Military Wiki
Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution
سپاه پاسداران انقلاب اسلامی
Active 1979–present
Country Iran
Branch Combined arms force
Size ~120,000–125,000

1979 Kurdish rebellion
Lebanese Civil War[1]
Iran-Iraq War
Bosnian War
Battle for Herat

2006 Lebanon War
Balochistan conflict
Iran–PJAK conflict
Syrian Civil War
Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari

The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (Persian: سپاه پاسداران انقلاب اسلامی‎ / Sepāh-e Pāsdārān-e Enqelāb-e Eslāmi, or Sepāh for short), often called Revolutionary Guards, is a branch of Iran's military, founded after the Iranian revolution on 5 May 1979.[2] Whereas the regular military (artesh) defends Iran's borders and maintains internal order, according to the Iranian constitution, the Revolutionary Guard (pasdaran) is intended to protect the country's Islamic system.[3] The Revolutionary Guards state that their role in protecting the Islamic system is preventing foreign interference as well as coups by the military or "deviant movements".[4][5]

The IRGC has roughly 125,000 military personnel including ground, aerospace and naval forces. Its naval forces are now the primary forces tasked with operational control of the Persian Gulf.[6] It also controls the paramilitary Basij militia which has about 90,000 active personnel,[7] and in recent years has developed into a "multibillion-dollar business empire,"[8] and is reportedly the "third-wealthiest organization in Iran" after the National Iranian Oil Company and the Imam Reza Endowment.[9]

Since its origin as an ideologically driven militia, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution has taken an ever more assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society. Its expanded social, political, military, and economic role under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration – especially during the 2009 presidential election and post-election suppression of protest — has led many analysts to argue that its political power has surpassed even that of the Shiite clerical system.[8][10][11][12]

The media arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is Sepah News.[13] The Chief Commander of the Guardians is Mohammad Ali Jafari, who was preceded by Yahya Rahim Safavi.


Army of the Guardians of
the Islamic Revolution


Supreme Leader of Iran
Senior officers
Military Branches
Aerospace Force
Ground Force
Quds Force
Ranks insignia
Iranian Revolution

In Iran, due to the frequent use of referencing government organizations with one word names (that generally denote their function) as opposed to acronyms or shortened versions, the entire general populace universally refer to the organization as Sepāh (Army). Although Artesh means army as well, Sepāh has a connotation of security. By contrast Artesh has a more militaristic meaning and is therefore used to refer to the general Armed Forces. The Iranian Government, media, and those who identify with the organization generally use Sepāh e Pāsdārān (Army of Guardians), although it is not uncommon to hear Pāsdārān e Enqelāb (پاسداران انقلاب) (Guardians of the Revolution), or simply Pāsdārān (پاسداران) (Guardians) as well. It should be noted though that among the Iranian population, especially among the diaspora, using the other names (especially when using the word Pasdaran) can indicate loyalty to the Islamic Republic or affiliation with the organization.

Most foreign Governments and the English-speaking mass media tend to use the term Iranian Revolutionary Guards ("IRG") or simply the Revolutionary Guards.[14] In the US media, the force is frequently referred to as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ("IRGC"),[15][16][17] although this force is rarely described as a "corps" by non-US media.


The force's main role is in national security. It is responsible for internal and border security, law enforcement, and also Iran's missile forces. IRGC operations are geared towards asymmetric warfare and less traditional duties. These include the control of smuggling, control of the Strait of Hormuz, and resistance operations.[18] The IRGC is intended to complement the more traditional role of the regular Iranian military, with the two forces operating separately and focusing on different operational roles.[18]

The IRGC is a combined arms force with its own ground forces, navy,[6] air force, intelligence,[19] and special forces. It also controls the Basij militia. The Basij is a volunteer-based force, with 90,000 regular soldiers and 300,000 reservists. The IRGC is officially recognized as a component of the Iranian military under Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution.[20] It is separate from, and parallel to, the other arm of the Iran's military, which is called Artesh (another Persian word for army). Especially in the waters of the Persian Gulf, the IRGC is expected to assume control of any Iranian response to attacks on its nuclear facilities.[6]

History and structure

The IRGC was formed on 5 May 1979[1][21] following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in an effort to consolidate several paramilitary forces into a single force loyal to the new regime and to function as a counter to the influence and power of the regular military, initially seen as a potential source of opposition and loyalty to the Shah. From the beginning of the new Islamic regime, the Pasdaran (Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami) functioned as a corps of the faithful. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic entrusted the defense of Iran's territorial integrity and political independence to the military, while it gave the Pasdaran the responsibility of preserving the Revolution itself.

Days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return to Tehran on 1 February 1979, the Bazargan interim administration established the Pasdaran under a decree issued by Khomeini on 5 May. The Pasdaran was intended to protect the Revolution and to assist the ruling clerics in the day-to-day enforcement of the new government's Islamic codes and morality. There were other, perhaps more important, reasons for establishing the Pasdaran. The Revolution needed to rely on a force of its own rather than borrowing the previous regime's tainted units. As one of the first revolutionary institutions, the Pasdaran helped legitimize the Revolution and gave the new regime an armed basis of support. Moreover, the establishment of the Pasdaran served notice to both the population and the regular armed forces that the Khomeini regime was quickly developing its own enforcement body. Thus, the Pasdaran, along with its political counterpart, Crusade for Reconstruction, brought a new order to Iran. In time, the Pasdaran would rival the police and the judiciary in terms of its functions. It would even challenge the performance of the regular armed forces on the battlefield.

Although the IRGC operated independently of the regular armed forces, it was often considered to be a military force in its own right due to its important role in Iranian defense. The IRGC consists of ground, naval, and aviation troops, which parallel the structure of the regular military. Unique to the Pasdaran, however, has been control of Iran's strategic missile and rocket forces.

Also contained under the umbrella of the more conventional Pasdaran, were the Basij Forces (Mobilization Resistance Force), a network of potentially up to a million active individuals who could be called upon in times of need. The Basij could be committed to assist in the defense of the country against internal or external threats, but by 2008 had also been deployed in mobilizing voters in elections and alleged tampering during such activities. Another element was the Qods Force, a special forces element tasked with unconventional warfare roles and known to be involved providing assistance and training to various militant organizations around the world.

Yahya Rahim Safavi, head of the IRGC since 1997, was dismissed as commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdarans) in August 2007. The dismissal of general Yahya Rahim Safavi disrupted the balance of power in Iran to the advantage of conservatives. Analysis in the international press considered the removal of Yahya Rahim Safavi to be a sign of change in the defense strategies of Iran, but the general policies of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are not personally determined by its commander.[22]

Military Structure

IRGC Safir vehicle in 2012 military parade in Tehran

In late July 2008 reports originating that the IRGC was in the process of dramatically changing its structure. In a shake-up, in September 2008 Iran's Revolutionary Guards (Pasdarans) established 31 divisions and an autonomous missile command.The new structure changes the IRGC from a centralized to a decentralized force with 31 provincial corps, whose commanders wield extensive authority and power. According to the plan, each of Iran’s thirty provinces will have a provincial corps, except Tehran Province, which will have two.[23]


The Basij is a paramilitary volunteer militia founded by the order of the Ayatollah Khomeini in November 1979. The Basij are (at least in theory) subordinate to, and receive their orders from, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. However they have also been described as "a loosely allied group of organizations" including "many groups controlled by local clerics." Currently, the Basij serve as an auxiliary force engaged in activities such as internal security as well as law enforcement auxiliary, the providing of social service, organizing of public religious ceremonies, and more famously morals policing and the suppression of dissident gatherings.

Quds Force

The elite Quds Force (or Jerusalem Force), sometimes described as the successor to the Shah's Imperial Guards, is estimated to be 2,000–5,000 in number.[7] It is a special operations unit, handling activities abroad.[24]

Ansar-Ul-Mehdi Corps

The Ansar-Ul-Mehdi (Followers of Imam Mehdi(a.s) (12th Shia Imam) Corps is primarily responsible for the protection of top officials of government and parliament (excluding the Supreme Leader). As an elite, secretive force within the I.R.G.C Ground force, its officers are entrusted with many other special assignments, such as Counter Intelligence & Covert Operations beyond Iran's borders.

The corps has four layers of protection for top officials and the agents go to each layer according to their experience and loyalty. The current commander of Ansar-Ul-Mehdi is Colonel Asad Zadeh.[25][26]


The IISS Military Balance 2007 says the IRGC has 125,000+ personnel and controls the Basij on mobilisation.[27] It estimates the IRGC Ground and Aerospace Forces are 100,000 strong and is 'very lightly manned' in peacetime. It estimates there are up to 20 infantry divisions, some independent brigades, and one airborne brigade.[28]

The IISS estimates the IRGC Naval Forces are 20,000 strong including 5,000 Marines in one brigade of three or four Marine Battalions.,[29] and are equipped with some coastal defence weapons (some HY-2/CSS-C-3 Seersucker SSM batteries and some artillery batteries) and 50 patrol boats (including 10 Chinese Houdang fast attack craft). The IRGC air arm, says the IISS, controls Iran's strategic missile force and has an estimated one brigade of Shahab-1/2 with 12–18 launchers, and a Shahab-3 unit. The IISS says of the Shahab-3 unit 'estimated 1 battalion with estimated 6 single launchers each with estimated 4 Shahab-3 strategic IRBM.'

Senior commanders

Combat history

Iran–Iraq War

Lebanon Civil War

During the Lebanese Civil War, the IRGC allegedly sent troops to train fighters in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.[37] In Lebanon, political parties had staunch opinions regarding the IRGC's presence. Some, mainly the Christian militias such as the Lebanese Forces, Phalanges, and most of the Christian groups declared war on the IRGC, claiming they violated Lebanese sovereignty, while others, including Muslim militias, were neutral to their presence. Groups such as the PSP and Mourabiton did not approve of their presence, but to serve political alliances they decided to remain silent on the matter.

2006 Lebanon War

During the 2006 Lebanon War, several Iranian Revolutionary Guards were reportedly killed by Israeli forces in Baalbek, a town close to the Syrian border.[38]

2006 plane crash

In January 2006, an IRGC Falcon crashed near Oroumieh. All fifteen passengers died, including twelve senior IRGC commanders.[31] Among the dead was General Ahmad Kazemi, the IRGC ground forces commander.[39]

Possible attacks on Quds Force

On 7 July 2008, investigative journalist and author Seymour Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker stating that the Bush Administration had signed a Presidential Finding authorizing the CIA's Special Activities Division to begin cross border paramilitary operations from Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran. These operations would be against the Quds Force, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that had been blamed for repeated acts of violence in Iraq, and “high-value targets” in the President’s war on terror.[40]

October 2009 Pishin bombing

In October 2009, several top commanders of the Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide bombing in the Pishin region of Sistan-Baluchistan, in the south-east of Iran. The Iranian state television said 31 people died in the attack, and more than 25 were injured. Shia and Sunni tribal leaders were also killed. The Sunni Baluchi insurgent group, Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack. The Iranian government initially blamed the United States for involvement in the attacks,[41] as well as Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and later Pakistan for their alleged support of the Jundallah group.[42][43] The United States denied involvement,[44] but some reports of US assistance to Jundallah during the Bush administration have come from Western sources.[45] The attacks appear to have originated in Pakistan and several suspects have been arrested.[46][47]

In Syria 2011–2013

General Qa`ani -Senior officer of Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution – said: “If the Islamic Republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of civilians would have been twice as bad. Had physically and non-physically stopped the rebels from killing many more among the Syrian people.” [48] Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers, along with fellow Shi'ite forces from Hezbollah and members of Iran's Basij militia participated in the capture of Qusair from rebel forces on 9 June 2013.[49][50]




Ali Khamenei and commanders of IRGC

Ayatollah Khomeini urged that the country's military forces should remain unpoliticized. However, the Constitution, in Article 150, defines the IRGC as the "guardian of the Revolution and of its achievements" which is at least partly a political mission. His original views have therefore been the subject of debate. Supporters of the Basiji have argued for politicization, while reformists, moderates and Hassan Khomeini opposed it. President Rafsanjani forced military professionalization and ideological deradicalization on the IRGC to curb its political role, but the Pasdaran became natural allies of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when reformists threatened him.[51] The IRGC grew stronger under President Ahmedinejad, and assumed formal command of the Basiji militia in early 2009.[52]

Although never explicitly endorsing or affiliating themselves with any political parties, the Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran (or Abadgaran), is widely viewed as a political front for the Revolutionary Guards. Many former members (including Ahmadinejad) have joined this party in recent years and the Revolutionary Guards have reportedly given them financial support.

As an elite group, members of Pasdaran have influence in Iran's political world. President Ahmadinejad joined the IRGC in 1985, serving first in military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan before leaving the front line to take charge of logistics. A majority of his first cabinet consisted of IRGC veterans.[53] Nearly one third of the members elected to Iran's Majlis in 2004 are also "Pásdárán".[54] Others have been appointed as ambassadors, mayors, provincial governors and senior bureaucrats.[24] However, IRGC veteran status does not imply a single viewpoint.[51]

In the days before the 2009 presidential election, the Revolutionary Guard warned against a "velvet revolution" and vowed to crush any attempt at one.[55] Three weeks after the election the Guard's commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, "publicly acknowledged they had taken over the nation's security during the post-election unrest" and called this `a revival of the revolution,` in a press conference.[52] Another Guard general Yadollah Javani, stated that there would be no middle ground in the dispute over the election results, there being only two currents – "those who defend and support the revolution and the establishment, and those who are trying to topple it."

Several sources have commented on increased power of the Guard following the election, saying that "it appears that the military likely will become the strongest stakeholder" in Iran,[11] that "many Iranians" fear "the outcome of the election was just a thinly-veiled military coup" by the Guard,[10] or even that Iran has now become a "regular military security government" with only "a facade of a Shiite clerical system.”[8]

On 5 July 2011 the head of the Guard (Mohammad Ali Jaffari) declared former president Mohammad Khatami unfit to return to Iranian politics. This vetting power was traditionally the purview of the Guardian Council, but two days later the highest judicial authority of Iran, (Sadegh Larijani) issued a statement in support of Jaffari saying “the responsibility of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards [has] been based in the constitution ... " and includes all activities necessary for the “defense of Islam ..."[56][57] Also in July 2011, the first Pasdaran commander was nominated to a post in Iran's cabinet not related to defense when Brig. Gen. Rostam Ghasemi (head of Khatam al-Anbiya, "the most powerful economic wing of the Revolutionary Guards") was nominated for minister of petroleum. Petroleum is Iran's "most strategic sector", and if confirmed Ghasemi will be "in a position to oversee energy contracts".[58]

Economic activity

IRGC first expanded into commercial activity through informal social networking of veterans and former officials. IRGC officials confiscated assets of many refugees who had fled Iran after the fall of the Bani-sadr regime. It is now a vast conglomerate, controlling Iran’s missile batteries and nuclear program but also a multibillion-dollar business empire reaching almost all economic sectors.[8] Estimates have it controlling between a tenth[59] and around a third of Iran's economy through a series of subsidiaries and trusts.[60]

The Los Angeles Times estimates that IRGC has ties to over one hundred companies, with its annual revenue exceeding $12 billion in business and construction.[61] IRGC has been awarded billions of dollars in contracts in the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, as well as major infrastructure projects.[62] The following commercial entities have been named by the United States as owned or controlled by the IRGC and its leaders.[63]

  • Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters, the IRGC’s major engineering arm & one of Iran’s largest contractors employing about 25,000 engineers and staff on military (70%) and non-military (30%) projects[51] worth over $7 billion in 2006.[63]
  • Oriental Oil Kish (oil and gas industry),[64]
  • Ghorb Nooh,[64]
  • Sahel Consultant Engineering,[64]
  • Ghorb Karbala,[64]
  • Sepasad Engineering Co., (excavation and tunnel construction).[64]
  • Omran Sahel,[64]
  • Hara Company (excavation and tunnel construction),[64]
  • Gharargahe Sazandegi Ghaem.[64]

In September 2009, the Government of Iran sold 51% of the shares of the Telecommunication Company of Iran to the Mobin Trust Consortium (Etemad-e-Mobin), a group affiliated with the Guards, for the sum of $7.8 billion. This was the largest transaction on the Tehran Stock Exchange in history.[65][66] IRGC also owns 45% participation in automotive Bahman Group and has a majority stake in Iran's naval giant SADRA through Khatam al-Anbia.[51][67]

The IRGC also exerts influence over bonyads, wealthy, non-governmental ostensibly charitable foundations controlled by key clerics. The pattern of revolutionary foundations mimics the style of informal and extralegal economic networks from the time of the Shah. Their development started in the early 1990s, gathered pace over the next decade, and accelerated even more with many lucrative no-bid contracts from the Ahmadinejad presidency.[64] The IRGC exerts informal, but real, influence over many such organizations including:

  • Bonyad-e Mostazafen va Janbazan (Foundation of the Oppressed or The Mostazafan Foundation)
  • Bonyad Shahid va Omur-e Janbazan (Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs)[51]

Scholarly Analysis

Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that the IRGC is “the spine of the current political structure and a major player in the Iranian economy.”[68] The once theocratic state has evolved into a garrison state, like Burma and North Korea, whereby the military dominates social, cultural, political, and economic life, protecting the regime from internal rather than external opponents.[68]

Greg Bruno and Jayshree Bajoria of the Council on Foreign Relations agree, stating that the IRGC has expanded well beyond its mandate and into a “socio-military-political-economic force” that deeply penetrates Iran’s power structure.[69] “The Guards’ involvement in politics has grown to unprecedented levels since 2004, when IRCG won at least 16 percent of the 290 seats" in the Islamic Consultative Assembly of Iran.[69] During the elections of March 2008, IRGC veterans won 182 out of 290 seats, helping Mahmoud Ahmadinejad consolidate power.[70] Half of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet is composed of former IRGC officers while several others have been appointed to provincial governorships.[70]

Ali Alfoneh of the American Enterprise Institute contends that “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.”[71] Additionally, Ahmadinejad successfully purged provincial governorships of Rafsanjani and Khatami supporters and replaced them not only with IRGC members, but also members of the Basij and the Islamic Republic prison administration.[72]

The IRGC chief, General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, announced that the Guards’ would go through internal restructuring in order to counter “internal threats to the Islamic Republic.”[73] Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former CIA analyst, argues the Guards was created to protect the regime against a possible coup.[69]

Since the disputed 2009 presidential elections, debate over how powerful the IRGC is has reemerged. Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh see the irreversible militarization of Iran’s government.[69] Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, believes the Guards’ power actually exceeds that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.[69] Frederic Wehry, adjunct Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation believes the Revolutionary Guards is not a cohesive unit of similar-minded conservatives but rather a factionalized institution that is hardly bent on overthrowing their masters.[69]


From its origin as an ideologically driven militia, the IRGC has taken an ever more assertive role in virtually every aspect of Iranian society. Its part in suppressing dissent has led many analysts to describe the events surrounding the 12 June 2009 presidential election as a military coup, and the IRGC as an authoritarian military security government for which its Shiite clerical system is no more than a facade.[8]

Since its establishment, IRGC has been involved in many economic and military activities among which some raised controversies. The organization has been accused of smuggling (including importing illegal alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and satellite dishes, into Iran via jetties not supervised by the Government[51][74][75][76]), training Hezbollah[77] and Hamas[78] fighters, and of being involved in the Iraq War.[79]

In December 2009 evidence uncovered during an investigation by the Guardian newspaper and Guardian Films linked the IRGC to the kidnappings of 5 Britons from a government ministry building in Baghdad in 2007. Three of the hostages, Jason Creswell, Jason Swindlehurst and Alec Maclachlan, were killed. Alan Mcmenemy's body was never found but Peter Moore was released on 30 December 2009. The investigation uncovered evidence that Moore, 37, a computer expert from Lincoln was targeted because he was installing a system for the Iraqi Government that would show how a vast amount of international aid was diverted to Iran's militia groups in Iraq.[80]

According to Geneive Abdo IRGC members were appointed "as ambassadors, mayors, cabinet ministers, and high-ranking officials at state-run economic institutions" during the administration of president Ahmadinejad[12] Appointments in 2009 by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have given "hard-liners" in the guard "unprecedented power" and included "some of the most feared and brutal men in Iran."[12]

See also

References and notes

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Further reading

  • Safshekan, Roozbeh; Sabet, Farzan, The Ayatollah's Praetorians: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the 2009 Election Crisis, The Middle East Journal, Volume 64, Number 4, Autumn 2010, pp. 543–558(16).

External links

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