- Iran's influence can be seen all over the Middle East
- But one group in particular is responsible for this: the Revolutionary Guards
- A secretive military force, the Guards operate globally
- Their biggest presence is currently in Iraq and Syria
By Ty Joplin
Although Iran is steadily increasing its power throughout the Middle East, the exact way its doing so is rarely discussed. Most headlines referring to an outsized Iranian presence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but in fact, most of the project of expanding Iranian power has been assigned to one particular group: the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Part clandestine security force and part mafia-esque organization, the IRGC is one of the most complex and powerful organizations, with few checks on its growing power both within and outside of Iran.
Development around Iran will inevitably involve the IRGC, so here is a primer for what it is, where it’s currently operating in the Middle East and what exactly it’s doing when inside those countries.
What is the IRGC?
Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani (AFP/FILE)
According to Barbara Slavin, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, the IRGC “combines the vanguard military mission of the U.S. Marines, the internal and external security and intelligence activities of the old Soviet KGB, the economic muscle of a Japanese trading consortium, and the black market expertise of the Cosa Nostra."
The IRGC has around 120,000-150,000 members that are divided into a ground, air and naval force, plus a volunteer Basij corps and the Quds Force. The Quds Force is the division in charge of foreign operations outside of Iran; they are the ones deeply involved in Syria, Iraq and to a lesser extent, Yemen. The Quds Force has has roughly 15,000 troops, but it commands and coordinates with hundreds of thousands of other forces in different countries, which respectively maintain varying levels of dependence on the IRGC.
“The Quds Force is like the Marines in that its members storm ashore, do special ops etcetera, like the KGB in that they train foreign proxies, carry out assassinations,” said Slavin in an interview with Al Bawaba.
Iranian foreign policy, according to Slavin, is developed through “consensus by the heads of the various military branches and the president, foreign minister,” and so on, with the Ayatollah shaping and approving that consensus. As it has developed however, the IRGC has expanded its power by becoming more involved in economic activities like leading construction companies, wich is where Slavin draws her comparison with the Cosa Nostra; the Sicilian Mafia.
Its foundation as a militia came before its official establishment in 1979. “Its origins can be traced back to the first generation of Iranian revolutionaries, who received military training alongside Palestinians, in Egypt and Algeria in the 1960's and Lebanon and Syria in the 1970s,” said Ali Alfoneh, a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“In the wake of the revolution in Iran and establishment of the Islamic Republic, the newly established IRGC utilized the pre-revolution network, but also the transnational Shia clerical networks, and the intelligence assets of the SAVAK, the pre-revolution intelligence service whose archives it had inherited in the course of the revolution, to further expand that network.”
The IRGC and its Quds Force then, is simultaneously a domestic bulwark to buttress the Islamic Republic’s regime and exports its ideology abroad, building offshoots to the IRGC. The most well-known example of this is the IRGC’s cultivation of the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is a formidable political and military organization built around the same principles as the IRGC.
Alfoneh claims that the IRGC has “become a state within the state,” formulating and executes its own foreign policy. The most well-known, ongoing examples of its foreign intervention is Syria.
The IRGC in Syria
A member of the NDF in Damascus, Syria (AFP/FILE)
Iran is one of the most active and involved allies to the Syrian regime, and is partly responsible for preventing its eventual collapse.
Besides keeping dozens of IRGC commanders inside Syria as military advisers, the IRGC has helped to establish a network of paramilitary groups loyal to Assad that both recruit locally and from abroad.
One of its most important contributions to the military forces loyal to Assad has been the training and funding of the National Defense Forces (NDF), an umbrella organization of militias that mostly recruit from the region in which they operate. The NDF has over 100,000 militants associated with it, making it roughly equal to the number of soldiers in Syria’s official army, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
The NDF is involved in nearly every major offensive, and as it becomes more integrated under the Assad regime, Iranian influence is slowing becoming more entrenched in Syria’s military.
Afghani Shia Soliders in Syria
The IRGC maintains more direct control over groups it has helped to create using soldiers from Afghanistan and Pakistan who live in Iran as refugees. For example, the Liwa Fatemiyoun is an armed group operating in Syria that is armed, trained and was established by the IRGC and is comprised of Afghani Shia soldiers.
Shia Foreign Fighters Killed in Combat in Syria January 2012 – July 2018 (Carnegie Endowment)
The Afghani recruits come from a pool of millions of Shia Afghan refugees currently living in Iran who are promised a good, stable wage and eventual citizenship through military service. Because they are cheap to employ, Iran is using thousands of them as a source of cheap military labor.
As of July 2018, almost 1,000 Afghani soldiers, mostly from the Liwa Fatemiyoun, have died in Syria, though other estimates, including one from an official’s own admission, put the number at around 2,000 dead.
This makes Afghani Shia the second-largest source of foreign soldiers killed in defense of the regime, with Lebanese Hezbollah being the first.
One Afghani veteran of the war in Syria told a reporter about his experience as an Iranian-backed soldier. He says he spent 12 months in Syria as a tank driver and a sniper. He was deployed from all over the country from Damascus to Palmyra. The Liwa Fatemiyoun is reportedly used as a spearheading force meant to bear the brunt of any offensive. In this sense, they are used as a kind of cannon fodder for other, better-trained and better-equipped forces.
After he got back to Iran, the anonymous Afghani soldier expected to be handed Iranian citizenship as a reward for his service in Syria. Instead, Iranian authorities gave him a small, green identity document. “It was just this 30-day temporary residency. I couldn't get a driving license with it - I couldn't even buy myself a Sim card,” he explained.
"I complained and they said: 'You have to go back to do another tour of duty' - but I didn't want to. I ran away and here I am."
The IRGC also established and is currently deploying Shia Pakistanis under the banner of the Liwa Zainebiyoun. Like the Shia Afghans, these Pakistanis are refugees living in Iran and, over 100 of them have died so far inside Syria.
A member of the Iraqi PMU (AFP/FILE)
When ISIS stormed through Iraq in 2014, seizing massive swathes of land in the country’s north and west, Iran’s IRGC staged an intervention that helped to halt the extremist group’s advances.
The main component of their intervention was to help organize disparate but veteran Shia militant groups under the banner of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in addition to providing leadership and military advisers, including the leader of the Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani.
A report from the Middle East Institute estimates that 40 of about 67 militias under the umbrella group, PMU, are “believed to share close links with Iran’s Quds Force, the largest being Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbollah.”
One of the PMU’s most senior leaders, Deputy Chairman Jamal Ja’far Muhammad Ali Ibrahimi—a.k.a. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, said in an interview that he is a “soldier of Haj Qassem [Suleimani].”
The PMU helped drive back ISIS from Iraq, becoming immensely popular in the country as a result. It is now working to integrate itself into the country’s military and political infrastructures.
Despite the condemnations from former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the PMUs were formally integrated into Iraq’s army, formalized the military hold Iran’s IRGC maintains on a large portion of the Iraqi military.
Militias within the PMU, including the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, which are all associated with the IRGC, then formed the Fatah Alliance; a political party in Iraq. In the latest round of Parliamentary elections in May 2018, the Fatah Alliance came in second place, sending 47 parliamentarians to Baghdad.
The Fatah Alliance’s leader is Hadi Al-Amiri, who is helps lead the Badr Organization and maintains deep ties with the IRGC, thanks in part due to his years spent in Iran-in-exile.
Iranian interests, it seems, are becoming more institutionalized in both Iraq and Syria.
Iranian weapons smuggled into Yemen (U.S. Navy)
The IRGC’s involvement in Yemen has been significantly more limited than in Iraq or Syria.
When war broke out in Yemen in 2015, two countries intervened: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran began support to the Houthi militia, a majority Shia group that aims to break away from Yemen and form its own state.
Iran’s weapons smuggling to the Houthis have historically been limited to small and medium arms, though recent missiles fired from Houthi territory into Saudi suggest Iran has begun intensifying its support and smuggling to the Houthis.
Their reason for supporting the Houthis differs from its typical aim of setting up semi-formal political-military groups that mirror the IRGC. Yemen is far away from any direct sphere of influence Iran maintains and is so engulfed in conflict that it would take a massive and costly intervention from Iran to establish anything near what it has been able to do in Iraq or Syria.
Rather, it appears Iran is supporting the Houthis just enough to antagonize Saudi Arabia by fueling an enemy at its doorsteps and draining the Saudi state budget to a stalling war effort. So far, they have been successful at achieving this end, though the humanitarian cost of the war in Yemen so far has been devastating.
Iraq, Syria and Yemen actually represent a fraction of the areas in which the IRGC operate. They’ve also been reportedly involved in Sudan, Afghanistan, India and even Germany where they allegedly have organized a spy ring.
The IRGC is perhaps one of the most multifaceted state institutions in the world. Their efforts have helped to create and organize armies on behalf of Iranian interests, and their secrecy as an organization prevents analysts and policy makers alike from understanding the true breadth of its power globally.
However, one thing is clear: when Iran wants to meddle in other countries’ affairs, it relies on the IRGC.
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