Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps mark the anniversary of the Islamic revolution. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

Conceived as principal defenders of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has evolved into a vast institution with political, economic, and military power.

Last updated June 14, 2013

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps mark the anniversary of the Islamic revolution. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
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Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was founded in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution as an ideological custodian charged with defending the Islamic Republic against internal and external threats, but analysts say it has expanded far beyond its original mandate. Today, the IRGC presides over a vast power structure with influence over almost every aspect of Iranian life. Still, some experts say that while the corps is generally loyal to hard-line elements in the regime, it is far from a cohesive unit of like-minded conservatives.

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The country’s premier security institution of more than one hundred thousand strong, the IRGC fields an army, navy, and air force, while managing Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal and irregular warfare operations through its elite Quds Force and proxies such as Hezbollah. It is also one of Iran’s most influential economic players, wielding control over strategic industries, commercial services, and black-market enterprises. At the same time, the IRGC often serves as an incubator for senior Iranian public officials, making it especially powerful in the political sphere.

‘Guardians’ of the Revolution

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Defense and Security

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was formed by late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted Shah Reza Pahlavi. The IRGC was originally created as a "people’s army" similar to the U.S. National Guard; commanders report directly to the supreme leader, Iran’s top decision-maker. Iran’s president has little influence on their day-to-day operations.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst, says the Revolutionary Guard was created as a "counterweight to the regular military, and to protect the revolution against a possible coup." In establishing the Guards, Khomeini was seeking to avoid a repeat of a successful 1953 coup that ousted a previous revolutionary government. But the Guards’ activities in recent years have been aimed at protecting Iranian interests far beyond Tehran.

Current forces consist of naval, air, and ground components, and total roughly 150,000 fighters, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service [PDF]. The corps’ primary role is internal security, but experts say the force can assist Iran’s regular army, which has about 350,000 soldiers, with external defenses. Border skirmishes during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s helped transform the Guards into a conventional fighting force organized in a command structure similar to Western armies. The Guards also control Iran’s Basij Resistance Force, an all-volunteer paramilitary wing, which, according to a 2009 RAND study, consists of as many as one million conscripts.

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The IRGC is one of Iran's most influential economic players.

International Activities

Military analysts say the Guards began deploying fighters abroad during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), "export[ing] the ideals of the revolution throughout the Middle East." The Quds Force, a paramilitary arm of the Revolutionary Guard with ten thousand to fifteen thousand personnel, emerged as the de facto external affairs branch during the corps’ expansion. Its mandate was to conduct foreign policy missions—beginning in Iraq’s Kurdish region—and forge relationships with Shiite and Kurdish groups. The Quds Force has since supported terrorist activities and armed pro-Iranian militant groups across the Middle East and beyond, including in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf states, and several others, according to the U.S. State Department.

The Guards’ alleged involvement in Iraq was a particular point of contention between Washington and Tehran. Former president George W. Bush accused Iran in 2007 of providing roadside bombs to networks inside Iraq. That same year, coalition forces captured several militants in Iraq with alleged links to the Quds Force and Hezbollah. In October 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Quds Force a terrorist supporter for aiding the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. Still, some analysts have said that Iran’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan has been exaggerated.

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In the wake of antigovernment protests throughout the Middle East in 2011, the United States and European Union have accused the Quds Force of providing weapons and other material support to help President Bashar al-Assad suppress the uprising in Syria. In October 2012, a member of the Quds Force pleaded guilty to plotting the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Becoming a Player at Home

The alleged spread of the Revolutionary Guards’ external influence coincides with a growing cachet at home. Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in 2007 that "the Revolutionary Guards are the spine of the current political structure [in Iran] and a major player in the Iranian economy." The Guards’ political influence began its ascendancy as a counterweight to former reformist president Mohammad Khatami. But analysts say the number of former Guards entering political life spiked during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term, beginning in 2005. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has appointed former Revolutionary Guards commanders to top political posts like the presidency (Ahmadinejad) and major institutions, like the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation (Ezzatollah Zarghami), the Supreme National Security Council (Saeed Jalili), and the Expediency Council (Mohsen Rezaei, a 2009 presidential challenger). Ali Alfoneh, an expert on the Revolutionary Guards and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says this increase was a tactical move by Khamenei to counter pressures at home and abroad. He "must have considered former members of the Revolutionary Guards better at crisis management at home . . . but also better [suited] to counter external pressure on the nuclear issue," Alfoneh says.

Amid deepening discord between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in 2011, the IRGC began to target some of the president’s allies, noted Mehrzad Boroujerdi of Syracuse University and independent scholar Kourosh Rahimkhani. The IRGC benefits from the confrontation between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad because it makes Khamenei "more dependent on the power and muscle of the IRGC," wrote Iran expert Abbas Milani.

The Revolutionary Guards also controls Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, mounts foreign and domestic intelligence operations, and is responsible for protecting the regime; the Guards have sole jurisdiction of patrolling the Iranian capital. The Carnegie Endowment’s Frederic Wehrey, writing with colleagues in a January 2009 assessment of the Guards [PDF] said "much of the institution’s rise to prominence over competing militias and paramilitaries in the postrevolutionary period was due to its effectiveness in suppressing internal dissent." Guardsmen and Basij volunteers have a history of violently crushing riots in Iranian cities, and a unit dedicated to quelling civil unrest, the Ashura Brigades, was established in 1993 (PDF).

In 2007, the Basij was brought under direct command of the Revolutionary Guards by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari. Alfoneh wrote in 2008 that the move officially refocused the organization on defending against the type of nonviolent "velvet revolution" that ended Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia.

Some analysts say the reorganization was aimed at quelling the very unrest that surfaced following the June 2009 presidential election, which many say the IRGC helped fix in favor of Ahmadinejad. During protests following the vote, members of the Basij force—dubbed "shadowy vigilantes" by Western news organizations—allegedly beat and killed opposition supporters in Tehran and other Iranian cities. In June 2011, the United States designated the IRGC and Basij as human rights abusers under U.S. executive order 13533. A March 2013 report by a UN special rapporteur cited "widespread and systemic" torture, harassment, arrest, and attacks against human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists.

Ahead of the 2013 presidential election, opposition activists reported that IRGC forces were once again clamping down on protestors, arresting several people at a rally for Hassan Rouhani, a moderate reformist candidate. "They’ve created a highly intimidating, securitized atmosphere in order to prevent a repeat of the 2009 protests," says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A Money Machine

Political clout and military might are not the only attributes of today’s Revolutionary Guard Corps; it is also a major financial player. The Los Angeles Times estimated in 2007 that the group, which was tasked with rebuilding the country after the Iran-Iraq War, now has ties to more than one hundred companies that control roughly $12 billion in construction and engineering capital. CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh has linked the Guards to university laboratories, weapons manufacturers, and companies connected to nuclear technology. And Wehrey writes that "the IRGC has extended its influence into virtually every sector of the Iranian market." The Guards-controlled engineering firm Khatam al-Anbia, for instance, has been awarded more than 750 government contracts for infrastructure, oil, and gas projects, he says.

Writing for Bloomberg, Mideast analyst Meir Javedanfar characterized Khamenei as "Iran’s supreme investor" and the Revolutionary Guards as primary shareholders. He said that the growing list of international sanctions and the failed populist economic policies of Ahmadinejad have not only harmed the Iranian people but also the Guards, who will be looking for a change of fortune with 2013 election.

Not all of the Guards’ activities are seen as aboveboard. Mohsen Sazegara, a founding member of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and now a U.S.-based dissident, says though the original charter of the elite force was to create a "people’s army," years of political and military changes have transformed the unit into a shadowy behemoth. Sazegara says the Guards’ business dealings range from construction and manufacturing to black-market enterprises, like the illegal importation of alcohol. "I don’t know of any other organization in any country like the Revolutionary Guards," Sazegara says. "It’s something like the Communist Party, the KGB, a business complex, and the Mafia." But Wehrey says the public backlash against its expansion has been muted and that the IRGC enjoys a constituency in certain areas of Iran, especially in rural provinces where Guards-funded infrastructure projects and employment in the Basij paramilitary may give the Guards "a higher degree of support than we assume."

Looking Ahead

In recent years, analysts have differed widely on what the future holds for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Some, like Alfoneh, have suggested the Guards’ rising political and economic clout has put it in a position to challenge the clerical establishment. "For the past thirty years, the Islamic Republic has been based on a fundamental alliance between the clergy and the Revolutionary Guards," Alfoneh says, "where the clerics have been ruling the country, and the Revolutionary Guards have guarded the Islamic Republic" and its values. But now the dynamic has changed to one in which "the Revolutionary Guards are both ruling and guarding."

Wehrey doubts that the Guard and its commanders would go that far. For one, he notes, the organization today is factionalized and made up of competing currents. During the Khatami era, for instance, the Guards’ leadership supported conservative elements within the Iranian establishment, while the rank and file were more empathetic to the reformists. Under Ahmadinejad, splits emerged most noticeably on economic policy. And to suggest that the Guards would orchestrate an overt bid for power misses the "checks and balances on the system," Wehrey says.

In the lead-up to the 2013 presidential election, two top candidates had links to the Guards: Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who led the corps from 1997 to 2000, and Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, who is a wounded veteran of the war with Iraq. Many Iran observers see the ascent of these two figures in presidential politics as an affirmation of the IRGC’s prominence in Iran’s corridors of power.

Looking abroad, counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute sees a growing relationship between Iran, through the Quds Force, and Hezbollah in Syria’s civil war and terrorist activities elsewhere: "What we see now is that Hezbollah is going to do things today [in Syria] that are in Iran’s interest even if they expressly run counter to the interests of Lebanon and Hezbollah’s own interest there."

The "marked resurgence of Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, through its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Quds Force, its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran’s ally Hezbollah" was a major finding of the U.S. State Department. These terrorist activities "have reached a tempo unseen since the 1990s," said the U.S. State Department in its 2012 country reports on terrorism.



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