NYT). Others, like Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, suggest the Guards' power has grown to exceed (New Republic) that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who legally has final say on all state matters. But Frederic Wehrey, an adjunct senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and the co-author of a study on the IRGC, notes that the Revolutionary Guard is far from a cohesive unit of likeminded conservatives. Instead, he says, it's a heavily factionalized institution with a mix of political aspirants unlikely to turn on their masters.


International Adventurism

Military analysts say the Guards began deploying fighters (NPR) abroad during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, "export[ing] the ideals of the revolution throughout the Middle East." The Quds Force, a paramilitary arm of the Revolutionary Guard with less than a thousand people, emerged as the de facto external-affairs branch during the expansion. Its mandate was to conduct foreign policy missions--beginning with Iraq's Kurdish region--and forge relationships with Shiite and Kurdish groups. A Quds unit was deployed to Lebanon in 1982, where it helped in the genesis of Hezbollah. Another unit was sent to Bosnia to back Bosnian Muslims in their civil war in the early and mid-1990s. Some experts say the Quds Force has shipped weapons to Lebanon-based Hezbollah, Gaza-based Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and is also supplying munitions to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Shiite militias in Iraq. In the wake of anti-government protests throughout the Middle East in 2011, the United States and the European Union accused the Quds Force of providing equipment and support to help the Syrian regime suppress revolts in Syria. In October 2011, Washington accused the Quds Force of plotting the assassination of the Saudi ambassador (NYT) to the United States, and plotting to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Washington and the Saudi and Israeli Embassies in Argentina. Tehran denied the accusations.

The Guards' alleged involvement in Iraq has been a particular point of contention between Washington and Tehran. Former President Bush accused Iran in February 2007 of providing roadside bombs to "networks inside Iraq." A month later, coalition forces captured Ali Musa Daqduq, a Lebanese-born member of Hezbollah operating in Iraq, and Pentagon officials said Daqduq was working with the Quds Force to train Iraqi extremists in logistics, firearms, and explosives. General David Petraeus, then the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told lawmakers in September 2007 that the Quds Force was aiding militias in Iraq to "serve its interests and fight a proxy war" with coalition forces. And in a September 2007 interview with military reporters, former Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman Major General Kevin J. Bergner said six operatives with Quds Force links had been arrested in 2007. Despite repeated Iranian denials, U.S. congressional leaders in late 2007 designated the Guards as a foreign terrorist organization, cutting off Iranian companies and individuals from the U.S. financial system.

Yet, not everyone is convinced Iran's role in Iraq is as direct as U.S. officials suggest, or its pursuit of nuclear technology is as clear-cut, as this Backgrounder explains. Likewise, some experts see the Guards' role in Afghanistan as exaggerated. While U.S. military officials have accused Iran of supplying the Afghan Taliban with weapons, CFR International Affairs Fellow George Gavrilis says there is a lack of evidence to support the charges. "Iran has a vested interest in a stable, well-governed Afghanistan," Gavrilis writes, "an interest that it has protected since the fall of the Taliban."

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