IRGC | Guardians of the revolution

Iran’s elite military wing, which has helped the Islamic Republic spread its influence across West Asia through a network of militias, is at the centre of an unfolding regional crisis after Tehran launched a massive drone and missile attack on Israel on Sunday

April 14, 2024 01:02 am | Updated 01:34 pm IST

Gen. Mohammed Reza Zahedi was one of the top commanders of the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and a former confidant of Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force chief who was assassinated by the U.S. in Baghdad in January 2020, Gen. Zahedi was in charge of the IRGC’s operations in Lebanon and Syria, two critical theatres where Iran has built deep influence through its network of Shia militias. On April 1, Gen. Zahedi, his deputy Gen. Mohammad Hadi Haj Rahimi and Gen. Hossein Aminollah, along with a group of IRGC figures, were in a consular annex of Iran’s embassy in Damascus. The purpose of their visit was a meeting with members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group that operates mainly from Gaza. What the Generals did not know was that their movements were being tracked by the Israelis.

Gen. Zahedi and his comrades were killed in an air strike on the embassy compound, which Iran and Syria immediately blamed on Israel. It’s not a secret that Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria in recent years. Israel neither confirmed nor rejected reports of its involvement in the Damascus bombing. For Iran, the killing of Gen. Zahedi was a body blow. He was the seniormost military figure who got killed by enemy fire since the assassination of Gen. Soleimani. Since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Iran has lost several IRGC commanders in Israeli strikes in Syria. After the killing of Gen. Sayyed Reza Mousavi in Syria in December, Iran had carried out missile strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan, claiming that it targeted a base operated by Mossad, Israel’s overseas intelligence agency. But that did not stop Israel from targeting IRGC commanders further. And after the killing of Gen. Zahedi, Iran launched a massive drone and missile strike against Israel on Sunday night. Israel has claimed that 99% of the drones and missiles were shot down. But the attack has pushed the region to the brink of an all out war between Israel and Iran. 

The rise

The IRGC, or Sepah-e-Pasdaran, was one of the earliest revolutionary institutions decreed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution that brought down the monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. One of the main objectives of the Pasdaran was to preserve the revolution and the theocratic-constitutional system Khomeini and his followers built. The revolutionaries were wary of the loyalty of Iran’s regular Army that was commanded by royalists until the revolution. They wanted a fighting force that was completely loyal to the clergy. So they went on to build one. Khomeni described the Guards as “the soldiers of Islam”. “Wherever you be, guard yourselves against the self in you and from all the Satans around you,” he told Pasdaran after the group was founded.

The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 would transform Pasdaran into a powerful fighting force. The participation of ideologically driven Guards in the war, which ended in a ceasefire after both sides suffered heavy casualties, laid the ground for the IRGC to emerge as the most influential wing of the regime. Today, the IRGC and Iran’s regular military (Artesh) operate as two parallel armed wings of the regime. While Artesh and the police force are entrusted with protecting the country’s territorial integrity and order at home, Pasdaran’s primary responsibility is the protection of the revolutionary regime. With a military wing, an overseas operational unit (Quds Force) and a civilian voluntary organisation (Basij) at home, the IRGC’s operations overlap with the regular service forces. But, under the direct command of the Supreme Leader, the Guards have the resources and capability to influence the direction of the foreign and security policies of the regime more than any of its other wings.

According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, The IRGC has some 1,90,000 trained soldiers under its command, roughly half the size of Iran’s regular forces. The Guards have an Army, which is spread across Iran’s 31 provinces, an air force and a navy. Of these, the IRGC navy, which patrols Iran’s maritime borders, including the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Gulf to the Gulf of Oman that opens into the Arabian Sea and to the Indian Ocean, is considered a very powerful unit. In March 2007, the IRGC Navy had sparked a diplomatic crisis between Iran and the U.K. when they detained 15 British sailors.

The gist
Established in 1979, in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the IRGC’s primary responsibility is to preserve the revolution and protect the regime
Today, the IRGC has some 1,90,000 trained soldiers under its command, roughly half the size of Iran’s regular forces
The Guards have an Army, which is spread across Iran’s 31 provinces, an air force and a powerful navy, which patrols Iran’s maritime borders, including the Strait of Hormuz

At home, the Guards have made it clear on a number of occasions that their loyalty is towards the clerical establishment. They have deeply penetrated into different institutions of the regime and have stood against reformist politicians in the past, especially Mohammed Khatami, Iran’s President from 1997 to 2005. Abroad, the Guards’ responsibility is to neutralise the revolution’s enemies and expand the regime’s influence. Its most elite wing perhaps is the Quds Force (Jerusalem Force), which has been tasked with this duty.

Though the Quds Force was formally established in 1988, Pasdaran, from its early days, had been operational in other parts of West Asia. During the Iran-Iraq war, the Guards set up a dedicated intelligence wing called ‘Department 900’ for its overseas operations. The department was later merged into the Special External Operations Department, and after the war, the Quds Force was formed. As its name suggests, “liberation of Muslim holy places from occupation” is one of the mandates of the Quds Force. From its inception, the IRGC has dedicated resources and energy to build Shia networks across West Asia. An Islamic Resistance group was founded in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of the country in 1982, which later became Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful non-state ally in West Asia today.

Axis of resistance

The Quds Force rose to prominence under Gen. Soleimani, who commanded the force from 1998 until his death in 2020. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the IRGC helped span Shia resistance against the occupying troops, which resulted in the death of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. When the Syrian civil war broke out, the Guards immediately dispatched its troops to Syria, first under the pretext of protecting Shia holy sites in the country, and then to fight the regime’s enemies. The Guards, along with the Russians and Hezbollah, played a critical role in turning around the civil war in favour of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Iran today supports a host of Islamist militia groups in West Asia, which is broadly called the ‘axis of resistance — there are Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories; Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and various Shia mobilisation brigades in Iraq and Syria. It also backs a Shia militant opposition movement in Bahrain. And if the axis has a command centre, which is the IRGC, that is being commanded by Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami. The U.S. has designated the IRGC as a terrorist entity.

If the civil war helped Iran deepen its influence in Syria, it also escalated the shadow war between Israel and Iran. Israel sees Iran as the source of all security challenges it faces in West Asia, and it seems determined to roll back Iran’s influence at least in its immediate neighbourhood. But for the Guards, the support for the militias is an essential part of their military doctrine.

When the Guards look at the region, they see an Iran surrounded by rivals — across the Gulf, there are Sunni monarchies that are American allies; on the borders of Syria and Lebanon, there is Israel, the ‘Little Satan’; and the U.S., ‘the Great Satan’, has thousands of troops and advanced weapons in several bases spread across West Asia. Beyond the Gulf waters, American warships and aircraft careers are moving freely.

To overcome the conventional security challenges in the region and protect the revolution, Pasdaran has to fight asymmetrically through the proxies. Yet, the proxy battles of the Guards have brought the Islamic Republic to the brink of an open war with Israel.

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