The IRGC, founded after the 1979 revolution, is an increasingly influential player inside -- and outside -- Iran. The list of IRGC veterans includes President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and a number of his cabinet members and senior aides. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari discussed the Revolutionary Guards with Rasool Nafisi, a Washington-based expert on the Middle East and Iran who has researched the IRGC and its activities.
RFE/RL: The IRGC was founded following the 1979 revolution as a force to protect the newly founded Islamic establishment and prevent a military coup. Since then the IRGC has gone through changes and it has expanded it's operation and involvement. Could you first talk a bit about its creation?
Rasool Nafisi: The creation of the IRGC was probably the most significant action or policy of the Islamic republic. In terms of who is ruling the IRGC, it was created by a schoolteacher -- his nickname was Abu Sharif -- and Ayatollah Lahuti and Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani were the representatives of Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeni (the father of Iran's Islamic revolution) who controlled the creation of IRGC. The IRGC was originally formed by a number of terrorist and non-terrorist groups that were involved in actions against the Shah. And also it found tremendous growth during the war against Iraq, when numerous agencies came under its control and also created the militia or the Basij, [which] was fundamental to the expansion of power of the IRGC. And eventually various foundations came under its control; now it's a major actor in the economic sector as well. So in essence it is a very different organization from the Iranian military. The military still carries out the same old mission -- meaning being a nonpolitical entity -- while the IRGC is a military-political force. And this force, with the mission of protecting the revolution, is a guardian of the leaders of the Islamic republic; and it carries out military as well as political missions of the Islamic republic, inside and outside the country.
RFE/RL: Let's talk about the IRGC's role on the Iranian political scene and also its reported involvement in a number of countries, including Iraq. What role is it playing in Iran?
Nafisi: The IRGC is in charge of protecting the revolution -- in other words, it is in charge of protecting the Iranian regime. So it has tentacles across [state] organizations from the Information Ministry all the way to the judiciary. Of course, [there is also] the famous Quds Force, which is infamous for its role and activities outside the country. The Quds Force -- which is supposed to be only a thousand-member organization -- is reportedly a force that is involved in supporting the Hizballah in Lebanon, supporting even Hamas, supporting militias in Iraq.
RFE/RL: What kind of support are we talking about here? Financial aid or training?
Nafisi: It is reportedly in charge of training and financing both. So if you think of the role that the Quds Force plays in the Middle East, then you can understand the significance of the Revolutionary Guards in the region. The IRGC is emerging in the region as a very important factor in terms of enforcing the ideology and the will of the Islamic republic's leaders across the region.
RFE/RL: You said that the Quds Force is supporting groups like Hamas, which have terrorist links or are involved in terrorist activities. Is the Quds Force, which is said to be secret brigade of the IRGC, also directly involved in terrorism?
Nafisi: Iranians are too smart to get involved directly in any kind of terrorism. From the early days, they have been able to employ other forces. We have seen that in the assassination against the U.S. military force in Lebanon, [and] against targets around the world -- they never use their own members. They routinely use other forces and, to my understanding, they have slowed down since the invasion of Iraq. And the reason [for the slowdown] is quite understandable, because they don't want to endanger the Iranian regime. But, according to the American forces, they are very active in Iraq.
RFE/RL: You said that inside Iran, the IRGC is in charge of protecting state values. What does that mean in practice?
Nafisi: If you think of the proclamation by 24 IRGC commanders when [reformist former President Mohammad] Khatami was in power -- they warned him that they would take matters into their own hands if the [student] demonstration and irregularities continued -- then you can appreciate the role they play in politics. Also, when Imam Khomeini Airport was inaugurated under Khatami, the [construction] contract was given to a Turkish company -- not to the IRGC; the IRGC essentially blocked flights into the airport by sending in fighter jets and not allowing landings of civilian planes at the airport. So you can imagine how active they are in the internal politics of Iran. Or if you look at the present Ahmadinejad administration, it is almost entirely formed of former members of the IRGC, and his cabinet and all the people he's been appointing to different organizations and national institutions are basically former IRGC members. So you might think that, at this point, the IRGC is a dominant force -- although it has been a dominant force in the past, as well -- but [now] it's almost in charge of the entire country.
RFE/RL: The Revolutionary Guards is also an important economic force, reportedly with huge assets and companies. How extensive are its economic activities?
Nafisi: The IRGC is involved largely in construction. If you travel across Iran, you see how many construction projects are being built by the IRGC -- it is involved in dam and port building in Iran, the IRGC is heavily involved in the oil industry in Iran [and] even in the manufacture of automobiles. So it's taking a large chunk of the economy out of the private sector. And if you think about it, that is one reason why the private sector is unable to function well -- because the juiciest part, the most important part, of the economy was in fact swallowed up by the IRGC.
RFE/RL: What, in your view, would be the impact on the group if the United States designates the IRGC as a terrorist organization?
Nafisi: Many analysts have dismissed [the blacklisting] as symbolic. But I think it is very important, because from now on, if the policy is carried out, the movement of IRGC members abroad would become very, very hard -- especially in neighboring countries. They could easily be detained as terrorists. So I think that's a major blow to the status and movement of the IRGC. Secondly, because it is a large conglomerate with a tremendous amount of assets and is involved in business, it would not be able to do business with Afghanistan, with Iraq, with neighboring countries; and that's going to be another major issue. Thirdly, if you look at the fact that a large organization like that is put on the [U.S.] list of terrorist organizations and if the Interpol accept that, then it's going to be a major issue for the IRGC, as a legitimate Iranian institution. I think that's basically a very major blow to the status, prestige, and economic activities and the movement of the organization.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Force (pasdaran) was created in 1979 by the father of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to safeguard that revolution.
The IRGC has several components whose numbers are widely disputed, but any serious estimates put their ranks at upward of 100,000. They operate independently or in cooperation with regular army forces.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad reportedly served during the Iran-Iraq War as an instructor for the IRGC's volunteer-based Basij, a blunt official instrument to police moral values. IRGC allies form an influential segment of Ahmadinejad's power base.
Many of the most recent accusations emerging from the United States have involved the so-called Quds (Jerusalem) Force, whose responsibilities include extraterritorial operations that initially included efforts to export Iran's Shi'ite revolution. The Quds Force officially reports directly to the country's supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.