IRGC – The Iranian Kraken

Originating in the early days of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corpus was meant to guard the allegedly hard-earned achievements of the Revolution. The corpus is loyal to the spiritual leader who, over the years, allowed the IRGC to achieve and maintain almost complete autarchy within the Iranian nation. As such, IRGC used this backing and the Islamic puritanism as an instrument to take over large parts of the Iranian economy, security and foreign policy. In fact, IRGC has a grasp on all aspects of Iranian life.

Although the Iranian Defense ministry has a successful missile industry producing, amongst other things, the Shehab series, the IRGC has an aerospace industry of its own, including an excellent missile program with the RAAD series. As to an IRGC nuclear program there is some evidence, enough to take this threat seriously.

With that said, IRGC has their own income sources, an autarch economy with a large infrastructure in and outside of Iran, its own military as well as a long arm for its foreign policy, including tactical and up to strategic terror capabilities, adding up to a parallel nation. This could mean, that any treaty with Iran could be meaningless, as long as it does not only include the IRGC, but is approved by the supreme leader on their behalf. The presidency and the Majlis de facto have limited influence on the main items of controversy. One might argue, that a contract with legal Iran is not legally binding for the hardcore revolutionaries, just a means to calm Western suspicions enough to enable open trade.

In many ways the Iranian regime, government and clerical apparatus included, cannot survive without the IRGC. Therefore, one cannot force the IRGCs hand and most probably no-one will ever try to.

Any future western agreement with Iran might not be applicable or binding for the IRGC and therefore void and bereft of relevant contents. Including the IRGC in the agreement and its validation might be a suitable solution, but has to take into account that the IRGC is a designated entity.


Back in the days

Shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the then idealistic leader Khomeini established the Corpus of the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, the IRGC, with a modest force of 10’000 dedicated fighters. Their goal was to dampen counter-revolutionary trends among the regular armed forces, and countering the growing influence of largely leftist revolutionary armed groups such as the Fedayeen, Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), Peykar, Komleh, Kurdish Peshmerga.

The Iran-Iraq war brought a change in the structuring of the IRGC, turning them into military forces, quickly expanding with the command on the Basij forces. Originally most of the IRGC was based on local cells of Islamic freedom fighters against the Shah, at that time organized under cleric guidance. In 1989 Pasdaran (IRGC) was put, together with the regular military forces, under the command of the newly formed ministry of Defense (MODAFL). On the one hand this weakened the formerly independent and growing Corpus, on the other hand they formed the Quds forces of the IRGC headed by Qassem Suleimani, answering solely to the supreme leader Khamenei.

By the end of the Iran-Iraq war IRGC had at least 300 thousand man. At that time Khomeini ordered the foundation of the “Armee of 20 million” called the Basij, which was put under the command of IRGC and brought very young volunteers, many of which as suicide fighters. This probably brought the change in favor of Iran against an Iraq that was heavily backed by the west, including Germany. This taking of sides, especially by the US, most likely was never forgotten. The war ended in 1988 with at least about 200,000 military casualties, some say even double as much on the Iranian side. As to IRGC casualties the numbers vary from about 41,000 and up to 70,000. From IRGC point of view the cease fire agreement brought a positive aspect. By that time IRGC forces increased to about 450,000 men and they had acquired status and knowledge in engineering, thus laying the foundations for IRGC not only as a military, but also as an economic institution.

From this point on, we can see the institution of diversity on the military as well as on the civilian department. Technical units of the mid-eighties turned into naval and air forces, the latter mainly concerned with missile capabilities and then technologies and production skills. Quds forces were in charge of the export of the revolution, growing in strength over the years. But what really made the change was the establishment of Hatam al-Anbiya, a.k.a. Ghorb (Garargah Sazandegi-ye Ḫatam al-Anbiya) by act of President Rafsanjani soon after the war. Hatam was put in charge of rebuilding the Iranian economy and thus the Islamic state. They had the knowledge and the means, and they were loyal and well organized under the IRGC. At that time, they had about 25,000 engineers and soon had 750 contracts in infrastructure, oil industry, highways and buildings. Over the years many former IRGC directors went on to the public market, thus improving networking for their former employer and in many cases the institution that took them from the provinces and provided them with education and financial stability.

Over the years presidents, especially Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, favored IRGC in no-bid contracts in the oil and gas industries, at least partly in order to provide independent income for the senior leadership. Over time this allowed the IRGC a stronger grip on the Iranian economy, laying the basics for a shadow economy. What the IRGC lacked at that time was the financial institutions to back them in formal aspects. For most other aspects IRGC could rely on the Bonyads, mainly Bonyad Mostazafan (Foundation of the Oppressed or The Mostazafan Foundation) and the Bonyad Shahid va Omur-e Janbazan (Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs). These foundations provide low interest loans and pensions on the one hand, but invest in various subsidiaries. Through these the two foundations own and operate at least 350 subsidiaries and affiliated companies in transportation, agriculture and industry. Over the years they started to acquire contracts aboard, including Africa, Asia and even Europe and Russia.

The IRGC economic involvement is quite similar to that in Pakistan and PRC, as in Pakistan the military runs the countries largest construction group, involved in infrastructure through subsidiaries enterprises as gas stations, commercial plazas and poultry farms. There are also a number of military-owned “charitable foundations” that oversee 100 companies involved in banking, insurance, education, and information technology. The Chinese PLA, on the other hand, reached on their economic rise a level of corruption and black-marketeering, to the point that they were negatively affecting popular perceptions of the Chinese Communist Party. Responding to this, in 1998 the government of Jiang Zemin made the remarkable decision to force the divestiture of the PLA from all of its business activities. The momentary turn against IRGC corruption in 2017 may have been interpreted as regulatory step to limit the access to certain sectors of the Iranian economy. On the other hand, this might have been only a proforma move to show integrity on some level.


Today

Economics

GHORB is a leading factor in the IRGC clench on Iranian economy. The group has been dealt the contracts for most strategic infrastructure of the state, including fossil energy facilities. This enables IRGC to smuggle products illegally. The IRGC is estimated to yield a 200–300 percent profit on such illegal sales. One Majles member stated that IRGC black-market activities might account for $12 billion per year. Another parliamentarian suggested that “invisible jetties . . . and the invisible hand of the mafia control 68 percent of Iran’s entire exports.”

Within the factional debates that characterize Iran’s political landscape, the IRGC leadership appears to believe that its legitimacy is dependent on reviving and burnishing its role in the foundational myths of the Islamic Republic of Iran—the suppression of internal enemies during the revolution’s early days, a role in the “sacred defense” during the Iran-Iraq War, and the post-war economic reconstruction. The latter has become particularly important as a current justification for the IRGC’s deepening involvement in Iran’s business sectors. For their part, domestic opponents of the IRGC’s ascendancy have also attempted to revise the story of the institution’s role in the Islamic Republic’s early history.

Already in 2011, the control of IRGC on the Iranian economy was valued at 25-40% of the GDP. Apart of its own income IRGC is funded through the annual budget, more than double the amount the regular forces receive and with almost seven billion dollars, a serious part of the total defense budget of about 18-22 billion.


Foreign policy

Quds forces provide IRGC and the supreme Leader with the aspect of exporting the Islamic revolution, especially to neighboring countries. As for now the major presence of IRGC forces is seen in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. None-the-less one could observe involvement in the Azeri-Armenian confrontation, and have been known to have sent about 3000-4000 fighters into Bosnia-Herzegovina. As in Syria, Quds also sent in Hezbollah fighters to Bosnia, possibly to prove their capabilities to the supreme leader. Iran broadened its influence through the foundation of cultural and religious centers in Bosnia and Albania. Only recently we have seen Iran sending loyal Iraqi Shia militia, mobilized most probably through IRGC, to the Libyan arena, allegedly assisting Turkey. In fact, Quds supplies yet another bridge-head in Africa, broadening the IRGC impact, including in Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Marocco and the Western Sahara, as well as Chad, Sudan and Eritrea. In some cases, IRGC and Iranian interests in Africa are represented by Hezbollah. Hezbollah operatives have been suspected of money laundering, drug trafficking, and weapons smuggling in Nigeria through corporations and car dealerships.

Apart from the mere presence in other countries and the military involvement there, IRGC allegedly took over control in many embassies, i.e. in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, while having prominence in the affairs related to Armenia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.


Internal affairs

Apart from the growing influence on the economy, especially after the Iran-Iraq war and through the main sanction years, IRGC broadened its influence in several internal fields, including media and politics.

In media, IRGC uses its internet magazine named Sobh-e-Sadeg to influence public opinion. Already in the early years of the new millennium IRGC planned to run a TV station, and have nowadays with IRIB Ofogh a solid representation they may use to promote their ideology and interests, as recently seen with the handheld COVID detector.

One can observe the erosion of the revolutionary ideals, especially through civil-society organizations, as in the so-called velvet revolution. IRGC counters these notions by strengthening the Basij forces and providing social benefits to members, like loans and scholarships. IRGC is seen differently in urban areas and rural regions, as the first views the organization as the shock-troop force of the regime, whereas in rural areas they are viewed as providers of construction projects and promises of advancements based on training, maintained by Basij activities.

In 2009 IRGC acquired 51% of Iranian TCI for 8 billion $US, thus controlling all internet providers and two mobile providers. In parallel, more pressure is put on the independent media. Only in 2018, possibly as the outcome of western pressure, IRGC was allegedly ordered to exit the TCI. At this time, it is still unclear who has taken over the ownership and whether this is really a clean cut, or whether the IRGC will re-occur through evasive and indirect holdings, as they did with Sadra Company.

Although the Ayatollah Khomeini specifically stated that military personnel, including IRGC, should refrain from political careers, and early presidents stressed that point, Ahmadinezad changed that. Most of the Majles representatives have IRGC background, many government officials do too.

One should not overlook IRGC involvement in intelligence matters, where the official force in charge, MOIS, is no match to the Sazeman-e Ettelaat-e Sepah, the main intelligence organ of the Pasdaran, answering to two figures in the IRGC and the supreme leader. This enables IRGC to put pressure on the government through indictments, like in the case of Dorri Esfahani, a member of the nuclear negotiation team, who was sentenced to jail for espionage, while the head of the MOIS, Alavi, stated that this man was not guilty of any related activity.


Conclusions and summary

The IRGC is like a giant Kraken, reaching with its tentacles into all aspects of Iranian life, keeping a strong grip on economy, providing the leadership with financial security, holding the doors open for sensitive imports, feeding the political system with enthusiastic candidates and ensuring the spread of the Islamic revolution around the world, using every opportunity to help weak Muslims in their struggle and to punish any dissidents and separatists. That makes the IRGC, together or as part of the apparatus of the supreme leader, the main decision maker to be reckoned with on any matter in Iran, including on matters missile technology, international terror and first and foremost the nuclear weapons program. Nothing can or will materialize without the IRGC consent, no project and no budget.

In many ways the Iranian regime, government and clerical apparatus included, cannot survive without the IRGC. Therefore, one cannot force the IRGCs hand and most probably no-one will ever try to.

The IRGC is capable of putting up their own supreme leader to succeed Khamenei, but may choose not to, to keep up appearances. As for now, the given constellation favors IRGCs strengthening grip on Iran.

Any future western agreement with Iran might not be applicable or binding for the IRGC and therefore void and bereft of relevant contents. Including the IRGC in the agreement and its validation might be a suitable solution, but has to take into account that the IRGC is a designated entity.

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