Forty years after the fall of the Shah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps serve as one of the most enduring legacies of the 1979 revolution.
Within last week Iranian military forces were targeted twice in domestic terrorist attacks coinciding with the Islamic Republic’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought down the Shah.
The latest attack Wednesday also occurred in the restive Sistan-Baluchistan province, bordering Pakistan, again targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its affiliated paramilitary force, the Basij.
These terrorist attacks emphasise the symbolic importance of striking the praetorian guards of the Islamic Republic and also highlight the dual role of the Revolutionary Guard to consolidate the revolution domestically and project Iran’s hegemonic power in the region.
Origins of the Revolutionary Guard
After the Iranian Revolution, the nascent Islamic Republic had to contend with the possibility of counterrevolution from within the former Imperial Army. The revolutionary government set up two institutions to consolidate its formation, a set of committees known as komitehs and an armed force to rival other revolutionary groups opposed to creating an Islamic republic.
The komitehs were in charge of executing key military personnel identified with the deposed Shah but limited the purges to high-profile military and political loyalists. At the same time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s project was defended by a standing fighting force to check the power of the former Imperial Army. While the former military was entrusted the defence of Iran’s territorial integrity and political independence, the Pasdaran, otherwise known as the Revolutionary Guard, were designated as the guardian of the Islamic Revolution itself.
After the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980, the Revolutionary Guard assumed its second role as a conventional combat military unit when it was deployed on the front line serving as a parallel military to the regular armed forces on the battlefield.
Indeed, the Iraqi invasion allowed the Revolutionary Guard to expand its role, serving as an example of parallel militarism. While the Pasdaran was envisioned as an elite praetorian guard, it controlled another military force known as the Basij. The unit was to be a voluntary, auxiliary military unit of the Revolutionary Guard and its role would be expanded after the Iraq invasion to serve a mass-mobilisation army, consisting of volunteers rather than conscripts.
During the Iran-Iraq War, the Basij reached close to one million volunteers relying heavily on youths to fill its ranks, some sent into armed combat with very little training, while others were deployed domestically as a “moral police” in Iran.
The Pasdaran would create its own government ministry, with an intelligence branch to monitor the regime’s domestic adversaries and to participate in their arrests and trials. One of the recurring domestic adversaries from 1979 to the present was violent groups affiliated with Iran’s ethnic minorities.
Dealing with Internal ethnic rebellions
Forty years ago, as the Islamic Republic was consolidating itself, the new state had to deal with
ensuing revolts among ethnic minorities such as the Kurds and Arabs. Indeed, the terrorist attacks this week indicate this issue is still a problem for Iran, as the attack was claimed by the Iranian ethnic Baluch minority.
In 1979 the most pressing problem for the newly established Islamic Republic was in its western Kurdish populated province. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) aspired for a federated status for the Kurds within the Islamic Republic, and when that aim was rejected, the KDPI launched an insurgency.
It was here that the Revolutionary Guard evolved from a street militia fighting battles on the streets of Tehran, to assume its third role as a domestic counter-insurgency force.
The Revolutionary Guard fought a three-front war as of 1980, fighting counter-revolutionary forces within Tehran, combating Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the KDPI as well. By 1982 the KDPI was defeated, but the group still existed in exile and ratcheted up attacks against Iran as of 2015.
Combined with the KDPI, Iran today also faces another threat from its ethnic Baluch community. On Wednesday, 20 Revolutionary Guards were killed in a suicide bomb attack claimed by the Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice). Unlike the KDPI, which formed after World War Two, Jaish al Adl formed relatively recently in 2012 to fight for on behalf of Baluchi Sunnis, who complain of discrimination by the Shia establishment.
Since the Revolution, the Revolutionary Guard has also assumed its fourth role as a ballistic missile force. When Daesh terrorist attacks occurred on Iranian soil in 2017, it was the Revolutionary Guard that retaliated by launching ballistic missiles against the terrorist group’s camp in Syria’s eastern province.
The Revolutionary Guard augured in its means of using ballistic missiles as a tool of counter-terrorism. However, Iran has not retaliated with missiles for the two latest attacks, since this Baluch group does not have any military bases outside of Iran to retaliate against. The terrorist group operates clandestinely within the Sistan-Baluchistan province and out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan.
Despite the Revolutionary Guard's multiple roles, in this case, it can do little in the long term to address Baluch violence, as it requires an admission from the state that it has failed to remedy the depressed socio-economic conditions in this province and requires a sustained economic and investment strategy.
The Revolutionary Guard in the present
The Revolutionary Guard would also emerge over the forty years in the fifth role as an expeditionary force, not just consolidating the revolution domestically, but exporting it to the region, supporting the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982, propping up the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria after 2011, and supporting a network of Iraqi Shia militias to combat Daesh after 2014.
Finally, the Pasdaran would become not just a parallel military force, but operate a parallel economy, owning enterprises in media, services and construction.
Forty years after the Revolution, the Revolutionary Guard emerged from the turmoil surrounding the fall of the Shah as a ragtag militia fighting street battles with rival revolutionary groups and evolved into one of the most powerful pillars supporting the Islamic Republic domestically. It makes it an attractive target for local terrorist attacks, and internationally as one of the most powerful military forces in the Islamic world.
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