Despite its overwhelming control over Iranian politics, economy, and society, little is known about the inner workings of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from those who operate inside this arcane organisation.

The IRGC, known as Sepah-e Pasdaran in Persian, is ultimately responsible for defending the 1979 revolution under the command of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has more than 120,000 active personnel originating from all walks of life including Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities.

The overwhelming majority of the current top echelons, including the extraterritorial Quds Force, started their careers in the Kurdish region in the west of the country when the Kurds rebelled against the imposition of Islamic rule, creating the first serious crisis for the revolutionaries.

Young Shiite revolutionaries rushed to the Kurdish areas in pursuit of a holy war against the secular Kurdish insurgents. Thousands of dissidents labeled as “anti-revolutionaries” were put before firing squads. IRGC commanders honed their oppressive methods in the Kurdish areas before inflicting them upon the wider society.

A vicious war began in the 1980 between the IRGC and Kurdish fighters belonging to two secular parties. A small number of the Kurds were ready to cooperate with the Iranian regime.

The elite in Tehran saw the Kurdish area through a security prism and deliberately held back valuable investment, causing the economy in these regions to stagnate. Thousands of young Kurds were forced to migrate to big cities in search of work. Meanwhile the IRGC became the most generous employer in the Kurdish areas, paying hefty salaries to those Kurdish men who were prepared to serve the revolution.

Thousands joined the Guards, mostly for economic reasons. Rudaw has managed to speak to two of these Guards about what life is like in the organisation at a time when the IRGC’s activities and involvement with proxy forces across the Middle East has set off alarm bells in Washington and regional capitals.

While the experiences of these two Guards are unique to the Kurdish areas in many ways, they nonetheless speak volumes about how this secretive and powerful organisation operates inside and outside Iran.

The IRGC’s economic arm, Khatam al-Anbiya, controls a big chunk of the economy. The Guards’ intelligence wing established in the late 1990s has become arguably far more powerful than Tehran’s ministry of intelligence. It carries out sophisticated intelligence operations monitoring the Iranian people. It runs its own prisons and abducts and repatriates dissidents from abroad.

Few of the Guards contacted by Rudaw through various channels were willing to open up about the secretive organisation. Just two – both of them Kurds of different rank – agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. Speaking to foreign media could see them court martialed.

Mohammed*, who is in his thirties, grew up in a town close to the Iran-Iraq border. He joined the IRGC several years ago and says he works in a purely administrative role, organising the IRGC’s many annual events and commemorations.

“My purpose in joining the IRGC has been to serve my people,” Mohammed said. “[Kurdish] people consider us their enemies and behind our backs they call us jash [traitors].”

Jash (s donkey’s foal), is a derogatory term used by Kurds to refer to those associated with the IRGC, the paramilitary Basij force, and the ministry of intelligence. Kurds who work with the Iranian national army are usually spared the label.

Many of Mohammed’s peers in Iranian Kurdistan are unemployed and without an income. Unemployment in some areas can climb as high as 50 percent. Some migrate elsewhere in Iran in search of work. Others resort to the dangerous occupation of running goods over the shared border as kolbars. The IRGC has shot dead scores of kolbars, reportedly mistaking them for guerrilla fighters.

As a member of the IRGC, Mohammed says he is financially better off. Through a loan given to him by the IRGC, he has been able to buy a house and a car.

“IRGC members receive special bank loans to improve their lives. There is no interest on the loan and it is long-term. They subtract a small amount of our salary monthly for it,” he said.

The best loans are reserved for top ranking personnel.

Mohammed says his basic monthly salary is 4,100 million tomans (roughly $320). However, he receives monthly bonuses for extra work, rewards, and for national holidays, pushing up his salary to almost 5 million tomans.

IRGC salaries are determined by military rank and job title. An average IRGC official in an Iranian province is paid a base rate of around 10 million tomans, excluding extras.

“On top of the salary, sometimes the money allocated for a base’s expenditure or events, some money is left, and we take that for ourselves,” explained Mohammed. The officers who are serving in operational areas and on the front lines have extra risk pay.

Every year the IRGC holds dozens of military, cultural, social, and sporting events, which are allocated a sizable budget. The Kurdish language and Kurdish traditional clothing is included in such events.

“After the growth of social media, the IRGC decided to attract more people and encourage them to join by holding events with Kurdish clothing and language within the force’s framework,” explained Mohammed.

Working outside the remit of the Iranian government, the inner workings of the IRGC are not impacted by elections or changes in the cabinet, he says.

The IRGC is under the direct command of Khamenei, who appoints the Guards’ chief once every ten years.

“The IRGC is more powerful and important than the government. It is IRGC that affects economies of governments, not vice versa,” Mohammed said with a laugh.

The Guards are not entirely insulated from the fortunes of the economy, however. The IRGC controls a big chunk of the national economy through Khatam al-Anbiya, which has been squeezed by US sanctions.

Established during Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, the company blacklisted by the US Treasury in 2010, has since grown to encompass mining, defense, and the energy sector. Today it is one of the largest construction companies in Iran.

Iran’s economy has been battered by US sanctions for decades. Lifted for a brief period under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, they were resumed with “maximum pressure” when US President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord in May 2018.

As a result, the Iranian currency has lost 70 percent of its value and inflation has skyrocketed to more than 38 percent.

The US then designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019.

Despite the heavy toll sanctions are taking on the general population, Mohammed says the Guards have been largely insulated. Although they “feel” the price increases, sanctions have not led to cuts in their salaries, nor have they blunted IRGC activity.

The IRGC helps members with more than just loans. Its assistance includes food, home accessories, and appliances. The IRGC has two big supermarket chains – Refah Chain Stores and Cooperatives (Taawuni) – which sell goods at subsidized prices.

IRGC members also have their own loyalty cards allowing them to buy goods on discount.

At IRGC military bases there are cars available for members to borrow, and, when they travel to another city, they get housing, discounted food, and extra salary.

As for working hours, IRGC personnel do not appear to work to a specific schedule. Although they are told to be ready for duty 24/7, the reality is far more relaxed.

Mohammed is married with several children. Although he is sad there is no future for a Kurdish IRGC member and his family back in Iran’s Kurdish region, he feels his work makes an impact and he has no plans to leave.

“I have never harmed anyone, but maybe due to my work people will have a wrong perception of my child,” he said.

Ali* is another Kurd in the IRGC. In his 40s and married with children, Ali has been a Guard for more than a decade, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant. He heads a Basij paramilitary base.

After he got married, Ali says he had “two options”. One was the difficult life of a laborer or a kolbar. The other was the easier life of the IRGC. He chose the latter.

He never planned to join, but his friends encouraged him. He is now paid 5 million tomans monthly, and his salary increases each year in line with inflation and each promotion.

His salary increased by 300 percent in just three years. He has taken out IRGC loans for everything, including his house, car, and household appliances.

IRGC members are compensated for injuries on duty, when sick, or when involved in a traffic accident. Their children often receive assistance for their schooling or are taken to IRGC schools. If an IRGC member or their children enroll in university, they receive financial support.

Ali has no loyalty to the IRGC or Iran’s rulers, he says, but has no option but to continue – for financial reasons and for his own safety.

“I have to have a strong justification to make sure I don’t arouse their suspicions if I quit. If they are suspicious, they can claim I am a member of one of the outside parties and then ruin my life,” he said.

“I am counting the days until my retirement when I can get rid of this job.”

Ali is often tasked with recruitment and surveillance work, especially in areas where he is not known.

Their good treatment has continued to improve year after year, he says. “Even the behavior of superior IRGC commanders with their subordinates has become better,” he said.

Ali knows he has a bad reputation among Kurdish people. “I have never wanted to become an enemy of my people, who see me as a traitor solely due to my job. Whenever I pass by somewhere, I feel the heavy looks, and you will always live in fear,” he said.

Many of his colleagues feel the same way. Although many don’t enjoy their work, few trust each other enough to open up.

The IRGC nevertheless provides its members with a better life than government employees, and it does so to attract more people to its ranks.

A teacher who has been employed for two months takes home a monthly salary of 2.5 million tomans. Public sector employees with nearly 15 years of experience receive somewhere between five to six million tomans. Public sector employees also take out loans and support, but it is a lot less than IRGC members receive.

With its own sources of income, strict hierarchy, foreign policy, and standing army, the IRGC behaves much like a state within a state. No matter what impact sanctions and diplomatic pressure have on Tehran and wider society, the Guards’ grip on power and the loyalty of its members appears absolute and immovable.

Source » rudaw