The Revolutionary Guards' Role in Iranian Politics
by Ali Alfoneh
Fall 2008, pp. 3-14
Almost three decades after the Islamic Republic's founding,
former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders are infiltrating
the political, economic, and cultural life of Iran. Half the members of
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cabinet are former IRGC officers, and he has
appointed several IRGC officers to provincial governorships. The IRGC's rise has
been deliberate. Facing both external opposition to
Basij volunteers receive small arms training. The Basij is an auxiliary paramilitary force, subordinate to and under the direction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. After students held peaceful demonstrations in July 1999 to protest the closure of a reformist newspaper, IRGC commander Yahya Rahim Safavi mobilized the Basij to attack the students' dormitory.
Within the Islamic Republic, the debate over the IRGC's political role is essentially a legal question. On December 4, 1979, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini formally created the IRGC by decree although it had existed in some form for several months before. The statute of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps provided the earliest legal framework for the organization's operations. According to Payam-e Enghelab, the IRGC's official organ, the statute was prepared by "some brothers from the Guards" and ratified by the Council of the Revolution, the de facto highest governing body, in the months after Khomeini returned to Iran.
The Islamic Republic had ratified its first constitution the day before, on December 3, 1979. Article 150 declared,
The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps … is to be maintained so that it may continue in its role of guarding the revolution and its achievements. The scope of the duties of this corps and its areas of responsibility, in relation to the duties and areas of responsibility of the other armed forces, are to be determined by law with emphasis on brotherly cooperation and harmony among them.
A strict reading of Article 150 shows that the Guards' intervention in politics is not constitutionally mandated, yet at the same time such behavior is not legally prohibited. Nowhere does the constitution define the "enemies" against which the IRGC is obliged to guard the revolution. It is even unclear whether the IRGC's primary role will be defense against external threats, in which case it should act as an army, or internal threats, in which it might act as a police force.
Again, the Guards provided their own guidance on these issues. On March 19, 1980, "Obligations of the Guards" appeared in Payam-e Enghelab. In it, the IRGC stated that
Cooperation with the government in military and security matters, [including] pursuit and arrest of armed counterrevolutionary movements. … Disarming unauthorized persons. … Investigation and intelligence gathering. … preserv[ation] of the public order at demonstrations and gatherings in order to prevent disruption of law and order … [and] support for freedom and justice-seeking movements of oppressed people under the supervision of the Council of the Revolution, and with authorization from the government.
The July 25, 1981 issue of Payam-e Enghelab defined "the two main tasks of the Guards" as "guarding the principle of government by the supreme jurist and the principle of jihad." Therefore, the article concluded, "the Guards cannot be robbed of a political dimension or ideological beliefs."
The statute of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, passed by parliament on September 6, 1982, enshrined these principles in law but differentiated between individual and institutional activities. The statute prohibited individual guardsmen from political activity and made "non-membership in political parties, groupings, and institutions … [a] condition of being a member of the Revolutionary Guards" but enabled ample avenues for the Guards to intervene as a whole. Indeed, the statute's first chapter charged the Guards, under the supreme leader's direction, to "realize the divine ideology and expand the rule of God through the legislation of the Islamic Republic of Iran," and in the second chapter enabled the IRGC to "reinforce the defense body of the Islamic Republic through cooperation with other armed forces and military training and organization of popular forces."
From its very start, therefore, Islamic Republic law made the Revolutionary Guards not only a military organization deterring foreign threats but also a political-military organization tasked with fighting domestic opposition. Article 2 of the statute's second chapter defined an IRGC role as the "legal fight against elements or movements who aim at sabotaging or dismantlement of the Islamic Republic or act against the Islamic Revolution of Iran," and Article 3 stressed the IRGC's mission also as a "legal fight against elements waging an armed struggle to nullify the authority of the laws of the Islamic Republic." Today, many proponents of the Guards' expansionist role cite this legal framework to justify IRGC interventions.
A History of Politicization
The Islamic Republic leadership has continuously used the Guards to suppress internal dissent. Khomeini actively employed the Revolutionary Guards to coerce and, when necessary, crush former political allies as he consolidated power within the revolution's broad coalition. The IRGC's Payam-e Enghelab provides an interesting window into the shifting fortunes of Khomeini's former allies and how, with Khomeini's blessings, the Guards destroyed them one after another.
The first group Payam-e Enghelab attacked was the Tudeh,
Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, who presided over the first post-revolutionary transitional government, opposed the IRGC's existence outside the control of the formal power centers and warned the Iranian public of the "imminent danger" of the Guards' intervention in politics. He begged Khomeini to enforce the principle of the military's nonintervention in political affairs, to no avail. Khomeini desired a complete purge of the system.
In a 1981 retrospective, Payam-e Enghelab praised the future
Revolutionary Guardsmen's work in destabilizing the Bazargan government,
especially their seizure of the
showed the true nature of gangs and groups and deviant lines, whose positions had alienated them from the nation and [forced them to] oppose the line of the Imam [Khomeini]. … Was it not for this affair, assessment of these intellectual and political movements would have taken years … The affair "cleansed the revolution from impure elements."
In a column, a certain Brother Eslami explained the reasons for the purge when he wrote: "Socialism, nationalism, modernism, and liberalism are all the entrance avenues of imperialism and materialism."
Indeed, while the Iranian government today demands
The Guards next set its sights on the Mojahedin-e Khalq organization, a onetime ally of Khomeini, and on Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic. Khomeini had also appointed Bani-Sadr to be commander in chief of the armed forces. As Bani-Sadr used his power of appointment to weaken and constrain the Guards, the IRGC targeted both Bani-Sadr and the Mojahedin-e Khalq. Payam-e Enghelab regularly depicted them as enemies of the velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurisprudent) principle upon which the theocracy and Khomeini's rule both rested. Victorious after the Iranian parliament declared Bani-Sadr "politically incompetent" on June 21, 1981, then-speaker of the parliament Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani explained to the readers of Payam-e Enghelab that Bani-Sadr had worked consistently against the regime. Such character assassination intensified in the next month's issue.
The Islamic Revolution's myriad factions purged, the radical clergy successfully consolidated power.
The Khamenei and Rafsanjani Presidencies
With Bani-Sadr's dismissal, Ali Khamenei assumed the presidency (1981-89). Both he and his successor, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) may have benefited from the Guards' purge of their enemies and competitors, but both feared the IRGC's inherent volatility. They sought to bureaucratize political decision-making and professionalize and depoliticize the Guards, along with the rest of the bureaucracy of the Islamic Republic.
Here, the Mehdi Hashemi affair is particularly illustrative. Seyyed Mehdi Hashemi was director of the Bureau of Assistance to the Islamic Liberation Movements in the World, an organization within the greater Revolutionary Guards framework charged with exporting the revolution. As the brother of the son-in-law of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's designated successor, he was also well-connected politically.
In the mid-1980s, the Iranian leadership felt it important
to project an impression of pragmatism in its foreign relations. The government
tried to rein in extra-governmental bodies such as Hashemi's and reach out to
former adversaries, including the
After Khomeini's death in 1989, the Iranian political elite feared resurgent IRGC political intervention, and so they presented both the public and the Guards with Khomeini's "Political and Divine Testament," which read:
My emphatic counsel to the armed forces is to observe [and] abide by the military rule of noninvolvement in politics. Do not join any political party or faction. No military man, security policeman, no Revolutionary Guard, or Basij may enter into politics. Stay away from politics, and you'll be able to preserve and maintain your military prowess and be immune to internal division and dispute. Military commanders must forbid entrance into political ties by the men under their command.
And, as the revolution belongs to all the nation, its preservation is also the duty of all. Therefore, the government, the nation, the Defense Council, and the Islamic Consultative Assembly are all charged with the religious and national responsibility to oppose, from the very beginning, any interference in politics or any action against the interests of Islam and the country by the armed forces, regardless of category, class, branch, and rank. Such involvement will surely corrupt and pervert them. It is incumbent on the leader and the Leadership Council to prevent such involvement of the armed forces by decisive action so that no harm may beset the country.
While Khomeini was clear on the IRGC's noninvolvement in politics,
some guardsmen believed that the noninterference between the political and
military spheres should be mutual. In 1991, as the Pentagon deployed tens of
thousands of troops to
During his presidency, Rafsanjani continued his policy of
depoliticizing the armed forces. But in so doing, he may have created new
problems. To dissuade the IRGC from political involvement, he effectively bribed
them, funding a central role for the IRGC in postwar reconstruction
schemes. This placated many IRGC commanders, but not all of them. A year
before Khatami's victory, for example, Rezai warned an assembly of anti-riot
force commanders in
A Khatami Backlash
Khatami's landslide victory demonstrated popular support for political and social reform. Many Revolutionary Guardsmen, however, feared that Khatami could be another Mikhail Gorbachev: He might be sincere in his loyalty to regime ideology but might inadvertently unleash forces that would spin out of control and destroy the system.
Yahya Rahim Safavi, who owed his appointment as IRGC chief
to his moderate and noninterventionist views, became a radical opponent of the
reform movement. Speaking to senior IRGC navy commanders on April 27, 1998, he
asked, "Can we withstand American threats and domineering attitude with a
policy of détente? Can we foil dangers coming from [
Tensions erupted in July 1999 when paramilitary forces attacked a student dormitory after the students held a peaceful demonstration against the closure of a reformist daily. Within days, student protests spread nationwide and threatened to spin out of control. Khamenei and the IRGC commanders considered the protests as a threat to the regime's foundations. On July 12, twenty-four top IRGC commanders sent Khatami a letter demanding immediate action, declaring, "Our patience has run out. We cannot tolerate this situation any longer." Khatami stood aside as they suppressed the uprising.
Safavi continued his interventions after the restoration of
calm. A constant theme of Safavi's justification was the need to defend against
creating suspicion among the people; undermining the
nation's resistance against
Speaking in Mashhad, Safavi warned against "the
suspicious acts and behavior of some people siding with the U.S. policies and
interests in the country," and added that some of these might even be
working in governmental organizations. He subsequently sent a letter to
Parliamentary Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, asking him to control the "extreme
behavior of some Majlis deputies" and reminding him that taking legal
action against elements and movements involved in sabotaging the Islamic
Revolution remained a core IRGC mission. Indeed, the IRGC soon began using
special courts to harass and intimidate opponents. It lodged criminal
complaints against dissenting clergy, such as Asadollah Bayat, summoned to a
The IRGC also used the courts to silence the media. On July 12, 2000, the IRGC filed a complaint against the weekly Omid-e Zanjan at Branch 1408 of Tehran's Public Court for insulting the IRGC and its commander in an article criticizing their interference in politics. Safavi also condemned the student publication Mowj for "insulting the Lord of the Age," the so-called Hidden Imam. Mowj was only one of several dozen newspapers and magazines banned during the Khatami presidency. Despite his criticism and intimidation of the Khatami administration, Safavi drew a fine line between legal interference and treason. Speaking at the Fada'iyan-e Emam combat camp, he said that the IRGC and Basij supported the Khatami government but hoped to strengthen it, though he added that "intellectuals and writers must respect the sanctity and honor of the forces which are defending the revolution, the system, the government, and the people."
Rise of the Guards under Ahmadinejad
Iranian presidents can serve only two consecutive terms. On
June 24, 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of
IRGC intervention in internal Iranian politics has peaked under Ahmadinejad. While the presence of former IRGC officers in the cabinet is not a new phenomenon, their numbers under Ahmadinejad—they occupy nine of the twenty-one ministry portfolios—are unprecedented. Nor do these commanders-turned-ministers only occupy secondary posts. The ministers of energy, welfare and social security, industries and mines, justice, culture and Islamic guidance, petroleum, defense, commerce, and cooperatives are all war veterans and former IRGC or Basij officers.
Ahmadinejad has continued this takeover with appointments of
governors and deputy governors to
The significance of such appointments is great. As
journalist Kasra Naji's discussion of Ahmadinejad's tenure as governor of
The 2008 parliamentary elections solidified the IRGC's political infiltration and demonstrated that the supreme leader supports the IRGC's growing role. According to the minister of interior, 7,168 candidates registered for the elections, of whom 31.5 percent were veterans of the Iran-Iraq war. By January 22, 2008, the Council of Guardians had approved the candidacy of about five thousand candidates, or 69 percent of the registrants. Of the 31 percent whose candidacy was not approved, two-thirds were simply disqualified, and the remaining one-third were members of the outgoing parliament who had approval of their credentials revoked. The Ministry of Interior provided a number of excuses to those who failed to qualify: 69 candidates had missed the deadline to file paperwork; 131 had a record of treason, fraud, or embezzlement; and 329 persons had a bad reputation in their neighborhood. In addition, 188 individuals were deemed to have deficient educational background or lacked five years of senior professional experience. The bulk of those disqualified, the ministry explained, had lost their right to candidacy for narcotics addiction or involvement in drug-smuggling, connections to the shah's pre-revolutionary government, lack of belief in or insufficient practice of Islam, being "against" the Islamic Republic, or having connections to foreign intelligence services. If such measures were not enough to bar undesired candidates from winning the parliamentary elections, Khamenei also appointed former IRGC commander Ali-Reza Afshar to oversee the elections. Another IRGC veteran, Ezzatollah Zarghami, who now heads Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), refused to air remarks by reformist candidates.
While not all biographies of incoming parliamentarians are
available, the list is dominated by the Comprehensive Principalist Alliance led
by Rezai, by former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali
Larijani, and Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, former IRGC commander and current
Not surprisingly, the IRGC commander in chief, Safavi, embraced the Ahmadinejad government. Speaking to trainees participating in the Velayat Programme of the Student Basij, Safavi defended the regime: "Some political groups are trying to weaken the new administration and pitch up the people's demands. … These groups are trying to obstruct the work of the new administration." Several months later, as criticism of Ahmadinejad intensified, Safavi warned, "We know you, and we will sort you out in due course. The IRGC will stand against anyone who intends to confront the revolution."
But Safavi's expression of loyalty towards Ahmadinejad was not enough to secure him the position, and by September 1, 2007, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Ja'fari succeeded Safavi as the commander in chief of the IRGC.
Ja'fari's appointment is an important development in the structural dynamics of the Guards. In a September 2007 speech, he confirmed the IRGC's new role:
The Revolutionary Guards are not a one dimensional military organization. The mission of the Guards is guarding the revolution and its achievements against internal threats … The current strategy, which has been clarified by the leadership of the revolution, differs from the strategies of the [war] years. The main mission of the Guards today is countering internal threats.
Ja'fari later described the IRGC as not "solely a military organization" but also a "political and ideological organization."
Mohammad Kowsari, another IRGC commander, said the Guards' intervention in politics has been "successful" since those who left school to fight at the Iraq-Iran war front can now enter "a new scene" to preserve the "Islamic nature of the regime." Indeed, the supreme leader's representative to the organization urged the officer corps to take an active role in parliamentary politics.
Khamenei's decision to mobilize the IRGC officer corps has
not gone unchallenged. Seyyed Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, a former member of the
Assembly of Experts and former prosecutor-general of the Islamic Republic,
protested against what he called "a military takeover" ahead of the
latest round of parliamentary elections in Iran. Former president Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani, currently chair of both the Expediency Council and the
Assembly of Experts, protested against the Guards' intervention in politics.
Speaking in his capacity as the leader of Friday prayers in
After the March 14, 2008 elections, the Islamic Republic's reformist faction complained that the Ministry of Interior, the election's organizer, had been transformed into a "military base." Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker and an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2005, was more refined, asking rhetorically, "Does it mean that if two individuals are engaged in a rivalry during elections, this force [the IRGC] should engage supporting one of the two?" Karrubi may have meant his question to be rhetorical, but within the Islamic Republic today, it has no easy answer.
Ahmadinejad and Khamenei do not intend the IRGC's and Basij's insertion into politics to be temporary. On April 30, 2007, two decades after the Basij's nominal independence from the Guards, Ja'fari again imposed formal IRGC control over the Basij in order better to fight "internal enemies." Sobh-e Sadeqh weekly, successor to Payam-e Enghelab as mouthpiece of the IRGC, addressed the apprehension of civilian politicians in a long piece meant to assuage those worried by the Guards' new role. But far from choosing a conciliatory tone towards the critics of the Guards, Yadollah Javani, head of the political bureau of the IRGC's Joint Command Council, explained,
In case a movement, or a party, or group has the political or cultural potential to topple [the regime], one can't expect the Guards to deal with it militarily. Under such circumstances, the duty of the Guards is political and cultural resistance. Therefore, and because the Guards is needed to get involved in political or cultural work, one can't restrict the nature of the Guards into the military sphere alone. 
While democracies fear external enemies, undemocratic
regimes fear their own populations, whose choices and aspirations they suppress
by military means. In the short term, Khamenei's tactic might work. A unified
and consolidated elite composed of the IRGC officer corps enables the Islamic
Republic to maintain a tough international stance while repressing unrest at
home. But the price for such policy will prove high. Not only will it
politicize civil society and radicalize university students, labor activists,
women in urban centers, and civil rights activists against the regime, but it
will also alienate traditional regime supporters such as the bazaar merchant
class, Rafsanjani-era technocratic and economic elites, and Khatami-era
reformers whose hopes are already frustrated. More dangerously, the supreme
leader's sole reliance on the Revolutionary Guards—should the IRGC manage to
preserve its cohesion as a social group in Iranian politics—make Khamenei a
prisoner of his own Praetorian Guard, paving the way for a military
dictatorship. As the Islamic Republic approaches its thirtieth anniversary, the
Iranian president has commissioned a "symphony of the glorious Islamic
Revolution." To judge by the current political trends in
Ali Alfoneh is a doctoral candidate at the department of
 See data collected in Ali Alfoneh, "Ahmadinejad
versus the Technocrats," Middle Eastern Outlook, American Enterprise
 Hamshahri (
 Kenneth Katzman, The Warriors of Islam.
 Payam-e Enghelab (
 Majid Sa'eli Kordeh-Deh, Showra-ye Enghelab-e Eslami-ye
 "The Army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Corps. The Constitution of Islamic
 Payam-e Enghelab, Mar. 19, 1980.
 Payam-e Enghelab, July 25, 1981.
 "Asasnameh-ye Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e
Eslami," Islamic Republic of Iran, at Tooba Islamic Research Center,
 "Asasnameh-ye Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami," Madeh-ye 34 Dal, Islamic Republic of Iran, at Tooba Islamic Research Center, accessed June 30, 2008.
 "Asasnameh-ye Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Eslami," Islamic Republic of Iran.
 "Nirou-ha-ye Mossalah; Voroud ya Adam-e Voroud –
Barresi-ye Mabani-ye Jorm-Engari-ye Fa'aliyat-e Siyasi-ye Nirou-ha-ye
Mossalah," Sobh-e Sadeqh (
 Payam-e Enghelab, Mar. 19, 1980.
 Payam-e Enghelab, Jan. 31, 1981.
 Katzman, The Warriors of Islam, pp. 51-2.
 Nehzat-e Azadi-ye
 Payam-e Enghelab, Jan. 31, 1981.
 Payam-e Enghelab, Jan. 31, 1981.
 Payam-e Enghelab, Feb. 28, 1981.
 Payam-e Enghelab, Apr. 4, 1981.
 Katzman, The Warriors of Islam, pp. 53-7.
 "Nameh-ye Agha-ye Bani-Sadr be Agha-ye Khomeini, 25 Khordad 1359" in Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, Nameh-ha az agha-ye Bani-Sadr be Agha-ye Khomeini va digaran, Firouzeh Bani-Sadr, ed. (Frankfurt: Entesharat-e Enqelab-e Eslami, 2006), pp. 54-8 .
 Payam-e Enghelab, June 13, 1981. For Bani-Sadr's account of the IRGC opposition to his presidency, see Bani-sadr, Nameh-ha az agha-ye Bani-Sadr be Agha-ye Khomeini va digaran, pp. 60-2.
 Payam-e Enghelab, June 27, 1981.
 Payam-e Enghelab, July 11, 1981.
 Report of the President's Special Review Board (Tower
Commission Report), The White House,
 Hossein-Ali Montazeri, "Khaterat-e faqih va marja'e ‘alighadr, hazrat-e ayatollah-'ozma Montazeri," pp. 600-19, accessed June 30, 2008.
 Babak Ganji, Civil-Military Relations, State Strategies
and Presidential Elections in
 Ruhullah al-Musawi al-Khomeini, "The Last Message.
The Political and Divine Will of His Holiness Imam Khomeini," Islamic
Republic News Agency (IRNA,
 The Independent (
 Ali Alfoneh, "How Intertwined Are the
Revolutionary Guards in
 Michael Rubin, Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in
 IRNA, May 3, 1998, in BBC Monitoring
 IRNA, June 2, 1998, in BBC Monitoring
 Jomhuri-ye Eslami (
 Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA,
 IRNA, May 23, 2003, in BBC Monitoring
 IRNA, Nov. 12, 2003, in BBC Monitoring International Reports, Nov. 12, 2003.
 IRNA, July 12, 2000, in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, July 14, 2000.
 Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran), Sept. 27, 1999, in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Sept. 29, 1999; for an annotated version of Mowj, see Michael Rubin, "Iran's ‘Blasphemous' Play," Middle East Quarterly, Dec. 1999, pp. 83-6.
 Vision of the Islamic
 For biographical information on Ahmadinejad's social
background, see Yossi Melman and Meir Javedanfar, The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of
 Ali Alfoneh, "Iran's Parliamentary Elections and the Revolutionary Guards' Creeping Coup d'Etat," AEI Middle Eastern Outlook (Washington, D.C.), Feb. 21, 2008.
 Naji, Ahmadinejad, pp. 36-40.
 "Ettela'iyeh shomareh-ye 8 setad-e entekhabat-e keshvar adar khosous-e amar-e qat'i-ye sabt-e-nam-shodeh-gan-e entekhabat-e majles-e hashtom," Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Interior, accessed Feb. 12, 2008.
 "Ettela'iyeh shomareh-ye 10 Setad-e Entekhabat-e Keshvar," Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Interior, accessed Feb. 12, 2008.
 "Ettela'iyeh Vezarat-e Keshvar dar-bareh-ye bargozari-ye entekhabat-e hashtomin dowreh-ye Majles-e Showra-ye Eslami," Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Interior, accessed Feb. 12, 2008.
 "Ettela'iyeh shomareh-ye 10 Setad-e Entekhabat-e Keshvar," accessed Feb. 12, 2008.
 Siyasat-e Rouz (Tehran), Aug. 13, 2005, in BBC Monitoring Middle East Political, Aug. 27, 2005.
 Fars News Agency (Tehran), Jan. 16, 2006, in BBC Monitoring Middle East Political, Jan. 16, 2006.
 Hamshahri, Sept. 29, 2007.
 Agahsazi (
 Agahsazi, Mar. 9, 2008.
 Sobh-e Sadeqh, Mar. 3, 2008.
 E'temad (
 Entekhab (
 Emrooz (
 Tabnak (
 Nowsazi (
 Agahsazi, May 10, 2008.
 Kayhan (
 Sobh-e Sadeqh, May 19, 2008.
Please report any
broken links to
Copyright © 1988-2009 irfi.org. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer