Soldiers of the Revolution

A Brief History of Iran’s IRGC

A Basij militia base burns following protests in Tehran, June 2009. Stringer / Reuters

A Basij militia base burns following protests in Tehran, June 2009. Stringer / Reuters

By Afshon Ostovar

In August, news emerged that Russia had begun to use Iran’s Shahid Nojeh Air Base to stage bombing raids on northern Syria. For those familiar with the region, this was a shocking reversal of long-standing Iranian policy—signaling the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that foreign troops had been allowed to use Iranian bases.

The significance was not lost on Iranians. In protest, one member of parliament quoted the revolutionary slogan “Neither East nor West,” which had symbolized Iran’s quest for self-determination and rejection of American and Russian imperialism. National security officials defended the agreement, but within days, Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, announced that Russia’s use of the base had ended. Dehghan explained that Russia’s access had been based on shared strategic interests in Syria and could occur again, but also blamed Russia for “showing off” by publicizing the partnership to begin with. Whatever Dehghan’s intentions, his explanation highlighted the fact that the Syrian conflict had compelled Iran to rethink one of the ideological cornerstones of the Islamic Revolution.

In 1979, the goal of ending American and foreign influence in Iran unified the diverse revolutionary movement that toppled the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. As the revolution developed and the rival factions began to compete with one another, supporters of the hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gradually erased that diversity, establishing in its stead a theocratic system of government that gave Khomeini unchecked authority as Iran’s first supreme leader.

In the midst of this postrevolutionary power struggle, the IRGC was established as an umbrella group uniting numerous pro-Khomeini militias and gangs. By bringing these groups together under Khomeini’s banner, the IRGC became the central node of armed Islamism in Iran. Their use of violence and coercion, moreover, was instrumental in the Khomeinist faction’s monopolization of power.

In its early days, the IRGC was more a collection of ideas and aspirations than a true organization. Above all, the corps saw itself as the guardian of the revolution. Service to Khomeini and to Iran’s Islamic system were matters of religious faith rather than simply acts of patriotism. The IRGC adopted trappings from Islamic history to link itself to the broader Shiite tradition, and pledged to support liberation movements throughout the Muslim world. More pan-Islamic than nationalist, the IRGC established like-minded armed groups outside of Iran, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and provided ongoing support to Palestinian militants.

Foreign Affairs

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Categories: Foreign affairs, History, Iran, Lebanon, Military history, Syria

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