Editor's Note: In light of the April 28 boarding of a Maersk Line ship in the Strait of Hormuz by Iranian naval forces belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Stratfor is republishing its detailed October 2012 report on the elite corps. Although details are still emerging, what is known is that the Maersk Tigris was stopped in Iranian waters and boarded, before being redirected to the port of Bandar Abbas under escort. The Maersk Tigris was sailing under a Marshall Islands flag and is managed by Rickmers Ship Management, the Singapore-based arm of Hamburg's Rickmers Group. U.S.-based company Oaktree Capital originally had the ship constructed in the Philippines and retains ownership rights. The crew of 34 is believed to be multinational.
A Pentagon spokesman said that the Maersk Tigris ignored warnings from Iranian vessels to move deeper into Iran's territorial waters but complied after warning shots were fired. The USS Farragut was dispatched on an intercept course as the Maersk Tigris was ordered to steam toward Bandar Abbas. An Iranian source reported that the vessel was boarded after Iran's Ports and Maritime Organization issued a court order to confiscate the vessel. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the vessel has been released to continue on its way, but Stratfor will continue to monitor the situation.
The timing of the incident is far from ideal, coming at a juncture when talks between the United States and Iran over Tehran's controversial nuclear program have reached a critical stage ahead of the July 1 deadline for a final deal. The reasons for the seizure of the vessel remain unclear but it is well known that the IRGC and other hardline clerical elements in Iran are unhappy with the nuclear negotiations.
Part 1 of this special report lays out the origins of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and explains how it has become Iran's most powerful institution. Part 2 discusses the external pressures facing the IRGC, how that pressure is affecting the group, and what a weakened IRGC would mean for Iran.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, commonly referred to as the IRGC, is the most influential institution in the Iranian political system. To a large extent, Iran's ability to project power internationally and maintain domestic stability rests with this elite military institution. Of course, the IRGC functions somewhat like other conventional militaries; it is not completely immune to political infighting or institutional rivalry. While the disproportionate amount of power it wields will help the group overcome any factionalization to retain its pre-eminence, there are early signs of problems within its ranks.
Origin and Evolution
With several powerful and often competing institutions, the Iranian political system is extremely complex. But undoubtedly the most powerful institution in that system is the IRGC, which was created by the clerical elite after the 1979 revolution to protect the newly founded regime. During the 1980s, it fought against insurgencies (most notably against the Mujahideen-e-Khalq) and took a lead role in the Iran-Iraq War. These experiences helped the IRGC become the core of the Iranian national security and foreign policy establishment.
Currently, the IRGC comprises some 125,000 members and continues to derive its legitimacy from the clerical elite, led by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who maintains ultimate authority in Iranian politics. In fact, IRGC generals are appointed by Khamenei, the group's commander in chief, not the civilian government. While the clerics manage important state institutions, such as the Guardians Council, the judiciary, and the Assembly of Experts, they rely on the IRGC to maintain control of those institutions. This reliance likewise has contributed to the IRGC's power.
As a result, the IRGC has gained an edge over other institutions, such as the Artesh, or the conventional armed forces; various clerical institutions; the executive branch, led by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and the main civilian intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security. In recent decades the IRGC has further expanded to gain influence — in some cases, control — over domestic law enforcement, foreign intelligence operations, strategic military command and the national economy.In fact, the group has developed a robust economic portfolio. Many IRGC commanders retire relatively early — usually at 50 years old — and join Iran's political and economic elite. Former IRGC commanders now dominate heavy industries, including the construction industry, and civilians operating in these industries are subordinate to IRGC elements.
The group also generates revenue through illicit channels. Its mandate for border security enables the group to run massive smuggling operations. In these operations, IRGC troops move luxury goods and illegal drugs (especially Afghan heroin), charge port fees and receive bribes. The proceeds from these activities augment the funds appropriated to the IRGC by the civilian government.
Like other conventional militaries, the IRGC is susceptible to internal rivalry over budgets, turf and connections. However, professional discipline has prevented it from succumbing to outright factional infighting. Moreover, Khamenei has taken steps to avoid factionalization, including the constant rotation of senior leadership of the IRGC's various branches (except in instances where a particular branch requires specialized institutional knowledge). However, the position of overall commander has been mostly static. In fact, only three individuals have held the post since the IRGC became the protector of the regime: Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezaie (1981-1997); Maj. Gen Yahya Rahim Safavi (1997-2007); and Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari (2007-present).
An Inevitable Political Entity
As a political entity, the IRGC has become more than what its founders intended. The Iranian Constitution prohibits the IRGC from engaging in politics. More important, the group has avoided political activity so as not to be construed as seditious. But given its ubiquity in political, economic and security affairs, its evolution as a political entity probably was inevitable.
IRGC commanders and officers naturally have differing political leanings. Some IRGC members openly support or sympathize with various political causes and individuals. Others do so more discreetly. But to varying degrees, all politicians have followings in the officer corps, whose support is far from uniform.
In theory, the commanders and officers pay fealty to Khamenei and the wider clerical establishment. But in practice, the IRGC is not really beholden to any entity or faction. The IRGC regards itself as the rightful heir to the revolution and the savior of the republic. It considers itself uniquely capable and worthy of ruling the country. That belief may be well-founded. As the most well-organized and efficient institution in the state, the IRGC has long supplied experienced administrators to the civilian sector. Some notable example include:
- Former overall commander Rezaie, now the secretary of the Expediency Council.
- Former IRGC air force commander Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran.
- Brig. Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, the current interior minister, through whom the IRGC has gained greater leverage over internal security affairs.
- Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, the current defense minister. His position benefits the IRGC even though the corps and the Artesh are under the purview of the Joint Staff Command, led by IRGC Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi.
- Gen. Rostam Qasemi, the current oil minister. Formerly in charge of the IRGC's engineering and construction arm, Qasemi has seen to the IRGC's domination of the oil and natural gas sector.
Even though these former commanders and officers belong to the wider IRGC community, they form their own factions upon retirement. As an institution, the IRGC mostly has a unified stance on political issues. But individuals belonging to different institutions after retirement may dissent somewhat. The process resembles that of Israel; former members of Israel Defense Forces often emerge as key political leaders.
Consequently, any reference to the IRGC's stance on a particular issue represents the majority, not the entirety, of the group. And any reference to IRGC institutional interests represents the majority of commanders and officers with similar values. Differences of opinion certainly exist, but so far these differences have not manifested as fundamental divisions within the elite military institution. While its cohesion may be challenged in the future, the IRGC appears to be uniquely intact, at least for now.