Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part special report on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Part 1 laid out the corps' origins and explained how it has become Iran's most powerful institution. Part 2 will discuss 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, or the IRGC, is perhaps Iran's most cohesive institution. But mounting pressure from the U.S.-led sanctions campaign is facing the elite military organization with an unprecedented situation. Crude export revenues are falling, the Iranian rial is depreciating and Syria, a longtime Iranian patron, is in the throes of civil war.
Compounding the problem is the political establishment's increasing factionalization — a development that began in 2004-2005, when conservatives took over the legislature and the presidency. The key question is whether that factionalism will spread to the IRGC. The IRGC has long maintained internal cohesion, but growing pressures likely will stress the organization and reveal new rifts. For Tehran, the implications are simple: Were the IRGC to weaken, so too would the regime.
The IRGC has long been an important Iranian institution. For at least two decades, it has played a leading role in the country's economic development. It has also used the Quds Force, its foreign operations branch, to bolster Iran's regional position. But Iran's ongoing economic woes have cast doubt on the IRGC's credibility — as has the situation in Syria, which has been an Iranian ally for many years. Meanwhile, many in Iran are concerned that the country's flagship institution could succumb to the political factionalism that has beset the state's civilian sectors.
It is most likely this concern that has compelled senior IRGC leaders to limit their differences for the sake of the state — the group has a mandate as the regime's security guarantor. But in times of crisis, even the most disciplined and revered organizations are susceptible to calls for change and prone to internal fracturing. Such is the case for the IRGC.
Determining the extent to which pressures are affecting the IRGC is difficult. The inner workings of the Iranian regime, especially its security guarantor, are opaque. However, several indicators provide some sense of the corps' internal affairs.
Notably, because the IRGC operates on the military precepts of professionalism, morale, and chain-of-command leadership, any fracturing would initially manifest as insubordination among second- and third-tier commanders. Dissention would be detectable through contradictory statements by senior leadership and through media reports. Such a development would undercut the IRGC's ability to carry out its day-to-day operations, thereby undermining the functionality of the Iranian state.
Potential Fault lines
Stratfor has identified five developments that could threaten IRGC unity.
- First, the fact that politics and the military are so intimately involved in the economy has led to discontent among the IRGC rank and file, who do not believe economic benefits are spread equitably throughout the corps.
- Second, the IRGC became responsible for internal security after 2009, when the Basiji militia was placed under the IRGC following the crackdown on the Green Movement. Elements within the IRGC have misgivings about cracking down on the opposition movement, which includes former senior state officials.
- Third, the setback in Syria has led some to question the leadership of the corps.
- Fourth, the latest round of sanctions and the blacklisting of the IRGC have hurt the group's finances.
- Fifth, several incidents have caused mistrust among the IRGC's ranks. These include the alleged assassination attempt on IRGC-Quds Force chief Brig. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Syria at the hands of Syrian rebels, who are supported by the West, Turkey and Arab countries; the revelations from the United States, India and Bulgaria about botched attacks against Israeli officials and citizens; the growing number of IRGC personnel and entities being embargoed by the U.S. Treasury Department; and the abduction of IRGC personnel in Syria.
Most important, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ambitious behavior in the domestic political arena has proved to be highly divisive (even though speaking against him is considered the party line in the corps). Over the years, Ahmadinejad has purportedly bought off countless IRGC commanders and officers through generous budgetary allocations, lucrative sub-contracts and side projects. Like every other state organ, the corps is also affected by the political wrangling between Ahmadinejad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The IRGC finds itself caught between the supreme leader — its commander in chief — and the president. On one hand, the corps needs a strong supreme leader to maintain its privileged position within the political system. On the other hand, it does not want too weak a presidency, because the corps would benefit greatly were an IRGC commander to become president upon retirement — something that has yet to happen.
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Complicating the situation is the growing gap between the IRGC intelligence service, headed by the cleric Hossein Taeb, and the rest of the corps. Over the years, IRGC intelligence has gained greater prominence over the main civilian intelligence service, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. However, that IRGC intelligence is headed by a cleric, who is appointed by and beholden to Khamenei, has given the unit some autonomy.
Therein lies one of the main sources of conflict within the IRGC. Some reports hold that the corps' intelligence unit is routinely tapping phones and listening to the conversations of IRGC commanders and officers. The problem between the intelligence unit and the rest of the IRGC is that the former's leadership is appointed by and reports to Khamenei. This rift, if true, remains an exception to the general state of cohesiveness within the corps.
How the IRGC and its political handlers manage the situation warrants close observation. If the Islamic republic were to weaken, it would begin with the political weakening of the IRGC. External pressures could exacerbate pre-existing fault lines. But for now, the corps remains the most efficient component of the state apparatus and thus the guardian of Iranian security.