SOME YEARS back on a research trip to Iran, I met a young man who had been conscripted into the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Commenting on his obviously secular upbringing, I was both intrigued and sympathetic. Yet contrary to all expectations, I found him not only sanguine but also somewhat relieved. He explained that the Guards were not what he had expected. For all their very public piety, they were by far the most relaxed and laid back of the military organizations in the Islamic Republic. The Guards had even implemented a form of flexible work hours. God forbid, had he gone into the regular military he might have been expected to adhere to a strict work regimen. It was all highly unorthodox and reassuringly Iranian. The IRGC wasn't a disciplined military organization in the Western sense of the term; it was a network, a brotherhood, in which personalities and connections mattered far more than structures. This did not make it necessarily less effective or indeed less dangerous as an instrument of coercion-the lack of transparent rules might, in fact, make it more so-but it was certainly a different type of beast.
Though the IRGC started its life as a defender of the revolution, over time the organization has become increasingly involved in commercial interests. Divisions within the Revolutionary Guard, particularly between its veterans and their heirs, have deepened. Now in bed with an increasingly radicalized elite in Iran, the IRGC seems to be less about protecting the people of the country and more about protecting its own material interests. Iran is rapidly becoming a security state.