Ban The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)

 (from a C-CAT memo published April 2010) 

Is the IRGC a normative state entity?

“Never solely a military organization in the traditional sense”[xv]

“Today the IRGC has a determining effect on all international political balances and calculations… If one day this corps ceases to exist in our society, the authority of our Islamic Revolution shall collapse, and the calculations of global politics will be upset.”[i]

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini

“And now, the Revolutionary Guard is something really strange. It’s an organization which is like a political party because they have 80 seats in the parliament; they have more than half of the members of the cabinet. They are like the KGB because they have secret services, and they act like that. And they are like a cartel or trust.” … “Now, the Revolutionary Guard has been converted into a kind of organization, a kind of government inside the government of Iran.”[ii]

Mohsen Sazegara (Iranian dissident, fellow at Harvard University, founding member of the IRGC)

“…the IRGC is a non-traditional instrumentality of Iran. It is the military arm of a kind of shadow government…It is similar to the Nazi party’s SA organization prior to World War II. The IRGC actively supports terrorism as a means of protecting the Islamic revolution … It has its own separate funding sources…”[iii]

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth  (Blais v. Islamic Republic of Iran in 2006) 

 “…Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have allowed the IRGC to grow into a semi-autonomous state-within-a-state.”[iv]

Francis Fukuyama (Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University)

[The IRGC is] … an organization that probably does not have a counterpart in the Western world, per se. The closest metaphor I could give you probably would be the Brown Shirts, the SA of the Nazi Party during World War II.”[v]

Dr. Bruce Tefft (Founding Member of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center)

[The IRGC]: “There are no checks and balances.”[vii]

Ali Alfoneh[vi] (The American Enterprise Institute) 

“[It] is not solely a military organization” but “also a political and ideological organization.”71

Dr. Bruce Tefft (Founding Member of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center)

“All the money that’s coming in serves to make them the most powerful force in Iran… And what’s important about that is that there is no oversight body.”[viii]

Robin Hughes (Deputy Editor of Jane’s Defense Weekly)

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the Majlis [Iranian parliament] enacted legislation permitting the IRGC to use “its engineering capability in rebuilding the country’s economy.” However, no oversight body exists with the capability of supervising the Revolutionary Guards’ economic activities.[ix]

Mehdi Khalaji  (Shiite theologian and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy)152: 

The IRGC: “the only institution in Iran capable of both enforcing and breaching any red lines.”[x]

RAND Corporation Conference

“Clearly the IRGC is among the most autonomous power centers in Iran and it has resisted any subordination to any civilian authority from the presidential executive to the clerical control apparatus embodied in the Supreme Leaders representatives.”[xi]

Wilfried Buchta  (Islamic expert, senior political affairs officer for the UN mission in Iraq) 

“[The IRGC] has evolved well beyond its… foundations as an ideological guard for the… revolutionary regime. Today, the IRGC functions as an expansive socio-political-economic conglomerate whose influence extends into virtually every corner of Iranian political life and society…. [It can be seen] less as a traditional military entity wielding a navy, ground forces, air force, and a clandestine paramilitary wing…and more as a domestic actor… [t]he IRGC may be more profitably viewed as a deeply entrenched domestic institution. Arguably, this internal role overshadows its significance as a purely military force.”[xii]

RAND Corporation, (National Defense Research Institute)

“Despite attempts by Iran’s clerical establishment to impose a degree of clerical control over the Pasdaran [IRGC]… [its] semi-institutional autonomy from the civilian leadership in Iran has meant that Hizb’allah has been able to resist attempts at cooption by Iran through support of the IRGC. Attempts by Iranian political leaders to exert pressure on the IRGC contingent in Lebanon were unsuccessful…The lack of control by Iran’s political leadership over IRGC support for Hizb’allah was clearly revealed…. [i]t enabled Hizb’allah to exercise a certain amount of independence, at times in violation of specific orders….”[xiii]

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, (World renowned expert on Hezbollah, Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies (CATS), National Defence College, Sweden) 

“The actions of the [IRGC’s] Quds Force are not necessarily ordered by Ayatollah Khameinei, and the Supreme Leader may not even get reports of all its actions… The Iranian government is a very loose grouping of power centers,” blurring lines of control and authority.”[xiv]

Hooshang Amirahmadi  (Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University)

There is much debate as to what the IRGC actually is and how to define it. Its involvement in combat roles similar to those of the armed forces of Iran or any other country is not in question. But this military function is not fully representative of the IRGC’s mandate, activities or identity – either as formally designated or as self proclaimed. The IRGC is unique among state structures insofar as it is defined by its lack of definitional and legal limitations, allowing it to be many things concurrently – thereby rendering it something other than just a branch of Iran’s armed forces. A closer examination of the IRGC’s mandate, the mechanisms that govern its implementation and the scope of its activities bears this out:

a. An Ideological Mandate

The IRGC only came into existence in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It was not a revolutionary army similar to the ALN in Algeria or the Vietcong in Vietnam. It was not an existing fighting force that was co-opted or merged into the conventional military structures in the aftermath of a successful revolution.[xvi] The IRGC was established after the Revolution as the ideological guard for the nascent revolutionary regime.[xvii] In Article 150 of the Constitution, the IRGC is given the task of “protecting the revolution and its achievements.”[xviii] The IRGC itself has summarized its role, defining the two main tasks of the IRGC as “guarding the principle of government by the Supreme Jurist and the principle of jihad.”[xix] This is hardly a normative military mandate in any conventional sense of the word. Nowhere does the Constitution define the enemies against which the IRGC is obliged to guard the revolution. It is even unclear whether the IRGC’s primary role is to be a defense against external threats (in which case it should act as an army) or internal threats (in which it might act as a police force).[xx]

Notably, the initial structure and operational behavior of the IRGC indicates that this body was never intended to be a normative military institution. At its inception it numbered only a modest 10,000 men, dedicated primarily to restoring order in the country and dampening counter-revolutionary trends in Iran.[xxi] Indeed, many of its initial activities had less to do with fighting to defend the new order, and more to do with guarding key personnel of the new regime, monitoring citizens’ activities, enforcing the Islamic dress code, and seizing material not favored by the regime.[xxii] Even when it did act in a military capacity shortly after its inception, the IRGC’s military theory and practice deviated from most (if not 

all) norms of conventional military thinking. This is reflective of a sui generis ideological mandate as opposed to a normative military mandate. This was clearly evident during the Iran-Iraq War.[xxiii]

b. An Ever-Expanding Mandate

Although the IRGC evolved into, among other things, a more formal military force as a result of the Iran-Iraq War,[xxiv] the IRGC was not tasked originally with the conventional 

military role of Defending the territory of the Islamic Republic. Rather, that was left to Iran’s conventional military forces in Article 143.[xxv] The IRGC was charged primarily with protecting not Iran’s people or borders, but the Revolution and its ideals. It is precisely this separation of purpose, both in mandate and practice, which existed from the adoption of the Constitution and makes the IRGC a unique institution and an all-pervasive entity in the enforcement and propagation of the regime’s policies both domestically and globally.[xxvi] This mandate is far too expansive for any normative military body. It is almost borderless, essentially allowing the IRGC to take on whatever role is necessary to “protect the revolution”.[xxvii] As described in a recent report from the RAND Corporation:

[The IRGC] has evolved well beyond its original foundations as an ideological guard… Today, the IRGC functions as an expansive socio-political-economic conglomerate whose influence extends into virtually every corner of Iranian political life and society… [It should be viewed] less as a traditional military entity wielding a navy, ground forces, air force, and a clandestine paramilitary wing…and more as a domestic actor…. [t]he IRGC may be more profitably viewed as a deeply entrenched domestic institution. Arguably, this internal role overshadows its significance as a purely military force.[xxviii]

The IRGC was never established as conventional armed forces and has not acted as such. The military aspect is just one dimension and expression of the very broad ideological mandate that has grown to include: a vast industrial enterprise; the running and controlling of elections; the enforcement of Islamic dress codes; and the owning and running of prisons, hospitals universities and eye clinics. The IRGC’s commander in chief, Maj.-Gen. Ali Jaf’ari, seems to concur: “[the IRGC] is not solely a military organization” but “also a political and ideological organization.”[xxix] Defining the IRGC as a “branch of the armed forces” of another country is a true misnomer. It is more like Hezbollah or Hamas, which are ideologically-based organizations that develop military, social and cultural capacities to advance their ideological agenda. Like so many other facets of Iran’s infrastructure and 

policy, the IRGC is sui generis and defies any single definition. Mohsen Sazegara, a prominent Iranian dissident presently a fellow at Harvard and a founding member of the IRGC, put it as follows: “I don’t know of any other organization in any country like the Revolutionary Guards. It’s something like the Communist Party, the KGB, a business complex and the mafia.”[xxx]

Why should Canadian policy makers protect the IRGC from being listed as a terrorist entity when the organization itself and the Constitution mandating its existence clearly do not limit or define the IRGC as being a normative military entity? It is an error to be handcuffed 

by conventional terminology about the armed forces of other nation states when formulating policy related to the IRGC.

c. The IRGC – Rogue or State Agent?

Should the IRGC in fact be viewed as a state actor? This has been a subject of debate, with the IRGC being described alternately as acting in both rogue and state capacities. Neither categorization is accurate.[xxxi]Although the IRGC is clearly part of the formal governmental structure of Iran and constitutionally answerable to the Supreme Leader, the IRGC often acts autonomously, remaining largely unaccountable politically, financially and legally for its actions.

Ultimately, it must be argued that given the level of operational control, independence from government hierarchy, and economic self sufficiency,[xxxii] the IRGC has more than sufficient autonomy from government control and accountability to be considered a non-state actor for the purposes of listing it as a terrorist entity in Canada. Like any terrorist organization, it is an ideologically driven entity that engages in acts of terrorism on its own volition. The fact that the IRGC also executes other tasks on behalf of the government does not alter that fact. It simply makes it into a hybrid that has more accurately been described by James Russell[xxxiii] and others as a quasi-governmental organization.[xxxiv]

Quasi-governmental entities (which also include quasi non-governmental entities) have been the subject of research, and in a Congressional Research Service report they are defined as hybrid organizations that have been assigned by law or by general practice some of the legal characteristics of both the government and private sectors.[xxxv] But given its sui generis mandate and the breadth and depth of the IRGC’s power and autonomy, it would fall into a category of quasi-governmental or non-governmental organization that is unlike any other. The IRGC’s unusual category of agency was also the finding of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Blais v. Islamic Republic of Iran in 2006:

…the IRGC is a non-traditional instrumentality of Iran. It is the military arm of a kind of shadow government…It is similar to the Nazi party’s SA organization prior to World War II. The IRGC actively supports terrorism as a means of protecting the Islamic revolution that brought the Ayatollah to power in Iran in 1979. It has its own separate funding sources….[xxxvi]

Other experts like Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, a world-renowned expert on Hezbollah, have described the IRGC as having “semi-institutional autonomy”: 

Despite attempts by Iran’s clerical establishment to impose a degree of clerical control over the Pasdaran [IRGC]… [its] semi-institutional autonomy from the civilian leadership in Iran has meant that Hizb’allah has been able to resist attempts at cooption by Iran through support of the IRGC. Attempts by Iranian political leaders to exert pressure on the IRGC contingent in Lebanon were unsuccessful…The lack of control by Iran’s political leadership over IRGC support for Hizb’allah was clearly revealed…. [i]t enabled Hizb’allah to exercise a certain amount of independence, at times in violation of specific orders….[xxxvii]

As evidenced in this quote, the IRGC’s “semi-autonomy” from Iranian authority[xxxviii] also significantly increases IRGC culpability for the actions of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah that it supports. This “semi-autonomy” has in essence made the IRGC an independent patron of Hezbollah, whose terrorist exploits sometimes stem directly and independently from the IRGC and not from Iran. One could even conclude that given the IRGC’s level of collusion with Hezbollah and its independence from Iranian authority in directing its activities, the IRGC and Hezbollah could be considered full partners of an independent terrorist entity.[xxxix]


[i] From a prayer sermon in Tehran, October 7, 1984, quoted in Amir Taheri, The Persian Night, (New York 2003), P. 251.

[ii] “The Evolution of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard”, by Renee Montagne, NPR, April 5, 2007.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9371072.

[iii] FindACase – Blais v. Islamic Republic of Iran

http://dc.findacase.com/research/wfrmDocViewer.aspx/

[iv] Iran v. Britain: Who Blinked?, Francis Fukuyama, http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/contd/?p=613.

[v] Dr. Bruce Tefft, from his testimony in Dammarell v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 404 F. Supp. 2d 261, 272 (D.D.C. 2005). Dr. Tefft served 21 years in the CIA, including 17 years abroad, many as a CIA Chief of Station; and was a founding member of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center in 1985. He has more than 30 years experience in foreign affairs, intelligence and security operations and counter-terrorism. In addition to extensive research and teaching of counter-terrorism methods and techniques, he has also developed course material for Bachelor and Master-level degree programs in Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism. Dr. Tefft has been certified as an “expert witness” on terrorism issues for the U.S. District Court inWashington, D.C. and has testified in 8 cases.

[vi] Ali Alfoneh is a visiting research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is also a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of Copenhagen. His research areas include civil-military relations in Iran with a special focus on the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the Islamic Republic. Mr. Alfoneh has been a research fellow at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College and has taught political economy at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Southern Denmark. He was also an independent researcher at the Institute for Political and International Studies, Tehran in 2003, and research assistant for the Office of the President of the European Affairs Committee of the Danish Parliament in 2002-2003.

[vii] Indoctrination of the Revolutionary Guards”, by Ali Alfoneh, Middle Eastern Outlook, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, No.2 February 2009.

[viii] “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Branches Out”, by Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2007.

[ix] PolicyWatch #1273, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Inc.”, by Mehdi Khalaji, August 17, 2007, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

[x]RAND, The Rise of the Pasdaran, P. 2.

[xi] Wilfried Buchta, Who Rules Iran, Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Konrad Adenauer Stitung, 2000, P.70, quoting Kenneth Katzman, The Warriors of Islam, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

[xii] RAND, National Defense Research Institute, The Rise of the Pasdaran – Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, 2009, P. xi and xii.

[xiii] Ranstorp, Magnus Hizb’allah in Lebanon, The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis, Macmillan Press, 1997, P. 84.

[xiv] “Iranian Force, Focus of U.S., Still a Mystery”, by Scott Shane, New York Times, February 17, 2007; also Kenneth M. Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy noted that: “There are people who believe the Quds Force does not move a muscle without getting explicit orders from [supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khameinei; there are other people who believe they are rogues. The weight of evidence is somewhere in the middle”, quoted in “Iran’s Elite and Mysterious Fighters”, by Borzou Daragahi and Peter Spiegel, Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2007.

[xv]The Rise of the Pasdaran – Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, RAND,

National Defense Research Institute, 2009, Chapter 1, P. 25.

[xvi] Taheri, P.244.

[xvii] The Rise of the Pasdaran – Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, P. xi.

[xviii] “The Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Constitution of Islamic Republic of Iran,” Sec. Three, quoted in “The Revolutionary Guards’ Role in Iranian Politics”, by Ali Alfoneh, Middle East Quarterly, September 1, 2008.

[xix] Payam-e Enghelab [the official organ of the IRGC], July 25, 1981, quoted in “The Revolutionary Guards’ Role in Iranian Politics”, by Ali Alfoneh, Middle East Quarterly, September 1, 2008.

[xx] “The Revolutionary Guards’ Role in Iranian Politics”, by Ali Alfoneh, Middle East Quarterly, September 1, 2008.

[xxi] Byman, Daniel, Shahram Chubin, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, Jerrold Green, Iran’s Security Policy in the Post-

Revolutionary Era, RAND, 2001, P.33.

[xxii] Iran: Defending the Islamic Revolution – The Corps of the Matter”, by Houchang Hassan-Yari, Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty 2009; and ibid.

[xxiii] See Katzman, Kenneth, The Warriors of Islam, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993),.P. 148, “The Guard fails to meet the substantive criteria of professionalism – unquestioned obedience to civilian authority, absence of political involvement, and a scientifically based decision making process. The Guard’s 

resistance to professionalism in turn, reflects the depth and strength of the Guard’s continuing commitment to the hard line ideological principles of the revolution, which are incompatible with the scientific and politically neutral foundations of military professionalism. ”; and also Katzman P.55 “The IRGC places tremendous emphasis on ideological correctness. Its approach during the Iran/Iraq war, for example, was that “a maktab (ideologically pure ) army is better than a victorious one.”; and Kaztman P. 131 “Ideological correctness and commitment to the revolution led in earlier years to its undertaking high-risk military operations “rich in ideological content but militarily ill advised and potentially detrimental to the Guards’ own military posture and prestige.”

[xxiv] Daniel Byman, Iran’s Security in the Post Revolutionary Era, P.34.

[xxv] Ibid. P.xii.

[xxvi] “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – An Open Source Analysis”, Mathew M. Frick, Joint Force Quarterly 49, 2nd Quarter 2008, http://www.ndu.edu/inss/Press/jfq_pages/i49.htm.

[xxvii] See “The Militarization of Iran’s Politics”, Islamic Affairs Analyst, August 2008, ”,www. jiaa.jans.com, regarding the open ended mandate for political involvement in the IRGC’s statute passed on September 6, 1982.

[xxviii] The Rise of the Pasdaran – Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, P.xii.

[xxix] Agahsazi (Tehran), Feb. 29, 2008, quoted in “The Revolutionary Guards’ Role in Iranian Politics”, by Ali Alfoneh, Middle East Quarterly, September 1, 2008.

[xxx] Quoted in “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards”, Council on Foreign Relations, by Greg Bruno, June 22, 2009.

[xxxi] Ranstorp, Magnus Hizb’allah in Lebanon, The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis, Macmillan Press, 1997, P. 84; “Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy toward Iranian Nuclear Development”, P. 2, by Michael Rubin, originally published in Bipartisan Policy Center, September 1, 2008.

[xxxii] “The Revolutionary Guards are primarily self-funded, with annual revenues from its businesses empire estimated at $1billion and expected to rise to $1.5-$2,” from “Make Iran Feel the Pain”, by Mathew Levitt, Wall Street Journal Europe, July 2, 2007; see fn. 34, according to a UPI report, $46 billion has vanished over the years through the machinations of the IRGC, with much of it being used to fund proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, see “Revolutionary Guard Gains Power in Iran”, June. UPI, 29, 2009.

[xxxiii] James A. Russell is a senior lecturer in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, terrorism, and national security strategy. He also performs sponsored research for a variety of U.S. government organizations. From 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on U.S. security issues.

[xxxiv] “Illicit Nuclear Procurement Networks and Nuclear Proliferation: Challenges for Intelligence, Detection, and

Interdiction”, by Jack Boureston and James A. Russell, 

http://www.nps.edu/academics/sigs/ccc/people/biolinks/russell/russellApr09.pdf.

[xxxv] “CRS Report for Congress, the Quasi Government: Hybrid Organizations with Both Government and Private Sector legal Characteristics”, January 31, 2008.

[xxxvi] FindACase – Blais v. Islamic Republic of Iran

http://dc.findacase.com/research/wfrmDocViewer.aspx/xq/fac.%5CFDCT%5CDDC%5C2006%5C20060929_0000602.DDC.htm/qx; for more on the IRGC sources of income see fn. 34 and 122.

[xxxvii] Ranstorp, Magnus Hizb’allah in Lebanon, The Politics of the Western Hostage Crisis, Macmillan Press, 1997, P. 84.

[xxxviii] For more on Hizbullah’s semi- independence see Daniel Byman, States That sponsor Terrorism P. 90; also see “Iranian State Sponsored Terrorism”, by Sean K. Anderson, Conflict Quarterly P 28-30.

[xxxix] For more on the possible integration of Hizbullah and the IRGC see “Al-Qods Force to Integrate With Hezbollah,” Reform Party of Syria, September 6, 2008: “…Our Lebanese sources told RPS that Al-Qods Force has suggested to integrate some of their operation structure with Hezbollah’s under the command of Brigadier-General Faramaz Ghasem Suleimani, al-Qods chief commanding officer, for operations in Lebanon and on the border with Israel….”,http://reformsyria.org/intelligence/opposition-against-regime/1138-al-qods-force-to-integrate-with-hezbollah.html.

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