They have many different names. Some call them Revolutionary Guard, others just the Pasdaran, the plural form of pasdar, which means “Guardian” in Persian. Technically, the official name is Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a formation created after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and after all the changes the previous decade brought to the country. But this unit, which included General Qassem Soleimani, who died January 3 in an attack by the US military near the airport in Baghdad, Iraq, is a fundamental structure in today’s Iran. The Revolutionary Guards are not just an essential contingent of defense for the country but also a very important symbol, which has also defined (on more than one occasion) the identity of those who were a part of it.
On May 5, 1979, a few weeks after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a decree that set up the branch. The ayatollah still harbored suspicions towards the Iranian army because he believed it was still too loyal to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Out of a need to feel safer, Khomeini backed up the armed forces with an army of followers who were appointed to guarantee internal security to the regime and to go after counterrevolutionaries. Born as a militia with profound ideological faith, over the years, the Revolutionary Guards have amplified their power within the state – and elsewhere.
On February 11, 1979, the Iranian Revolution concluded, and by the end of March, a referendum approved the creation of the Islamic Republic with a 98% consensus. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, one of the designers of this change and the banning of the Pahlavi family, embodied the poignant symbol of the revolt’s supreme leader. His political vision was criticized by liberals, the left and also by other more moderate ayatollahs who considered his position to have strayed from the Shiite tradition. However, the elections favored the Khomeinist candidates, and from that moment on, every decision had to pass before the supreme leader, including the creation of a new militia.
The time following Kohmeini’s death in 1989 and the conflict with neighboring Iraq deeply scarred the lives of Iranians born between the mid-‘50s and mid-‘60s (like General Soleimani and Esmail Ghaani, for example). This generation, called by religious sociologist Renzo Guolo the “generation of the front,” experienced firsthand within only a decade the death of a supreme leader, the end of a revolution and the conflict with Iraq. This also explains why this population of young people for a long time were characterized for their effective and decisive political determination. And many of them were volunteers for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (or Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Engelab-e Eslami in Persian).
Their description, at least at the beginning, was that of young militant Islamists, officially adults, almost all coming from the Komiteh (another unit created during the revolution). Arriving in the spring of 1979, the Pasdaran were the first real followers of Ayatollah Khomeini. The branch was born out of the spontaneous impulse of the revolution to defend the most important figure in the nation. Paramilitary in nature, the corps was imagined as an instrument of opposition against the possible reinstatement of the regime of Shah Pahlavi as well as against the political ambitions of other parties who had contributed to the change in the country’s landscape. The militia is financed by one of the structures that incorporates the sovereign’s dispossessed goods.
After their establishment in 1979, the Pasdaran never hid their sincere veneration of Ayatollah Khomeini. At the beginning, strongly rooted in their ideology, they chose to assume the responsibility of protecting the “oppressed”, another important symbol of post-revolution Iran. They were formed as the defenders of the changes desired after the banning of the shah, and they carried out (and still do) military and policing roles. With the Artesh, the regular armed forces, alienated, the Pasdaran became an actual armed force equipped with thousands of heavy weapons and military strategies that they honed over time and which never really changed. At the beginning, their job was to protect the revolution and to help the religious persons who had just assumed power to apply the new codes and public morality. Over the years, their role was strengthened, and they began to probe beyond their national borders.
Another branch created alongside the Pasdaran was the Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed, also called Basij Mostazafin. The intention behind creating the Basij was to provide a mass foundation for the revolution of 1979 (the militia in fact assumed the name “the army of 20 million oppressed”). In this group were young children and adolescents between 14 and 17 years old who were recruited in schools as well as adults over 45 years old, all who came from the working- and poor classes of Iranian society. Today, the Basij organization still assumes the job of bringing young people to serve the Islamic Republic. One of the reasons why very young people have always been attracted to becoming part of the organization is the status that this power gives them: they have rights typical of adults without yet being of age. According to the sociologist Guolo, what seduces the young Basij is the idea that through political means they can be adults sooner as opposed to becoming adults through legal means. Therefore, soldiers, military members, veterans and the oppressed become the bearers of the new impressive social and political system.
Around a year after their establishment, the Revolutionary Guards faced their first big (bloody) armed conflict against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which began in 1980 and ended in 1988. The civil war placed the Pasdaran on the frontlines. Despite little preparation on a battlefield, they fought bravely. The new Iranian power still looked suspiciously at the regular armed forces, and so he preferred to entrust strategies and military war operations to the young and still inexperienced soldiers, which did not advance in any way the strategy of the Islamic Republic. Hundreds of unprepared soldiers were lined up against the (well-trained) Iraqi troops, and they paid a high price in human lives. However, although many died, their actions were interpreted (and remembered) as important acts of courage, which further contributed to the legendary image of the conflict and the Pasdaran.
During the years of civil war in Lebanon, following the Israeli invasion of 1982, some members of the Pasdaran were sent to the country as trainers (a characteristic that always differentiated them). Their presence helped to create Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization that later became a political party and which was born as a paramilitary army from the Iranian effort to unite a variety of Lebanese militant Shiite groups into one single organization.
Currently, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps mainly handles national security and is responsible for domestic security, border control, police activity and even the missile program. Their operations are focused in particular on asymmetric warfare and less traditional duties. They also manage the fight against smuggling in the Strait of Hormuz and by rebel groups within the country. In 1979, the Pasdaran soldiers were created also to complement the traditional armed forces in order to have two armies that could operate separately and together in different settings.
Within the Revolutionary Guards there is the army, the navy, the aerospace force and the special forces. Below their authority there is also that Basij, which today includes 90,000 active members and 300,000 reserves. The Pasdaran are officially recognized in article 150 of the Iranian Constitution as a component of the armed forces, but at the same time they have the duty (and right) to operate both separately and together. Officially, they respond directly to orders from the supreme leader, who at this time is Ali Khameini. The army of the Revolutionary Guards carries out tasks that are more aimed at managing public order in the country. After the conflict with Iraq in the ‘80s, there have been few opportunities to fight in conventional conflicts. Currently, the army contains around 100,000 troops. The navy, on the other hand, operates alongside the regular Iranian navy and contains 20,000 men and 1,500 naval vessels, including light ships and minor units. The Pasdaran also have their own air force equipped with fighter planes (used recently in conflicts against Islamic State fighters).
The Al Quds unit (Arabic name for Jerusalem, one of the three holy cities), which General Soleimani was head of, is a special unit within the Pasdaran. It’s objective is to operate outside the national borders, managing the extraterritorial operations of the corps. The formation was created at the time of the Iran-Iraq war, during which they supported the Kurds in the fight against Saddam Hussein, according to the Los Angeles Times. After that, they helped Ahmad Massoud in Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance in the conflict against the Soviets as well as the Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav war. The Al Quds force answers directly to the supreme leader, and the exact number of members is not known (some estimate between 2,000 and 5,000). In addition to this unit, there are also the Ansar-ul-Mahdi Corps (literally “followers of Mahdi”), which handles security for the highest members of the government and parliament. It too is an elite force, and its officers are assigned counterintelligence operations beyond Iran’s borders.
The influence of the Revolutionary Guards in the country was strengthened at the beginning of the 2000s with the success of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the administrative elections for the city of Tehran in 2003. The ex-Pasdaran was elected mayor of the city, and then in 2005, with support from the “oppressed” soldiers and group, he became president of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad, like many of his peers, participated in the war against Iraq as a volunteer in the Pasdaran special forces, where he used technical skills he in his studies. In 2009, while he was president, with the help of the Pasdaran, he repressed the protests of the Green Movement, a protest movement that began in virtual spaces (blogs, which were prohibited by the regime) and eventually moved to the streets. Ahmadinejad, however, was not the only politician to have a past in the Revolutionary Guards. Many figures of import, from Mohsen Rezai to Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, have taken advantage of their past as volunteer fighters in order to rise to more important careers.
Translation by Alexa Ahern