On 10 February 2018, Israel announced that an Iranian drone had been shot down in western Syria. Later, an Israeli F-16 crashed after being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire over the north of Israel. Both Iran and Israel claimed provocation by the other. Whatever the truth of the matter (the drone allegation was not fully convincing), it is clear that after nearly seven years of war in Syria, Shia Iran’s presence in that blighted country is stronger than ever. In fact, what we mean when we speak of Iran in Syria is the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the influence of which has grown over the last ten years. Where did the Revolutionary Guards come from? How powerful are they, and does their greater influence signify an expansionist Iran and even more trouble in the Middle East?
When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile on 1 February 1979, he was greeted by an enormous crowd (estimates of its size have run up to three million, but no one really knows). For ten days or so after Khomeini’s return, the country had two prime ministers: Mehdi Bazargan, a liberal non-cleric appointed by Khomeini; and Shapur Bakhtiar, appointed by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in the last days before he left Iran in mid-January.
The situation in Tehran and across large parts of the country was chaotic. The police were scarcely to be seen, and some of their responsibilities, such as traffic control, were taken on by armed revolutionaries – students and others who had taken weapons from ransacked police stations and military bases. Some of those armed paramilitaries were associated with revolutionary committees called Komiteh, rather like the Soviets in Russia in 1917-21.
The Komiteh were mostly based in mosques, from which they distributed food and fuel oil for heating and cooking (normal retail distribution had largely broken down). Other armed groups were connected with political movements – leftists, and the Mojahedin-e Khalq organisation (MKO), a Marxist-Islamic outfit that had carried out terrorist attacks against the Shah’s regime (and some US nationals) over the previous decade. These movements had been persecuted almost to annihilation by the Shah’s secret police, but had expanded again as the revolution gathered pace.
The final showdown came between 10-12 February 1979. Some air force technicians who had previously declared for Khomeini were confronted by members of the old Imperial Guard at the Doshan Tappeh base in the east of Tehran. Exchanges of slogans and abuse were followed by exchanges of gunfire. Crowds and armed paramilitaries converged on the area and some joined in the fighting (including MKO members).
The military, still loyal to Bakhtiar, sent armoured columns through the city to restore order and relieve the pro-Shah troops, but crowds surrounded the tanks and stopped them getting through. Finally, on the morning of 12 February, the military commanders met, acknowledged the hopelessness of the situation, announced on the radio their (so-called) neutrality and ordered all troops to return to their barracks. Bakhtiar gave up in disgust and went into hiding, leaving the country a few weeks later.
Khomeini’s supremacy was complete. But there was still a dangerous vacuum of authority in the country, which persisted for several months in 1979. It was this chaotic situation that led to the formation of the Revolutionary Guards – or to give them their full title, the Guards Corps of the Islamic Revolution (Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami). They are usually referred to as the Sepah by Iranians. Khomeini’s overwhelming popularity as leader of the revolution was undisputed, but a variety of groups were hoping to take advantage of his supposed naivety, advanced age and political ignorance to win control for themselves – by violence if necessary.
In April 1979, one of Khomeini’s closest followers, Morteza Motahhari, was assassinated by an obscure extremist group, the Forqan. In previous periods of political crisis in the 20th century and earlier, many Iranians had turned to the clergy for leadership. But the clergy, as a class, had often been uncertain about what to do with the leadership they had been given. Traditionally, most of them disdained and avoided politics. At different stages, the more politically-minded clerics allied themselves with secular liberals or with reaction and the monarchy.
In the first Iranian revolution of the 20th century, 1906-11, one leading cleric, Fazlollah Nuri, was executed by resurgent revolutionaries after he sided with the monarchy in a coup. In 1953, the defection from the coalition behind prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq of another cleric, Ayatollah Kashani, weakened Mosaddeq and prepared the way for a British- and US-planned coup. The first coup attempt failed but led eventually, after a confused period, to Mosaddeq’s fall from power and the restoration, until 1979, of the rule of the Shah in more autocratic form.
Familiar with this history, Khomeini was determined that, having achieved success in the 1979 revolution, the clergy would not again be pushed aside or exploited by more secularised, leftist or pro-Western elements in the country. He understood the essentials of power in Iran and was determined ruthlessly to stay in control. It was important for him to demonstrate full popular support for the revolution (a referendum held at the end of March 1979 showed 98.2 per cent in favour of an Islamic republic), and to institute a new, Islamic constitution.
But it was necessary also to establish an armed force that was unquestioningly loyal to Khomeini and to the principle of an Islamic republic. Hence the establishment of the Sepah in May 1979. There were other pro-Khomeini paramilitary groups that sometimes carried firearms, notably Hezbollah (the so-called party of God) and the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution, but almost from the start, the Sepah was pre-eminent and more disciplined.
The revolution had side-effects well beyond the jockeying for power that went on in Tehran throughout the rest of 1979. Komiteh formed throughout the country as the central authority of the Shah collapsed – including in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. In several cases, some among these minority groups saw the revolution and its rhetoric of liberation for the downtrodden as an invitation to fairer treatment, and the greater autonomy that they had failed to achieve under the Shah.
The Arabs of Khuzestan and the Kurds of the north-western provinces were two such ethnic groups, as were Baluchis in the south-east and Turkmen in the north-east. The Kurds and Arabs were wooed for a time by politicians from Tehran, but when discussions broke down there were renewed demonstrations, which were suppressed with force. In Khuzestan the disturbances died down fairly quickly, but in Iranian Kurdestan there was an armed insurrection by militant Kurds.
The conflict with the Kurds was carried out by the Sepah and some army units. It was often brutal, with many deaths. Villages were destroyed and many activists and others were arrested and thrown in prison. But the fight was also exploited by Khomeini to maintain an atmosphere of tension, danger and threat in Tehran, to help with his task of consolidating his hold and that of his supporters on the Islamic Republic.
Fighting the Kurdish revolt was an important factor in debates over the new constitution in the summer and early autumn of 1979. The conflict continued into 1980 and beyond, but Khomeini succeeded in securing a new, strongly Islamic constitution at the turn of the year – assisted by the US embassy hostage crisis, which he used to divide leftist and liberal opposition. The war in Kurdestan established the Sepah as the prime defenders of the Islamic Republic, given continuing doubts about the loyalty of the regular armed forces (in July 1980 some air force and army officers attempted a coup, centred on the Nozheh air base in western Iran; Sepah troops broke it up).
Part of the constitution that came into force in the winter of 1979-80 included a commitment to defend the rights of all Muslims (including those beyond Iran’s borders) and to support the oppressed “in every corner of the globe” – but with the ambiguous and perhaps contradictory caveat that this was “while scrupulously refraining from all forms of interference in the internal affairs of other nations”.
Sometimes referred to as the justification for Iran to export revolution, these clauses became the basis for the unit of the Sepah known as the Qods (Jerusalem) Force. The name alone points to Israel, and although the exact origins of the Qods Force are uncertain (some say it came into existence with that name only after the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988, taking over from a previous Sepah entity), it seems to have originated around the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Sepah personnel went to Lebanon to help their fellow Shias.
Since then, the Qods Force has become notorious as the main instrument for Iran’s projection of military power in other countries, and for involvement in terrorism. Large numbers of Sepah troops flew to Lebanon early on, but within a short time, their ranks were slimmed down to something over a thousand. The group’s main activity was training Shia recruits in the Bekaa Valley, who came to form Lebanese Hezbollah. The Qods Force/Lebanese Hezbollah relationship in turn became the prime focus for Iran’s commitment to oppose the state of Israel. Iran has a similar position of support for the Palestinian group Hamas, but that relationship is less strong.
No one outside Iran has a clear idea of how many personnel belong to the Qods Force. Some wilder estimates have gone as high as 30,000 or even more; others, more sensibly, as low as 2,000.
The point is that the Qods Force does not act like a normal military unit. It liaises with military or paramilitary forces in other countries to stiffen their resolve and enhance their expertise, rather than fighting on the front line itself (one might compare this with “military advisers” that the US has deployed in various countries – notably, Vietnam before 1965). It does not need large numbers. Such activity can be deniable, avoiding the necessity for the regime to face that original constitutional ambiguity.
It has become a standard for the Trump administration to denounce Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. This is misleading at best, because it suggests that Iran is involved in a lot of terrorism – but it is not, at least not any more. Most Islamic terrorism in the last 20 years, overwhelmingly, has been carried out by Sunni extremists, not Shias or Iranians. During the early 1980s, in the midst of the Lebanese civil war, a group called Islamic Jihad (which seems to have been closely associated with Lebanese Hezbollah, if not part of it) carried out several attacks on US interests, with Iranian backing. These included attacks in 1983 on the US embassy in Beirut and US barracks, killing 63 and nearly 300 respectively. Islamic Jihad also took hostages from Western countries in Lebanon in the mid-1980s.
After the Iran-Iraq War, there were several assassinations that also might be regarded as score-settling by Iran: the Iranian-Kurdish leader Abdol Rahman Qasemlu was killed in Vienna in 1989, former prime minister Shapur Bakhtiar was murdered in Paris in 1991, and three more Iranian-Kurdish politicians were killed with their translator in Berlin in 1992.
There were also two bombings in Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994, aimed at the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community centre respectively, that together killed more than 100. Lebanese Hezbollah claimed the first as being carried out in revenge for the killing of one of its members by the Israelis – but it appeared that there was Iranian involvement in both.
There is good reason to believe there was a central decision to end this kind of terrorist activity at some point during the Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani presidency of Iran (1989-1997). Since then, senior Shia clerics have denounced suicide bombing in principle. In 2012, there were incidents aimed at Israeli diplomats involving Iranians in Delhi, Tbilisi and Bangkok; the attacks seem to have been intended as retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, which were attributed to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.
Four people were injured in the Delhi incident, but the other attacks failed. It is unclear whether the Sepah was involved or not. The US has accused Iran of involvement in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, but at various times the Saudis blamed al-Qaeda for that attack, and the evidence implicating Iran was based on interrogation by Saudi torturers.
At one time, it was thought that Iran instigated the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, and some doubt remains. But Muammar Gaddafi of Libya accepted responsibility in 2003, and a Libyan was later tried and convicted as the perpetrator. Nonetheless, Iran has continued to deny the right of Israel to exist as a state, and still supports Lebanese Hezbollah’s use of all methods, including violence, against Israel.
The Iran-Iraq War, which began in September 1980 when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded western Iran, was the most important formative experience in the early years of the Sepah (for a time, in 1981, it was fighting not just the Iraqis but an insurrection by the MKO in Tehran). Thousands of volunteers came forward, and initially many went to the front with little training. The Sepah expanded hugely, to at least its present-day size of more than 100,000 men, but even estimated numbers are hard to determine. Volunteers outside the usual military age parameters went into the Basij militia, which has perhaps the same number again or a little less. The Basij, which became notorious internationally for accepting boys in their early teens or even younger, was subordinated to Sepah command in 1981.
The regime always emphasised the role of the Sepah in the fighting and gave it credit for victories in wartime propaganda, sometimes at the expense of regular army, air force and gendarmerie units. But the Sepah was undoubtedly of central importance in the Iranian war effort, which was ultimately successful despite horrendous losses.
The Karbala-4 offensive began on 24 December 1986 with an attack by specialist Sepah frogmen, who crossed the Shatt al-Arab in the darkness. But it seems the Iraqis were warned of the Iranian troop build-up by US satellite intelligence. The attackers were illuminated by searchlights and raked with machine gun fire, but managed nonetheless to overwhelm the defences on the far side of the Shatt before getting pinned down among the remains of date palm groves, minefields and barbed wire.
At dawn they were shot at by everything the Iraqis could bring to bear – machine guns, mortars, artillery and helicopter gunships. Reinforcements sent to help them suffered the same fate. The attacking troops gained no further ground and those who were not killed or captured escaped back over the Shatt al-Arab by nightfall on 25 December. The Iranians had lost an estimated 10,000 men, for no gain. Estimates of the total casualties suffered by Iran in the war range up to one million, but that would include many whose injuries later permitted something like a full recovery. In a statement in 2001, Rahim Safavi, then the commander of the Sepah, said that 213,000 had been killed and 320,000 left permanently disabled. The latter figure included tens of thousands still suffering the effects of chemical weapons used by Hussein.
The war allowed the Sepah to expand and develop from a militia into a full-blown military force, armed with the full panoply of heavy weapons and with its own air and naval components. But the conflict was important for the Sepah in other ways, too. Throughout the war, and since, it has retained its character as a citizen force in line with its revolutionary militia origins. Although the Sepah has a long-service senior officer cadre, it has never become a force of predominantly professional career soldiers. This has deepened its influence in Iranian society, as large numbers of citizens have rotated through the Basij and the Sepah for their obligatory military service. This, in turn, contributes to the role of the Sepah in what one might call the national myth of the Islamic Republic. Some Iranians are committed ideological supporters of the regime. But a larger number have a split or ambiguous attitude. They might resent the economic failures, the rule of the clerics, the lack of full democracy or political freedoms, or all of these things, but still approve the independent position that the Islamic Republic has achieved for Iran.
Even many of the millions of Iranians who have gone into exile share that view. National independence is one of the few things that a large majority of Iranians would agree upon as a valuable achievement of the Islamic regime (universal education is perhaps another).
To appreciate the importance of that, it is necessary to have a sense of the humiliation felt in the decades and centuries before 1979, when Iran was manipulated by foreign powers, often with the connivance of some Iranians. The revolution enabled Iran to break free at last, and whatever the errors and the sufferings of the Iran-Iraq War, successful resistance and defence set the seal on that independence.
The Sepah has a central place in this story, and so the attitude towards it is often split, too. The Sepah and the Basij are resented as corrupt bullies, brutally crushing dissent and enjoying privilege in return. But they are also respected by many for their past and present role as the cornerstone of the country’s self-defence and self-determination.
Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the position and influence of the Sepah in the life of Iran has grown and grown. It has taken a greater role in intelligence, with its own organisation for gathering information.
In the summer of 2006, the assistance it gave to Lebanese Hezbollah against a second Israeli invasion of Lebanon was widely considered a success; the Israelis found resistance unexpectedly robust, augmented by electronic warfare capability. Yet, more obviously, the Sepah has taken an ever-greater role in the economy of Iran. Some estimate that it controls 15 per cent of the economy; others put it higher.
The Sepah has major interests in construction and civil engineering (notably through the Khatam al-Anbia organisation), in the oil industry and in telecommunications. The extent of its economic involvement is hard to assess because the full ramifications are unclear. In particular, the Sepah has close relations with several Bonyads – tax-exempt charitable foundations – the most important of which is the Bonyad-e Mostazafan va Janbazan (Foundation for the Oppressed and War Veterans). This is involved in a wide range of sectors, from shipping to chemicals, retail and tourism.
Despite Khomeini’s view that the Sepah should not interfere in politics, it has become inexorably more involved. In 1999, several Sepah chiefs warned President Mohammad Khatami that if he did not act to stop student demonstrations in Tehran, the force would be obliged to intervene. In 2009, more serious demonstrations erupted in the capital and in regional centres after a disputed election that the regime declared to have been won by the sitting president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (himself ex-Sepah, and strongly pro-Sepah in his policies).
The Sepah masterminded the suppression of the demonstrations, which continued on and off into the following year, using young Basij volunteers on the streets for the most part, along with riot police. (In the protests that broke out all over Iran most recently, at the end of December 2017, the suppression by the regime and the Sepah followed a similar pattern.)
Before the June 2009 election, demonstrations had generally refrained from attacking Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Yet Khamenei himself departed from previous practice by giving forthright support for Ahmadinejad – both before the election and after the declared result. Shortly before his death at the end of 2009, the dissident cleric Hossein-Ali Montazeri said that the Islamic Republic had become a military republic.
When criticised internationally for their support for Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, and their complicity in the actions of those militias, including atrocities, Iranian politicians cite the example of the Sepah and the Basij. They say that the Iraqi and other militias formed out of necessity, in self-defence, because Shias were being attacked; just as Iranians had flocked to join the Sepah and the Basij after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980.
When Mosul fell to Islamic State (IS) in June 2014, Iran had been heavily involved in both Iraq and Syria for a long time. Qasem Soleimani, the legendary commander of the Qods Force, was the leading figure in that involvement. Before the fall of Hussein in 2003, Iran had supported Shia opposition group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in exile in Iran in 1982. After 2003, Iran supported SCIRI, its associated militia the Badr Brigade, and Nouri al-Maliki, who emerged from SCIRI to become Iraqi prime minister in 2006. Iran has supported other militias in Iraq, too, through the Qods Force, but Badr has always been its preferred partner. The US and most other Western countries also supported Maliki, who had been democratically elected. But his government proved aggressively sectarian in office. It permitted attacks and massacres against Sunnis by Shia militias, and was widely seen to have facilitated the rise of IS by alienating Iraqi Sunnis.
Meanwhile, Soleimani had been engaged in Syria against the opponents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad since the Arab Spring revolt in 2011. The alliance between the Iranian regime and the Assads was established during the Iran-Iraq War and had endured since. Syria had been Iran’s only reliable foreign ally; they both supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also shared a principle of resistance to Israel and the US.
It is not necessary to recount here the crimes of the Assad regime, nor the suffering of the Syrians. The estimates, that approximately half a million have died since 2011, four times that number injured, 11 million or more displaced and perhaps four million forced out of the country as refugees, tell their own story. The Assads (and by extension, the Iranians and others who have backed them) are culpable for much of this suffering.
After IS broke out of its territory in Syria to take Mosul in Iraq, Soleimani was accused of having neglected the growth of the terror group in favour of defending the core territory of the Assads in Damascus and the west of Syria (with the help of Lebanese Hezbollah). The fall of Mosul was at least as much of an unpleasant shock to Iranians as it was to Europeans and Americans – Mosul is, after all, a good deal closer to Iran’s border.
IS made rapid gains; the Iraqi army fell apart, and before long the Assad regime appeared to be on the brink of collapse. That danger precipitated the greatly intensified intervention of the Russians in the autumn of 2015, through air power especially, to stabilise the Assad regime. The Iranians moved more forces into Iraq – in addition to the Qods Force members that were already there – including Sepah commando-type units and drones, and made their own air strikes. The wars in Iraq and Syria were complex but became, in effect, a single struggle. From then on, the combination of Russian air attacks and Iranian-backed militia on the ground, co-ordinated with Kurdish forces and reformed Iraqi military units (as well as US and other Western help) drove IS slowly back. In the process, Soleimani’s star rose again; he appeared everywhere, liaising with Iraqi Shias and Kurds (though some Kurds were hostile to the Iranians). IS resistance collapsed in Mosul in July 2017 and in the Syrian city of Raqqa in October, with all IS territory reoccupied by the end of the year. These were major victories for Iran and the Sepah, notwithstanding that they were achieved with help from others.
The Russians and Iranians are still helping the Assad regime against its other enemies in Syria; the killing continues. And, as the clash over the drone and F-16 fighter jet on 10 February showed, Iran’s confrontation with Israel has become closer and more dangerous.
So, what next? Iran has been accused of hegemonic ambitions. Others have countered that Iran’s actions are wholly explicable in terms of self-defence, national interest and the preservation of the Islamic Republic (the last being, of course, the core purpose and legitimising role of the Sepah). Iran’s actions in Iraq and Syria (and Afghanistan) have been aimed at preventing the rise of new powers that could threaten the Islamic Republic’s security, the defence of important strategic allies, and (to some extent, especially in Iraq) the protection of fellow Shias and important shrines.
Iran’s involvement in Bahrain and Yemen, by comparison, is of much lesser importance to the regime. The Iranians feel obliged to support the Shia in Bahrain, with rhetoric at least. Their religious connection with the Zaidi Houthis is much less strong, but they have sent weapons in response to Houthi requests (to call the Houthis Iranian proxies in Yemen would be an exaggeration), and to retaliate for Saudi interventions in what the Iranians regard as their sphere of influence. It is part of the ugly game of rivalry the Iranians and Saudis have been playing in the region.
There are many good reasons, I think, why Iran will not seek expansion and hegemony in the Middle East. One is that most Iranians know any such attempt would go down so badly with the majority of Arabs, including Shia Arabs, that it would be unfeasible.
Another is that Iran, with relatively low military spending ranging between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP for most of the last decade, is structurally not well-placed for militaristic expansion. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel, to name just three, have consistently spent much more.
A further reason is the protests in Iran that began at the end of last year. They were eventually crushed, and were not supported by all Iranians, but there are signs that the regime took them seriously, possibly even to the point of pursuing economic reforms that would curtail the Sepah’s commercial activities.
There were many reports that resentment of Iran’s military activities and spending in other countries featured in the protests (for example, payments by the Qods Force to the families of Shia militia killed or injured). As the central, driving idea for both Khamenei and the Sepah is the preservation of the Islamic Republic, they will not pursue adventures in other countries if these would increase the risk of losing power at home.
There is also the enduring importance of the Iran-Iraq War in the Iranian psyche and in the regime’s decision-making. One specific juncture may be particularly relevant; the decision in 1982 to refuse a ceasefire, and continue the war into Iraq after the Iranians had retaken most of the territory they lost to Saddam Hussein following the invasion of 1980. Today that decision is widely seen in Iran, both within the regime and outside, as probably the most damaging mistake made by the leaders of the Islamic Republic in its history. It brought not only six more years of war, but hundreds of thousands more casualties.
Some of the surviving politicians who were involved at the time have attempted subsequently to deny their involvement, or claimed that they argued against continuing the war into Iraq. The only ones who have been unable to avoid responsibility, because their advocacy was too well-known, were the Sepah commanders. There is evidence that Khomeini blamed them for the decision at the end of the war.
There could be no stronger lesson for Iran’s leaders today, nor for the Sepah, about the dangers of foreign adventures and strategic overreach.
Another question prompted by the growth and success of the Sepah is whether it might take a final step and assume full control of Iran, establishing a military government. This question becomes sharper as Khamenei gets older (he is 78, and Western intelligence services and the media have long speculated about his ill health).
The point, as we have seen (and as Afshon Ostovar argues in his excellent book, Vanguard of the Imam), is that the Sepah is heavily dependent on the supreme leader, just as he is on the Sepah. Its position in the system is not built on a history of intervention in politics (unlike the military in Egypt and, at least in the recent past, in Turkey). If anything, it is built on the opposite; a principle of non-intervention, or at any rate intervention only at the request of the supreme leader.
The Sepah’s power is bound up with, and conditional upon, the ideology and institutions of the Islamic Republic. To subvert them would be to subvert its own position. The Sepah will have an important voice in the selection of the next supreme leader. But it will not determine the decision alone, and Mohammad Ali Jafari (current overall commander of the Sepah) will not become supreme leader because he is not a cleric.
The Sepah is the military cutting edge of a regime that is relentless in its determination to stay in power – a state headed by Ali Khamenei, whose guiding principle is to maintain, at almost any cost, what he inherited from the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini. The regime and the Sepah are not seeking dominance of the Middle East, but they are prepared to use ruthless methods to defend and preserve the Islamic Republic – whether that means acting within or beyond the borders of Iran.
This article was originally published in February 2018.
Michael Axworthy is director of Exeter University’s Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies. His recent books include “Iran: What Everyone Needs to Know”(Oxford University Press) and “Revolutionary Iran” (Penguin)
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia