January 8, 2009
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has evolved to take on a greater role in the nation's political, economic and cultural arenas in addition to serving as a major military force, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.
Much of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' actions are driven by internal political calculations, with the force helping to shape Iran's foreign policy as well as implement those strategies, according to the report.
"It's important that U.S. policymakers have a clear understanding of the Guards' complexities, because it is one of the dominant political forces in Iran," said Frederic M. Wehrey, lead author of the study and an adjunct senior international policy analyst with RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
Founded by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after he rose to power in 1979, the Guards, or Pasdaran as it is known in Iran, has evolved well beyond its original foundation as the guardian of the Islamic Revolution. The 125,000-troop strong force is the nation's elite military armed force, comprising ground troops as well as naval assets and second only in size to the regular military, the Artesh, which receives fewer resources than the Guards.
In addition to overseeing a wide-ranging system of media resources, training activities and education programs designed to bolster loyalty to the regime, the Guards also has diversified into strategic industries and commercial services ranging from the energy sector to car manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.
The RAND study questions some commonly held assumptions about the Guards, including the notion that members are merely firebrands who are part of a revolutionary vanguard with the aim of exporting Iran's revolution across the region. With its vast involvement in Iran's economy, some factions of the Guards may act as a moderating force if they perceive threats to their vested commercial interests.
"As the United States reconsiders its policy toward Iran and reassesses the role of sanctions, it will want to take the Guards and its economic interests into account," said Alireza Nader, one of the authors of the study and an analyst with RAND. "The issue is whether sanctions will empower or weaken the Guards."
Another point for U.S. policymakers to consider is that the Guards now is in charge of Iran's missile program. If Iran was to develop and field nuclear weapons, oversight of the storage and deployment of the weapons would likely fall to the Guards as well, Nader said.
The Guards' presence is particularly powerful in Iran's highly factionalized political system, in which the president, much of the Cabinet, many members of Parliament and a range of other provincial and local administrators hail from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards.
However, Wehrey noted that the Guards is not a monolithic force in Iran and faces internal challenges. The Revolutionary Guards is subject to the same factional rivalries found throughout Iranian politics, pitting conservative traditionalists, reformists and "principlists" against each other. The force also vies with other security groups, such as the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry of Interior, and the Law Enforcement Forces for influence and resources.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was widely viewed as having the support of the Guards when he was elected in 2005, having been a former member. But much of his support may come from the poorer members of the Basij, a paramilitary force under the Guards' control. This makes his reelection in 2009 far from certain, according to the RAND researchers.
Created as a sort of "people's militia," the Basij's efforts at mobilization and indoctrination of the Iranian populace have yielded mixed results. There is some question as to how effective the Basij is as a battlefield force and whether a number of Basij members hold cynical or ambivalent views about the ideological training and the goals of the regime. Many may remain members solely to gain access to Basij loans, scholarships or other benefits.
Among Iranian citizens, the Basij is much more popular in rural areas where it has overseen numerous construction projects that provide jobs, than in urban areas where members are seen as religious enforcers of revolutionary Islam.
Members of the Revolutionary Guards boast of their role in the "sacred defense" of the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), and have justified their expansion into the economic sector by taking advantage of their post-war reconstruction role. However, the Guards' role in the war, along with its forays into the economy, have been questioned by domestic detractors.
Some among Iran's ruling clergymen also view the Guards as a threat to their political authority. In addition, Iran's traditional merchant class and business community feel threatened by the Guards' economic reach. The force has been awarded many lucrative no-bid contracts by the Ahmadinejad administration.
The Guards also are heavily involved in Iran's "shadow economy" of illegal goods, although the extent of these activities are not always clear to the Iranian people and even many Iranian government officials, Wehrey said.
The study, "The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps," is available at www.rand.org. Other authors of the study are Brian Nichiporuk, Lydia Hansell, and Susan Bohandy of RAND; Rasool Nafisi of Strayer University; and Jerrold D. Green of the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Research for the study was conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, and the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense Intelligence community.