Exploitable Vulnerabilities of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

By: COL Sean Corrigan, USA

The leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran has empowered Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or Pasdaran, to such an extent that the IRGC has become the center of gravity not only for the security, but also for the economy of the regime. This power, enabled by a lack of credible political checks and balances or separation of powers, is a critical strength for the Pasdaran and the current regime. However, the IRGC has a number of exploitable vulnerabilities. While it self-promotes and is portrayed domestically as the ideologically pure guardian of the Iranian revolution and defender of Islam, the IRGC is neither omnipotent nor omnipresent. Rather, the Pasdaran and its vast network of alumni and advocates are subject to factionalism, internal strife, and incompetence. This article describes the impact of the IRGC on Iran's security and economy, assesses the organization's vulnerabilities, and offers options for exploiting these vulnerabilities.1

Creation of the IRGC

As Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini consolidated power after deposing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, he balanced the counterrevolutionary threat he perceived from Iran's conventional military with the IRGC, a trusted parallel military structure beholden to him and loyal to his revolutionary principles. In order to maintain internal order and suppress dissent, Khomeini also formalized the multiple post-revolution militias by organizing them into the Basij (Mobilization of the Oppressed). Even though the IRGC is constitutionally directed to coordinate with Iran's conventional military forces, and is nominally subordinate to a joint headquarters that oversees the security services and law enforcement forces, the Pasdaran answers directly only to the republic's Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali al Khamenei. This direct access to the Supreme Leader, combined with his consistent and considerable support for the IRGC, makes the Pasdaran peerless among the military, intelligence, law enforcement, and security services in Iran. The placement of current and former Pasdaran and Basij commanders and officers throughout all of Iran's other security organs mitigates any internal resistance to the Pasdaran's independence and its unique access to Khamenei.

The Artesh, Iran's conventional military ground force, consists of approximately 220,000 troops, as compared with the IRGC's 125,000. The Artesh is more heavily armed, while the Pasdaran maintains primacy over, and responsibility for, Iran's most critical national security initiatives, including cyber warfare, the intermediate-range ballistic missile program, and maritime security in the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. In addition, the Pasdaran claims an expansive and growing role in domestic security, and is widely assumed to be intimately involved in Iran's nuclear program. As the entity responsible for Iran's ballistic missile program as well as its asymmetric warfare capabilities, the Pasdaran has the means to deliver critical or subcritical fissile-material payloads by traditional or unconventional means. The IRGC's responsibility for military and technological research and testing suggests its likely involvement in any possible current or future nuclear weapons development.

Since October 2007, the IRGC has also formally controlled the Basij, a geographically based reserve force of 90,000 which can mobilize up to one million personnel. Following anti-regime riots in 1994, the Basij has assumed a larger role in internal security, receiving training in riot control in order to quell student or opposition uprisings.2 The Basij also provides the IRGC with a network of eyes and ears across Iran, and maintains a presence in all major universities.

IRGC Military Doctrine

The IRGC's military doctrine emphasizes asymmetric or irregular warfare as a means to counter a perceived technological capability and capacity gap in the event of conventional conflict on Iranian soil with other states. In August 2005, when he was the commander of the IRGC Center for Strategy, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari stated, "As the enemy is far more advanced technologically than we are, we have been using what is called asymmetric warfare methods. …Our forces are now well prepared for it."3 The driving principle of the IRGC's military doctrine is to undermine a stronger adversary's will to continue fighting, rather than defeat enemy military forces in conventional terms. The tenets of this doctrine include, but are not limited to, the following: decentralized command and control of dispersed forces to mitigate an enemy's superior airpower and dominance of the electro-magnetic spectrum; incorporation of unconventional and terrorist tactics in response options; concentration of capabilities against an enemy's strategic weak points, which are not necessarily military in nature; offensive retaliatory strikes against the enemy outside the war zone; undermining the enemy's national popular support through information warfare; and an emphasis on the power of religious zeal and martyrdom to bring victory.4 The IRGC maintains the ability and capacity to take the conflict outside Iran's borders through unconventional tactics and asymmetric warfare. The Pasdaran's Qods (Jerusalem) Force is its primary tool in that endeavor.

The Doctrine's Vulnerabilities

For all of its influence among the military organs of national power, the IRGC and its asymmetric warfare doctrine nevertheless present multiple vulnerabilities. The IRGC's blatant disregard for constitutionally mandated command and control structures, its independence from the Ministry of Defense, and its liberal interpretation of its authority put the Pasdaran on shaky legal ground. Iranian liberals and oppositionists make a strong argument that the IRGC has exceeded its authority to the point of acting as an extralegal paramilitary element. Mohsen Sazegara, one of the IRGC's founding members and now a political dissident, said of the Pasdaran, "I don't know of any other organization in any country like the Revolutionary Guards. It's something like the Communist Party, the KGB, a business complex, and the mafia."5

Parallel IRGC and conventional Artesh military structures create inefficiencies, violate unity of command, and promote factionalism. The Pasdaran's ascendance has come at the expense of both the Artesh and domestic law enforcement forces in terms of resources, authority, and political capital. The resulting friction among the security services has resulted in poor coordination, lack of integration, and a situation that is ultimately unsustainable.6 The IRGC has long promoted itself as the Republic's savior, based on its performance in the Iran–Iraq war. This implies that the Artesh and the Iranian Navy failed the Republic, necessitating the Pasdaran's and Basij's heroic sacrifices and martyrdom in order to preserve the revolution. An alternative viewpoint is that the IRGC inserted itself into the forefront of that war precisely to secure its enduring prominence after the conflict. Additionally, military analysts both inside and outside Iran contend that the IRGC's human-wave tactics unnecessarily prolonged the conflict at an exorbitant cost in blood and treasure.7 The Pasdaran's revisionist historical portrayal of its role in the Iran–Iraq war is vulnerable to the available facts concerning its actual performance and motives. Many military personnel and civilians still remember the Pasdaran's performance in that war differently, and if this truth were brought to light, it would severely undermine the IRGC's claimed historical justification for its current prominence.

The asymmetric warfare doctrine developed by Hassan Abbassi and Major General Jafari, and now being implemented by the Pasdaran, suggests further potentially useful points of vulnerability. The acknowledged promotion of terrorism as a pillar of the strategy constitutes an explicit violation of the Law of Armed Conflict by any interpretation of international law. This violation effectively isolates Iran from any external state support in the event of conflict, or limits its supporters to a very small community of like-minded states and state-sponsored terrorist groups. Though willing and grateful to accept Iranian state support today, its surrogates and proxies act in their own interests, and it is not certain they can be relied on in the context of a larger conflict.8

Another point of potential vulnerability lies in the recruiting and manning of the Basij militia units, whose rank and file are subject to varying degrees of tribal, sect, and local loyalties. During the 1994 Qazvin riots, local IRGC and Basij units acted independently and demonstrated their conflicting loyalties by refusing to fire on unarmed protestors. This insubordination required the IRGC to import Basij units from other provinces to quell the riots.9 An undetermined but significant percentage of the Basij rank and file join purely for the economic, educational, and social benefits rather than commitment to the regime's ideology or belief in the virtue of martyrdom.10 It may be possible to drive a wedge between the Basij and the IRGC by illuminating the fact that the purported glory of martyrdom applies mostly to the Basij rank and file and not the powerbrokers among the IRGC.

Role of the IRGC in Suppressing Internal Dissent

The IRGC (and Basij's) role in crushing opposition inside Iran, in accordance with General Jafari's intention to prevent an Iranian "Velvet Revolution," offers possibly the Pasdaran's greatest vulnerability. The protests that followed the June 2009 presidential election continued into December, and exposed divisions within the IRGC. Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Mahdi, a 30-year veteran of the Pasdaran and formerly head of IRGC investigations into threats against the regime, is now working as a political dissident and activist outside of Iran. In a 2010 interview with the Guardian news organization, he claimed that more than one third of the Pasdaran are now against the regime.

The current members of the Revolutionary Guard are saying that they have become very disheartened. The situation is becoming unbearable. …The regime is witnessing its destruction. The regime is prepared to instill fear and insecurity into the people within Iran in order to ensure its stability. It has got to that stage. The regime is sinking.11 Mohammad Hussein Torkaman was the Basij officer responsible for security logistics for Iran's Supreme Leader and president during the June 2009 elections and the protests that followed. After witnessing the IRGC's methods of crushing the dissenters, he also defected. In that same Guardian interview, Torkaman stated: After the 2009 election, supreme Leader and President brought in foreign mercenaries to protect them because they were uncertain of their own security forces. …The forces they had chosen to do the shooting at people were from the Qods Force. The majority of them are Lebanese or Palestinian. They don't speak Farsi, the Persian language. These were the ones who were given permission to open fire. …They had built places within the prisons, specifically for torturing people. There's a basement in Evin prison… it was extremely bad. Disease was spreading because of the prisoners' open wounds, which had been caused by torture.12

Though the Pasdaran outwardly presents an image of a tightly knit and cohesive force that is ideologically, theologically, and politically homogeneous, its role in quelling domestic revolts and crushing opposition movements has divided the ranks, contradicting this monolithic image. IRGC members' conflicting loyalties and doubts over the Pasdaran's commitment to its original intended purpose present real vulnerabilities for the Iranian regime's primary military instrument of power. International Opposition The IRGC's strategy of asymmetric warfare and its open advocacy of terrorism as a pillar of this strategy also have cost Iran in the international political sphere. The U.S. Department of State, in its 2010 annual country reports on terrorism, again designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, as it has done since 1984. The designation triggers mandatory sanctions on economic assistance, the export of dual-use items, and arms sales to Iran.13 While the designation has no binding effect on governments or private entities outside the United States, it is a powerful tool for isolating a country politically and economically. European Union and U.S. Treasury Department sanctions against IRGC leaders Jafari and Soleimani for their material support of Syria's violent actions against protestors amplify the message that there is a political and economic price to pay for the IRGC's strategy.14 This offers yet another exploitable point of vulnerability: The Pasdaran's military strategy has a direct and negative impact on Iran's ability to fully use its political and economic tools.

The IRGC's Economic Empire

The IRGC's expansion beyond the roles and tasks traditionally associated with a military or security service is most visible in its dominant role in Iran's economy. Leveraging its self-proclaimed popularity and influence after the Iran–Iraq war, the Pasdaran initially entered the economic realm under the auspices of guiding the country's reconstruction efforts. Since then, it has steadily expanded its economic influence with the support and approval of the Supreme Leader. The IRGC's influence spans virtually all sectors of the economy. Khatam ol-Anbia, Persian for "Seal of the Prophet," is the largest contracting business within a vast network owned and/or controlled by the IRGC. The IRGC owns and operates multiple port facilities and maintains its own banking system. In addition, in September 2009, the IRGC purchased a 50-percent controlling interest in Iran Telecommunications Company.15 The IRGC's greatest economic instrument by far, however, is its influence over the energy sector, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the regime's revenue.16 From 2005 to 2010, the IRGC and its affiliates won 750 oil, gas, and construction contracts.17

Alongside its legitimate enterprises, the IRGC, through its ownership of ports, its influence over airlines, and its status of near-impunity among Iran's law enforcement services, has both means and opportunities to play a dominant role in Iran's black- and gray-market economies as well. There are multiple motives for this involvement: personal profit for senior officers; funding and acquisition of weapon systems subject to international sanctions; bribery of political and clerical officials in order to maintain and increase the IRGC's economic and political position; support for covert initiatives abroad and the IRGC's nuclear research program; provision of financial support to IRGC veterans and their families; and expansion of the Basij through financial incentives.18

Economic Policies Spur Antagonism

By militarizing such a significant portion of Iran's national economy, the IRGC has made itself politically vulnerable in a number of ways. In particular, the Pasdaran's extra-legal economic activity has not gone unnoticed by Iran's elected parliamentarians. In reference to the IRGC's black- and gray-market activities, Majlis (Parliament) member Ali Ghanbari openly criticized the Pasdaran, Unfortunately, one third of the imported goods are delivered through the black market, underground economy, and illegal jetties. Appointed institutions [by Supreme Leader Khamenei] that don't obey the [rules of] the government and have control over the means of power [violence], institutions that are mainly military, are responsible [for those illegal activities].19

Former Majlis speaker and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi accused the IRGC of running 60 jetties without proper governmental supervision. Another member of Parliament quantified his estimate of the IRGC's illicit economic activity thus: "invisible jetties... and the invisible hand of the mafia control 68 percent of Iran's entire exports."20 An outspoken critic of the regime and the Pasdaran, and previously a reformist candidate for the presidency, Mehdi Karrubi has remained under house arrest since February 2011.

Corruption and personal enrichment invite contempt and competition among senior IRGC officers, and potentially create a wedge between the leadership and the rank and file of the organization. The slow deterioration of Iran's once influential bazaarmerchant middle class, through the IRGC's control of the underground economy and its militarization of the private sector, has also alienated a large segment of the population accustomed to a tradition of relatively free enterprise. In a formal letter to the government, 29 private businessmen openly questioned the constitutionality as well as the effectiveness of the IRGC's economic activities:

Responsibilities [of the military and civilian institutions] are well defined in the Constitution. [Moreover] the goal of the "Next 20 Years' Economic Projection," is to make the government smaller. [We ask the question] whether it makes sense economically and technically, to award [all the] large scale projects to the military or paramilitary organizations?21 Ways to Exploit IRGC Vulnerabilities

There are a number of ways in which the United States and its allies might exploit the IRGC's vulnerabilities. Foremost, the allies should maintain technical and physical superiority in the region, providing a credible deterrent to both the IRGC threat of asymmetric warfare and terrorism, and malevolent activities in neighboring nations. Through theater security cooperation in multiple geographic combatant commands, the U.S. Departments of Defense, State, Justice, and the Treasury should also continue to support improvements in counterterrorism capability and capacity among allied nations, in order to deter the Pasdaran's implementation of terrorism as a military tactic. Within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, specifically the nations bordering the Arabian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, military sales, training, exercises, and intelligence sharing should all be coordinated to counter the IRGC's asymmetric warfare doctrine and its naval swarm tactics. Washington could also make a case for designating the entire Pasdaran and Basij as terrorist organizations due to their known sponsorship and training of terrorists, leaving them exempt from the protections normally afforded uniformed armed forces under the Geneva Conventions and the Laws of Armed Conflict.

Additionally, the U.S. military should consider developing a campaign plan based on segregating and isolating the IRGC and Basij from the more conventional Artesh, and driving a wedge between the elite Pasdaran leadership and the rank and file who were expected to martyr themselves on the IRGC's behalf. The Artesh should be assured of its place as an element of the armed services in a future sovereign Iran that is free from the Pasdaran and its leaders. The United States can also communicate directly to the Basij that mass attrition of its rank and file during missions might benefit the IRGC, but not the Iranian people or anyone else.

The United States and its allies should also consider improving the capability and capacity of their military information support operations, tailoring them to quickly achieve and maintain information superiority just as militaries would normally strive to achieve air superiority against a traditional adversary. The tools and skills required in the Iranian case, however, are not necessarily the same as those used in Iraq and Afghanistan and cannot be rapidly produced. Early investment in Farsi language training, along with a solid understanding of Persian history and culture, are vital for effective planning and engagement.

The extent and corruption of the IRGC economic enterprise must be laid bare to both the Iranian people and the rest of the world. Information and intelligence sharing among allies can provide the transparency that the IRGC has avoided through its use and abuse of foundations, cooperatives, front companies, and the black market. Iran's private business sector and bazaar middle class should be given the information they need to fully grasp the unfair business practices the Pasdaran enterprise exploits to enrich its elite and finance its consolidation of power.

Economic sanctions should extend to all bonyads (charitable trusts), banks, and cooperatives associated with this vast network. Although current sanctions are having some effect, they cannot prevent the Pasdaran from generating and laundering the revenue required to maintain and expand its domestic and international influence unless regional and international players such as the European Union, MERCOSUR, the African Union, ASEAN, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as member nations of the World Trade Organization, agree to honor sanctions against the entirety of the Pasdaran's economic enterprise. The development of alternative markets and sources of oil and gas for countries dependent on Iranian imports, coupled with these kinds of broader sanctions, could have a profound effect on the Pasdaran's military and economic power.


1. The views presented in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or its components.

2. "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment: The Gulf States, Iran," (August 5, 2011), retrieved from IHS Jane's Defence & Security Intelligence & Analysis website: http://www4.janes.com/subscribe/sentinel/GULFS_doc_view.jsp?Sent_Country=Iran&Prod_ Name=GULFS&K2DocKey=/content1/janesdata/sent/gulfsu/irans010.htm@current, (accessed September 12, 2011).

3. Jahangir Arasli, "Obsolete Weapons, Unconventional Tactics, and Martyrdom Zeal: How Iran Would Apply its Asymmetric Naval Warfare doctrine in a Future Conflict," George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies Occasional Paper Series, no. 10 (April 2007): 11–12.

4. Ibid., 12–13. The concept of martyrdom for the sake of Islam as a religious duty is an integral part of the IRGC indoctrination program, with roots in Shia theology and Iranian culture. Military success depends more on the human factor and adherence to the Iranian revolutionary brand of Islamic faith and ideology than technology, training, and skills of the soldiers.

5. Frederick Wehrey, Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2009), 2.

6. "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment."

7. Michael Eisenstadt, The Strategic Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran Operational and Policy Implications, Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University, MES Monographs, no. 1 (August 2011): 7.

8. Mustafa Al-Sawwaf, "Iran Failed to ‘Blackmail' HAMAS, ‘Buy Political Positions' for Aid," from the Gaza Filastin (electronic edition) in Arabic, (September 8, 2011), retrieved from https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_200_307_521_43/content/Display/GMP2011090875100, (accessed September 9, 2011).

9. Wehrey, Rise of the Pasdaran, 83.

10. Eisenstadt, Strategic Culture, 11.

11. Angus Stickler and Maggie O'Kane, "Former Elite Officers Reveal Tensions in Iran Regime," Guardian Films, Bureau of Investigative Journalism videofile, (June 11, 2010), retrieved from The Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/11/iranrevolutionary- guards-regime, (accessed September 15, 2011).

12. Ibid.

13. U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2010, August 18, 2011, chapters 3 and 6: http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2010/170260.htm (accessed August 24, 2011).

14. "European Union Council Implementing Regulation (EU) No 611/2011 of 23 June 2011, implementing Regulation (EU) No 442/2011 concerning restrictive measures in view of the situation in Syria," retrieved from Eur-Lex: Access to European Law website: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:164:0001:0003:EN:PDF, (accessed August 30, 2011); "Administration Takes Additional Steps to Hold the Government of Syria Accountable for Violent Repression Against the Syrian People," (May 18, 2011), retrieved from U.S. Department of Treasury Press Center website: http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/tg1181.aspx (accessed August 30, 2011).

15. Kenneth Katzman, "Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses," (Washington, DC: U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, April 18, 2011), 24.

16. "Country Report, Iran," Economist Intelligence Unit (London, August 2011): 3.

17. Ali Alfoneh, "The Revolutionary Guards Looting of Iran's Economy," American Enterprise Institute Middle East Outlook, no. 3, (June, 2010): http://www.aei.org/outlook/100969, (accessed September 16, 2011).

18. Wehrey, Rise of the Pasdaran, 65–66.

19. Ibid., 64.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., 73–74.

Average (0 Votes)
The average rating is 0.0 stars out of 5.
No comments yet. Be the first.