Ayatollah Khomeini knew on his return to Iran in February 1979 that the new Republic would need reorganisation – national infrastructure in particular was in bad repair – it would need Islam, of course, and it would need security.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was born just days after the Islamic revolution. Scowling, sinister, menacing, its soldiers have become a synecdoche for the Islamic Republic – its ideological enforcers – convenient shorthand for all that is repressive and fundamentalist about modern day Iran.
“In the aftermath of the revolution we had an immediate problem: its survival,” says Mohsen Sazegara, one-time aid to Khomeini and founder of the Revolutionary Guard. There was chaos on the streets, economic problems and the fear that the army could turn at any time. And then there was the US: “This concerned us greatly. The 1953 CIA coup against Mossadegh was still fresh in our minds. We didn’t want them to do it again.”
So, together with Ayatollah Lohat, a close friend of Khomeini, he hit upon the idea of a quasi-paramilitary organisation capable of rapid mobilisation. He also looked to a recent example of anti-US defiance: “As revolutionaries the model of Vietnam was very much in our minds as well.”
They went to see Khomeini in Qom. The Ayatollah listened carefully, and after their presentation he smiled, which was something he seldom did. He was, he said, also concerned about a possible coup d’état. He was confident in the stability of Islam as a political force in Iran – over 98 per cent of the population had just voted in favour of an Islamic Republic. But this did not preclude an “Islamic coup”.
With the Ayatollahs’s blessing they and a few others drew up a charter for this new organisation devoted to defending Iran and its revolution. Importantly, it would not concern itself with ideological matters. “There was no need,” says Sazegara. “In the flush of revolution everyone agreed on the centrality of Islam to the state. Only in later years when people began questioning the regime did this change.”
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) set the IRGC free. Ranks were introduced; a navy and air force division as well. It wasn’t a people’s army any more. The desperate need to mobilise soldiers willing to hurl themselves at the Iraqi guns, necessitated ideological “training” for its members. For the IRGC, Iran was fighting not Iraq, a mere agent, but the US.
Now enshrined in national myth as saviours of the country, the IRGC set about tightening its national grip. Under President Rafsanjani, it began in the 1980s wheeling and dealing. It became involved in Iran’s key industries: car manufacturing, construction, oil.
Militarily independent and financially secure, the IRGC was ready to move into politics. Through a highly organised system of electioneering it is now able to sweep to power its candidates of choice. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power on a wave of IRGC campaigning.
Iran has been the great lacuna of recent US foreign policy. The hostage crisis brought down Carter, and the Iran-Contra scandal almost ended Reagan in 1986-87, thus ensuring cross-party antipathy to Iran. The Revolutionary Guard has been a valuable rhetorical weapon for Washington, simplifying the narrative of “rogue” Iran, and its support of groups such as Hezbollah has, in the eyes of Washington, cost American lives.
What is certain is that the Revolutionary Guard, its role and its future, will feature strongly in any attempts at détente between Washington and Tehran.