Iran. “Guardians of the Revolution” or Guardians of the regime?

One of the pre-conditions on which Iran insists in the nuclear negotiaitions is that the Guardians of the Revolution be removed from the US list of terrorist organisations, all the while trying to convince the EU not to include them on its own list as the European Parliament recommended early in 2023. Here is an opportunity to examine the origins and the history of a unique institution, its relations with the other pillars of the regime, its economic predations and the ways it positions itself vis a vis the country’s various populations.

Tehran, September 22, 2018. Revolutionary Guards Corps parade during the annual parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1980-1988 war against Iraq

On 18 January 2023, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding vote in favour of the inclusion of the legion of the Guardians (sepah-e pasdaran) of – or Pasdaran’s – on the European Union’s (EU) list of terrorist organisations, a decision taken against a background of endemic frictions between Brussels and Tehran. At issue is their role, at the heart of the regime’s security apparatus, in the repression of the protests and uprisings subsequent to the death, on 16 September 2022, of a young woman, Jina Mahsa Amini at the hands of Tehran’s morality police. Among the other motivations behind this vote are the logistic support provided by the Islamic Republic for Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and its habit of taking State hostages, including European citizens1.

Their inclusion on that European list would mean that any economic or financial dealings with the countless foundations and companies controlled by the Guardians would be outlawed. However, this measure would be difficult to enforce on account of the Legion’s complex intrication with the formal and informal Iranian economies and in areas like sport and culture, with their many international ramifications. It might also have unintended consequences: by targeting the Guardians as a whole, would it not favour a renewal of solidarity among them, as among the armed forces and security forces of the Islamic Republic? On the one hand, indeed, since the various reorganisations of the Iranian military-police apparatus in 2019 and 2021, these forces have come under tighter control by the Legion. But on the other hand, whether it be the Legion itself, the army or the police, all have known a state of internal tension since the death of Jina Mansa, to the point where the last months of 2022 saw many public appeals for unity and denunciations of “bad apples.”

The European parliament’s recommendation does not seem to take into account the dissensions within the regime. An example of these was provided on 14 January 2023 with the execution of the Iranian-British citizen Alreza Akbari following a hasty trial for espionage in spite of protests from European diplomats. Benefiting from a dual nationality (like a good share of the Islamic republic’s elite), the man was mainly known as former vice-minister of defence and a close friend of Admiral Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the National Defence Council and historic figure of the Guardians. In January 2023, or so the conservative Iranian press whispered, what Supreme Ruler Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raissa sought was to place the blame for the country’s insurrectionary situation on the Admiral and that whole generation of the Legion’s historic figures, embodied by Shankhani.

The latter have been very present in the media and since the middle of September have often criticised the way the protests and uprisings across the country were being put down - when they did not choose, like Shamkhani, to keep a disapproving silence.

An official society fraying at every seam

This wrangling has brought to light all the strengths and weaknesses that have characterised the Guardians of the Revolution since their beginnings. The chief common denominator of the members of this State militia, created by Ayatollah Khomeyni on 5 May 1959, drawing on different armed revolutionary groups, was their allegiance to the man who was to become the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Since that time, the Legion has always been characterised by its interdependence with the theocratic power structure, personified by the Leaders (rahbar), Rouhollah Khomeyni and, since 1988, Ali Khamenei, within the framework of the “regency of the legist” (velayat-e faqih), which became “absolute” regency in 1987. Since the ’90s, the 1979 Constitution has endowed the rahbar with constantly increasing powers through the development of semi-private foundations (bayad) placed under his control and managed by former pasdarans. Thus neither the Legion nor the Leader have ever been able to envisage existing the one without the other, even if their relations are fraught with an endemic tension which, early on, substantiated the possibility of a coup mounted by the former against the latter2.

At the heart of their shared legitimacy is the defence of the system’s “values”, identified, since 1987, with the continued existence of the latter. Source of the regime’s increasing rigidity confronted with the succession of crises it has had to deal with, this defence has stumbled on the many splits and instances of one-upmanship which the Guardians have experienced since 1979. For many years their autonomy and a mode of recruitment favouring local loyalty made them stand out among the other components of the State apparatus; until the early years of the war against Iraq (1980–1988) the Legion’s front-line units were supplied in part by the bazaars and mosques in their home towns and regions. These loyalties explain both the legionaries’ original factionalism and the tight cohesion of many units, as well as their acute sense of self-sacrifice.

At the origin of many splits early in history of the regime, today these loyalties fuel the cohesion of a generation of veterans. Having risen rapidly in rank with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, these men were to play dominant roles for exceptionally long periods of time. Shoved aside in the purges organised every ten years by Ali Khamenei (in 1989, 1999 2009 and 2019), they converted, more or less successfully, to business and politics, some having taken, in the meantime, to criticising the regime, embodying thus another split, generational this time, between these commanding figures and the hierarchs, some hardly younger, who had replaced them. Their criticisms targeted essentially, not the “values” themselves, but their implementation among a population which the end of the welfare State after 2010 and the excessive zeal of the morality police had rendered in part hostile to rulers accused of having pre-empted the Revolution simply to get rich.

Conflicting memories: a harbinger of change?

For this is a recurrent problem encountered by the Guardians: the need to counter the grand narrative of their betrayal of the 1979 Revolution. A betrayal dating from their “turn to business” in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–1988, a turning facilitated by semi-privatisations benefiting the foundations and umbrella corporations controlled by the Leader and by the Legion’s hierarchs. A host of memoirs dealing with that transition have appeared since the first decade of the new century. Initiated by the general staff, these constituted a response to interlocking challenges: the Green Movement of 2009, seen as an attempt at another “colour revolution” backed by the West3; the corruption cases involving the Legion; the cost of “defending the holy sites” in Syria after 2012 against the Islamic State and other enemies of Bashar Al-Assad.

Retrospectively, this literature sheds light on the way the Legion of the Guardians was built without the slightest regard for legality, be it “Islamic,” and on the generalised practice of theft, exemplified by the plundering of the archives of many institutions of the monarchic era, appropriations meant to enable the Legion to get the better of what it calls the “governmentalists”’ (dowlatha) of the civil authority. These thefts were to provide the future commanders with unique knowledge of the underground politics of the previous period as well as their first “dossiers” concerning a wide range of protagonists and networks. During the decades that followed, this practice became widespread and helps to explain the longevity in their positions of certain officers, not to mention their impunity.

Another type of levy: the confiscations of the property of “counter-revolutionaries.” In the months following the revolution these became so frequent that a number of clerics in Khomeyni’s entourage, concerned to defend property rights, did their best to restrain the zeal of the militiamen. These confiscations, plus the suitcases full of banknotes from Qom and the donations from the mosques were at the origin of many personal fortunes and gave the Legion an undeniable independence. Neither its creeping bureaucratisation after 1982 – which remained unfinished – nor, after 1989, the gradual tightening of Leader Khamenei’s grip on its general staff, could put an end to this penchant for illegality among the ranks of a militia which still saw itself as revolutionary.

Having learned to circumvent international sanctions in the aftermath of the 1979 hostage taking at the US embassy in Tehran and during the war with Iraq, the Guardians had developed a considerable savoir-faire in the matters of trafficking and money-laundering, both part of a grand strategy all their own. Thus, along the country’s old imperial borders, regarded as so many glacis capable of favouring power projection, smuggling was farmed out to cross-border client tribes, regardless of whether Sunni or Shia, according to a mode of “indirect rule” which harks back to the historical relations between Persia and the Safavids and later the Kajars until the turn of the 20th century.4

The published memoirs of the past decade also shed light on the way a very specific recruiting system affects the Legion’s ideology and modus operandi. Indeed, for many years, a member of the Guardians served his entire career in a unit based in his place of residence, his region or, occasionally, his original ethnic group. As it grew larger, the unit would incorporate men of various origins, associated nonetheless with a hard core of officers from the original group. Though retired from active service, many officers continue to act as recruiting agents, in particular for the Basij - the “Mobilisation” corps (of the underprivileged) - used to form assault waves in the war against Iraq before being put in charge of the social control of populations inside the country. At the same time, former generals and colonels of the Legion may be observed in the role of dignitaries serving their community, either as philanthropists (running the countless athletics or martial arts clubs and cultural associations) or… as businessmen. Taking advantage of their interface status between the local population and central power structure. Some also hold a permanent seat on a ministerial commission (hey’at) with the task of allocating a major pubic contract, and have thus built parallel careers as entrepreneurs (especially in the vast military-industrial complex) or as MPs - before occasionally coming up against the power of rival lobbies and finishing their career with an indictment for corrupt practices.5

An exhausted religious power structure regains control

This dignitary status, the result of recruiting methods and career development in the Legion has helped to make many of its prominent members into peers and sometimes rivals of the grand local or regional imams. These territorial face-offs have helped to fuel, since 2009, speculations about the possible replacement of the religious power structure by the Guardians themselves. However, since the succession and reorganisations implemented between 2019 and 2021, things have changed, since the men who came to power in that period owe their legitimacy and their social base solely to their appointment by the Supreme Leader. Sometimes compared with to the Red Army’s political commissars, the latter’s legates, as ubiquitous in the Legion as they are in the foundations, have reintroduced ideological considerations into the recruiting process with the help of the Guardians’ intelligence service, making the religious power and that of the Legion “the two sides of a single face, that of the Janus of Roman mythology”6 at least in principle.

For as the end of Ali Khamenei’s rule approaches (he was 84 in April 2022), many cracks have begun to appear. In this age of social networks piloted by teenagers and women, the most active splits are generational, overlaying the factionalisms of yesteryear. Realising the danger of a rift between the regime and the people, a number of elders have declared themselves in reserve of the Islamic Republic, with occasional moral support from the rank and file, especially in the police and the army, where certain units resent their involvement in the ongoing counter-insurrection.

At the beginning of 2022, the legion’s present general staff had no qualms about blaming their most famous predecessors for this crisis, concerned as they are to preserve the status quo, synonymous with their control of the society and above all its economy. However, it is not certain that this adventuresome witch-hunt which at that time targeted Ali Shamkhani, will suffice to perpetuate the regime this time. Paradoxically, only the general dissolution of authority seems capable of this, at least for a while, against the background of an insurrection which just will not go away.

2Michael Axworthy, Revolutionary Iran. A History of the Islamic Republic, Londres et al., Penguin Books, 2014 (1st ed. 2013); p. 164.

3As in Georgia in 2003, in the Ukraine in 2004 and in Kyrghyzstan and Lebanon in 2005.

4On the Kurdish world and the Irano-Turkish border, cf. Hawzhin Baghali:Among the Kurdish Kirmanj of Urmia: The tribe at the interface of politics and religion. In Archives de sciences sociales des religions volume 199, Issue 3, July 2022; pages 121 to 144.

5Examples in Dudoignon, Les Gardiens, op. cit.; p. 197 ff.

6“Might the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps use the Iranian protests to supplant the ruling clerical establishment?”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 19 January 2023.