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Sipāh-i Pasdarān-i Inqilāb-i Islāmī

Farideh Farhi
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Sipāh-i Pasdarān-i Inqilāb-i Islāmī

One of the most interesting aspects of the Iranian Revolution is the institutional arrangement that was eventually negotiated over the shape and structure of the postrevolutionary armed forces. Rather than completely dismantling the prerevolutionary military structure and replacing it with a militia-based organization, as has been done in many other revolutionary situations, the leadership in Iran has combined a systematic purge and Islamization of the armed forces with the creation of a parallel military force, the Sipāh-i Pasdarān-i Inqilāb-i Islāmī (Islamic Revolution's Guards Corps (IRGC), which now includes its own military command units (army, air force, navy, and special forces) as well as intelligence components and the Mobilization Resistance Force (Niru-yi Moqāvemat-i Basīj), a militia organization involved in monitoring the activities of citizens as well as all state and educational institutions for proper Islamic conduct.

The IRGC initially had its own ministry but in 1989, along with the regular military, it was brought under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics. The setting up of the General Command of the Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1992, was a further attempt to institutionalize the IRGC within the broader defense establishment, which by the Constitution operates under the command of Iran's supreme leader (Article 110).

The beginnings of this organization can be traced back to the most chaotic days of the Iranian Revolution, when armed groups of local neighborhood committees (komitehs) were organized into a paramilitary force to maintain order in major cities. During this period, the armed insurrection that led to complete power seizure was accomplished by a tactical grouping of diverse clerical and secular forces leaving many people, and especially the more radical groups, well armed. Shaul Bakhash argues that the formation of the IRGC reflected the desire of some of the radical clerics to have an organizational counterweight both to the regular army and the parties of the Left, who were suspected of creating their own armed units. Its creation, then, was a clear signal suggesting the radical clerics’ determination to protect “their” nascent revolution with an armed institution of their own. As such, the IRGC's history has mirrored the trials and struggles of the Islamic activists in their aspiration to usurp, maintain, and consolidate state power. Restoring order to the cities and dislodging members of opposition groups from government positions in the earliest days of the revolution, suppressing ethnic uprisings throughout the country in the summer and spring of 1979, helping Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's efforts to monopolize power in the middle of intense and violent attacks by the leftist Mujāhidīn in the spring and summer of 1981, actively participating in a war that Iraq launched to loosen the Islamic activists’ grip on power, and increasingly becoming involved in economic activities are just some of the more important tasks the IRGC has had to pursue in order to assure the survival of the Islamic regime.

The organization was formally established by a decree issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on May 5, 1979. Its continued existence and role as “the guardian of the Islamic Revolution and its accomplishments” were affirmed in the Islamic Constitution (Article 150). Like the rest of the armed forces, the IRGC is expected to be Islamic, popular, and constituted from those who believe in the goals of the Islamic Revolution and are devoted to their fulfillment (Article 144). In defining the meaning of Islamic armed forces, the constitution uses the term maktabī (cleaving to the line of Khomeini) to require training in principles of belief as well as commitment to the defense of Islam. To fight and make peace in accordance with the requirements of Islamic doctrine necessarily entails the defense of the country, since the former views the latter to be a legitimate right.

After its inception, the IRGC witnessed phenomenal growth, reportedly numbering as high as 350,000 uniformed personnel by 1986. Most observers agree that much of this growth can be attributed to the war with Iraq. In addition, the war afforded the opportunity for appropriating such additional functions as mobilization of sufficient numbers for the war and coordinating the war activities of its affiliate militia organization, Basīj-i Mustaẓʿafīn (Mobilization of the Oppressed), which was the linchpin of the so-called human-wave attacks against the Iraqi positions. This militia was later renamed the Mobilization Resistance Force (or Basīj for short).

Throughout this period of growth, the IRGC leadership showed a remarkable degree of continuity. After an initial and unsuccessful attempt by nonclerical leaders (such as Defense Minister Muṣṭafā Chamrān and President Abol-Hasan Bani Sadr) to control it, the most important positions in the IRGC's command hierarchy were and continue to be occupied by men who had either been appointed in the early 1980s or come up through the IRGC's chain of command. The composition of the rank and file, however, may have gone through subtle changes. Initially, Sepehr Zabih argues, the IRGC drew both from highly educated and politically sophisticated men who had fought in the underground against the shah and from religiously minded lower-class families. Given the lack of systematic studies, it is difficult to speculate about the current social composition of the IRGC forces. But given the special status and influence of these forces, IRGC's role as a means for upward social mobility can be assumed.

With the end of the war, the IRGC, like the Islamic Revolution itself, had to find ways to adapt itself. Several important concerns surfaced. The first and conceivably the most important concern, was the relationship between the IRGC and the regular Iranian armed forces. The existing dual structure was costly, detrimental to the creation of a clear decision-making center on defense matters, and potentially explosive. Attempts to merge the two forces in spring 1991 were effectively resisted by the IRGC. Instead, exchange of leadership personnel and cooperative activities, such as joint maneuvers and operations, were promoted and the defense establishment has indeed shown growing integration through joint military exercises, and the sharing of command and systems. It has even been argued that some commands, such as the navies, of the two institutions are better integrated than others. Nevertheless, important problems regarding procurement and development of weapons systems remain, as well as frictions on the ground.

The second concern related to the size of the armed forces, including the IRGC. However, the potentially disastrous political consequences of antagonizing the IRGC by cuts in budget and personnel prevented the articulation of this concern in coherent ways. On the one hand, the number of regular IRGC forces was reduced, to an estimated 125,000 at the beginning of the new millennium, complemented with an additional 90,000 to 100,000 active duty uniformed Basīj members (with 1 to 3 million estimated to be trained and in reserve). On the other hand, fearing political activism by a large pool of committed ideologically motivated and disaffected men who had played a crucial role during the Iran-Iraq War, the country's political elite, led by President ʿAlī Akbar Hāshimī Rafsanjānī, spearheading a post-war reconstruction period, encouraged the IRGC's involvement in economic and construction activities. Satellite companies connected to IRGC began to mushroom, allowing those with access to equipment and resources to bid for contracts and eventually making Khātam al-Anbiyāʿ Headquarters (known in English as Ghorb Khatam), the IRGC's engineering arm, one of the biggest economic enterprises in the country. The IRGC and its affiliates have also been rumored to be heavily involved in the smuggling of goods such as petroleum, tobacco, alcohol and even narcotics and running of their own ports.

A related concern, regarding the larger volunteer Basīj forces, has also not been effectively confronted. In 1991 and 1992, the government indicated that it would maintain some of these forces in conjunction with the IRGC near major cities as antiriot squads. The political necessity of maintaining a large number of people on the state payroll, however, continues to be a headache for an already bloated state in the middle of economic difficulties. With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran, attempts have been made to extend the economic privileges that initially benefited the IRGC's higher ranks to the poorer Basīj forces that were somewhat marginalized in the post-war reconstruction period.

A final concern, relates to the extent of IRGC's influence in Iran's politics. As one of the most important institutions born during the revolutionary moment, the IRGC's identity and future remain solidly tied to the shifting power alliances of Iranian postrevolutionary politics. As such, political maneuvers and divisions within the broader polity are invariably reproduced within the IRGC. Furthermore, as the preeminent guardian of the Islamic Revolution and its accomplishments, IRGC's actions are bound to be linked to the direction of the country. For now, the IRGC, along with the regular Islamized forces, has a certain amount of legitimacy because of its success in defending the country's territorial integrity. But, it is also held increasingly responsible for the authoritarian turn that Iran has taken after the reform movement was pushed out of power in successive parliamentary and presidential elections in 2004 and 2005.



  • Bakhash, Shaul. The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and Islamic Revolution. New York, 1984. The best available commentary on the events surrounding the creation of IRGC.
  • Byman, Daniel, et al.Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era. Santa Monica, 2001. A thorough discussion of Iran's various security forces (for discussion of IRGC see chapters 4 and 5).
  • Cordesman, Anthony H.Iran's Developing Military Capabilities. Baltimore, 2005. Includes detailed discussion of IRGC's operational capabilities.
  • Entessar, Nader. “The Military and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran.” In Post-Revolutionary Iran, edited by Hooshang Amirahmadi and Manoucher Parvin, pp. 56–74. Boulder, 1988. The most concise analysis of the effects of the Islamic revolution on the structure of the armed forces.
  • International Crisis Group. Iran: Ahmadi-Nejad's Tumultuous Presidency. Brussels, 2007. Pages 12–14 discuss IRGC's economic activities in detail.
  • Katzman, Kenneth. The Warriors of Islam: Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Boulder, 1993. The most comprehensive discussion of the organization of the IRGC and the ways it resisted professionalization in the 1980s and early 1990s.
  • Zabih, Sepehr. The Iranian Military in Revolution and War. New York, 1988. Effective use of Iranian sources to analyze the conduct and structure of IRGC in the initial postrevolutionary years (see chapter 8).
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