The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was born out of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Afterward it would be the main tool Tehran used to influence its neighbor Iraq. That continues to the present day as the IRGC’s Quds Force is a major ally in the war against the Islamic State, and Iran is promoting its commander General Qasim Suleimani as the savior of Iraq. To help explain this three decades long history is Afshon Ostovar. He is the author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and an Assistant Professor in the National Security Affairs department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He can be followed on Twitter at @AOstovar.
1. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had its start during the Iran-Iraq War. Why was it created, and how did that experience shape the organization?
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC, was established in the midst of the 1979 revolution. It began as a way to organize Ayatollah Khomeini’s vast network of militant supporters into a single military force. That effort brought together a number of smaller militias from all over the country. They were united by their allegiance to Khomeini and his vision of an Islamic Iran, but there were also many parochial issues that divided them.
The IRGC was still a fledgling organization when the war with Iraq began in September 1980. Most of its members had no training and little experience. The most veteran of its commanders had cut their teeth in PLO training camps in Lebanon during the 1970s and in the revolution itself, but they too were far from regular soldiers. As much as the IRGC was meant to one day replace Iran’s regular military, the government didn’t trust that the nascent organization could do so in the early part of the war. The military was far more sophisticated, highly trained, and equipped with advanced weaponry which it actually knew how to use.
Political infighting in Tehran stymied Iran’s early war effort. The regular military was blamed for Saddam’s advances, and gradually, after the impeachment of president Abolhasan Bani-Sadr in 1981, the IRGC began to have a greater role in the war.
The IRGC’s strength was its zeal, boldness, and unconventional approach to warfare. It spearheaded the use of mass infantry assaults, or human wave attacks, to overwhelm Iraq’s defenses. That tactic proved decisive in the effort to expel Iraqi forces from Iran in the spring and summer of 1982. It was far less successful in operations across the border after Iran’s counter-invasion of Iraq later that year. The emphasis on human wave attacks led to a dramatic escalation in Iranian casualties during the war, the majority of which came from the IRGC’s Basij militia, which was composed of mostly teenage boys too young to serve in the IRGC or regular military.
As the war progressed, the IRGC eventually surpassed the military as the lead force both on the ground and in war planning. It developed as a military during this period, adding naval and air divisions, and executing numerous complex operations. The war also helped forge the IRGC’s identity, particularly the religious aspects that came to define what it calls the “culture of the front.” The IRGC’s experience in the war is fundamental to what it is today. All of its top commanders are veterans of that conflict, which, even more than the revolution, helped shape their worldview and politics.
2. In the interwar years from the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 to the 2003 U.S. invasion, what was the IRGC’s role in Iraq?
The IRGC’s role was limited. During the 1980s, Iran supported various Iraqi expatriate groups in their activism against Saddam’s regime. They also supported allies in Iraq, especially among the Kurds. Most important were the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its military wing, the Badr Corps, both of which were established in Iran during the war and embraced Khomeinist ideology. Badr served as a wing of the IRGC during the war, and remained an adjunct force afterward. Beyond its ties to Iraqi Shiite organization’s outside of Iraq, the IRGC’s network inside of the country was relatively small and covert. Spreading the revolution to Iraq remained a goal for the IRGC, but it was not able to achieve much until Saddam’s ouster.
3. How did the Revolutionary Guard react to the Americans overthrowing Saddam, and what kind relationship did it have with the political parties and militias that competed for power in the new Iraq?
The IRGC did not support the US war in Iraq. Even though US forces toppled Iran’s arch-enemy, Iran feared that Saddam’s replacement would be a puppet of the United States and equally inimical to its interests. They preferred the devil they knew to the one they didn’t.
The presence of hundreds of thousands of US troops along Iran’s borders, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, was even more worrisome to Iran. The Bush administration’s hostile rhetoric toward Iran, including labeling it part of the axis of evil, made the IRGC fear that the war in Iraq was a prelude to a US invasion of Iran. For that reason, the IRGC invested heavily in developing a client base in Iraq that could be used to target and harass US forces, and serve as a deterrent against any potential US aggression toward Iran.
The IRGC’s closest allies in Iraq were Badr and SCIRI, but it also had contacts with Kurdish forces and various other Iraqi Shiites, including segments of Dawa. The complexities of domestic politics compelled SCIRI to distance itself from Iran, at least outwardly, and made the IRGC an unattractive partner for Iraqi politicians that wanted to have a legitimate role in Iraqi politics and benefit from U.S. largess. The IRGC shifted its focus on the development and support of smaller Shiite militias, particularly Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Those groups, and continued close cooperation with Badr, enabled the IRGC to impact Iraqi politics from below. With clients that could act as spoilers, and put pressure on both U.S. forces and the government in Baghdad, the IRGC emerged as a significant player in Iraqi politics.
4. When the Islamic state seized Mosul in 2014 Iran was the first country to come to the aid of Iraq. Gen. Suleimani the IRGC Quds Force commander was in charge of that effort. What are the Iranians doing in the war and how have they been received?
Qassem Soleimani has overseen the IRGC’s activities in Iraq since before the fall of Saddam. He was the architect of Iran’s ground game, which gave it outsized influence in Iraqi political dynamics. By the time ISIS took Mosul, the IRGC had developed a very close relationship with Iraqi politicians and Shiite militias. Soleimani had brought several of the militias to Syria to help defend Assad, and did not hesitate to back the Iraqi government in the war against ISIS.
Iran’s early war effort in Iraq was broad. It established bases, command-and-control nodes, and began to conduct intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) operations. Iranian surveillance drones were used early in the conflict. IRGC air force contributed most of its Su-25s to the fight, flying sorties over Baiji and other battle zones. Those planes were officially manned by Iraqi pilots—the aircraft having originally been Saddam’s—but it is more likely that the IRGC’s own pilots were used. Iran supplied other materiel, including small arms and artillery to Shiite militia forces. IRGC personnel, mostly from the Quds Force, the special forces Saberin division, land forces, and other Basij units entered Iraq to serve as advisors and provide support behind the front lines. It is unclear how directly involved IRGC soldiers were in the fighting, but dozens were killed suggesting some frontline role.
After the Islamic State’s progress began to be reversed, the IRGC’s focus shifted back toward Syria. Its role in the Iraq conflict plateaued, but did not appreciatively decrease. More IRGC personnel were sent to Syria than Iraq, with Iraqi Shiite militias taking on most of the fighting role against ISIS. The IRGC’s support became focused more on operational planning, back-end logistics and ISR than supplying manpower. Qassem Soleimani remains the most influential foreign commander in the conflict, at least concerning the operations of the militias and paramilitary divisions.
5. The Revolutionary Guard has been involved in Iraq for more than 30 years. What does that experience say about Tehran’s goals in the country?
In many ways the IRGC has achieved what Khomeini had set out to do in 1979. The pillars of Khomeinist ideology have been adopted by a broad movement of Shiite militants in Iraq. The war with ISIS has made those militants even more influential than they already were. Between the militias and Iran’s other allies among Iraqi government officials and stakeholders, Iranian influence has become a significant factor in Iraqi politics. That political clout enables Iran to expand influence in other areas, from investment in the shrine cities and trade, to regional and strategic affairs. Iran’s supreme leader has also steadily grown his seminary network in Najaf and Karbala. That doesn’t mean that he will surpass Ayatollah Sistani, but it does suggest that he—and Iran more broadly—will remain influential in Iraq on a number of fronts and for a long time.
Put simply, Iran wants Iraq to be a friend and ally. The best way to ensure that, from the IRGC’s perspective, is to support the friends they already have and help them achieve power and influence. That has meant focusing support on the militias, their commanders, and the Iraqi politicians that are open to receiving Iranian backing. The IRGC would probably like to see Iraq embody the ideas and politics of the Islamic Republic. That includes shaping the Shiite militias into a religious-military organization (or organizations) akin to the IRGC itself. That IRGC views that project to be already underway with the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces (al-hashd al-shaabi).Whether it succeeds or not likely will depend more on the efficacy of a future, post-war Iraqi state than on the IRGC’s own ambitions.