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.
THE IRGC was formed in the heat of the Islamic Revolution; a voluntary paramilitary force of revolutionary devotees dedicated to the defense of the ideals of this uprising against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was to be dethroned in favor of an Islamic republic. The Guards were intended to provide a popular counterweight to the regular armed forces, which were widely seen as a creation of the shah's government and loyal to his cause. Ironically, Mohammad Reza Shah never fully trusted the senior officers within his armed forces and took measures to ensure they could not launch a coup-with the consequence that when he failed to provide leadership, the ranks of the military found themselves adrift in the turmoil of the revolution. Though they were never quite the threat that either the shah or the revolutionaries perceived them to be, for the Guard Corps, the armed forces were an alien being, organized as it was with all the accoutrements of a tightly run military structure.
The new "military" organization of the IRGC was to be something quite different: a brotherhood of the Iranian sansculottes, an organic military force that shunned all the normal paraphernalia of the regular armed forces. It was a haphazard entity, making up for its lack of organization with revolutionary zeal. And indeed, when the Iran-Iraq war started, the IRGC was largely responsible for blunting Baghdad's attack and providing bitter resistance in the early months of the conflict. It was this image of resistance that soon translated into the mythology of the Revolutionary Guard both among the guardsmen and the public alike: defenders of a country at war, the only barrier between victory and defeat. Like their French revolutionary predecessors, this people's army became intimately identified with battle. It is a mythology the Guards have enthusiastically preserved and extended-for good reason.
As the war fighting went on, the IRGC and the regular military had to work increasingly closely with one another. The Guards undoubtedly conducted themselves with great courage during the initial stages of that bloody conflagration, and were essential to the defense of the country at a time when the regular armed forces were in disarray following the desertion, purges and execution of many senior officers as the new Iranian state looked to free itself of the shah's sympathizers, but it soon became clear that the war could not be conducted effectively with the Guards alone. And this was true in spite of the fact that they were supported by Basij militia (composed of additional volunteers who, being either too young or too old, were not technically eligible for service in either the Guard Corps or the army).
Eventually, even the IRGC had to resort to conscription, which continues to refill their ranks to this day. And successful military operations against Iraq ended up coming from a growing collaboration between the two military wings and their newly drafted membership. While every effort was made to emphasize the role of the Revolutionary Guard, the truth had to be increasingly acknowledged that the regular military had a skill set which was both necessary and useful. At the same time, for the duration of the war, the Guards jealously protected their independence and grew in time to become a parallel military structure complete with their own naval and air-force section.
The end of the war for the Guards, as for much of Iran, was something of an anticlimax. Iran had not been defeated, but despite the best efforts of the authorities, it proved difficult to convince people that Iran had achieved a victory. This naturally rebounded on the mythology of the fighting forces, who responded to such social ambivalence by stressing that it wasn't the winning that mattered, but the taking part. The process of fighting itself was invigorating and purifying, highlighting, as it did, all the best qualities of the austere Muslim fighting man. Such mythologies were to become even more important in light of the changes that were to be imposed during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997).
RAFSANJANI INCORPORATED the Revolutionary Guard into the regular military structure, and ranks were introduced. The changes were bitterly resisted; many veterans felt it detracted from the whole point of the Guards, which was supposed to be a volunteer organization lacking the professionalism and ideological detachment of a uniformed military. Yet like many of Rafsanjani's reforms, the long-term consequences were in direct opposition to his intentions. There is little doubt that Rafsanjani wanted to bring the Guard Corps within the military structure, so that the organization could no longer continue in its revolutionary mind-set, standing outside government control and scrutiny, and professing loyalty to the supreme leader rather than the president. Over the following decade, however, the Revolutionary Guard and their radicalized political ethos began to increasingly permeate (however incompletely) the regular military.
BE THAT as it may, it was Rafsanjani's other key reform that ultimately proved more transformational to the IRGC. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran's economy was in disarray. Accordingly, the Rafsanjani administration focused on economic reconstruction. Iran may not have been bankrupt, but neither was it awash with money. The economy had obviously contracted, and the state had to contend not only with a burgeoning population in search of employment but also with a bloated military and state sector. The government could no longer afford, and had no need, for such an extensive military and civil service. But its revolutionary ideology and the imperative to provide a home fit for heroes precluded any possibility of simple demobilization. There was no private sector to speak of, and while economic diversification had been a mantra of successive Iranian governments-even before the revolution-the truth was that the Iranian economy was growing increasingly dependent on its one great natural resource: oil. Rafsanjani's solution to this crisis was to encourage entrepreneurship among various state organizations. Some key institutions, such as the Revolutionary Guard, were provided with a cut of oil income as seed money to catapult them into commerce and private enterprise. This should have allowed them to make enough money to provide for themselves, rather than looking to the government for funds. But such start-up costs became a regular feature of the off-kilter relationship between the state and its subsidiaries. The Revolutionary Guard was about to open for business.
FOR ALL their elite pretensions, the Guard Corps has always tended to reflect wider social developments. As commercialization and a mercantilist attitude increasingly dominated Iranian society in the aftermath of the war, so too did the IRGC reflect this sea change, acquiring a taste for business and trade. The oil income provided by Rafsanjani gave the IRGC access to hard currency (dollars) and the Guards, along with others in similarly privileged positions, were able to make a hefty profit by simply taking advantage of the subsidized exchange rates, and the cheap dollars this afforded them, to import goods and sell them to the Iranian public at the market rate for a huge profit. When this was coupled with political access and a network that spanned the entire Islamic Republic, competition proved increasingly easy to sideline and profits easier to make. Further, Rafsanjani's plan to promote entrepreneurship placed members of the IRGC in senior management positions at major Iranian businesses. Mohsen Rafiqdoost, one of the IRGC's former senior commanders, for example, was appointed head of the Foundation of the Oppressed. Ostensibly a charitable trust linked to the Iranian state, the foundation controls a number of private companies, making it one of the largest (and most profitable) commercial institutions in Iran.Image: Pullquote: It is indeed a moot question whether the Guards have become a business conglomerate.Essay Types: Essay