Revolutionary Guards in Iranian Politics: Elites and Shifting Relations.

cover image

By: Bayram Sinkaya

Publisher: Routledge

New York, NY: Routledge, 2016. 234pp. $148 (hardcover). ISBN: 978-1-138-85364-5.

Volume: 4 Issue: 11

November 2016

Review by:

Christopher Anzalone, ABD

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Cambridge, MA

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has long been one of Iran’s preeminent and most powerful military organizations, tasked with safeguarding the country’s “Islamic revolution” and revolutionary republic from enemies both at home and abroad.  Founded in late 1979 by the order of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini , the IRGC provides the Iranian government with a capable external operations network through the Quds Force, currently commanded by General Qasim Soleimani, and internal security apparatus together with the official paramilitary organization, the Basij.  It is through the Quds Force and IRGC that militant organizations allied to the Iranian state such as Lebanon’s Hizbullah and a network of Iraqi Shi’i Islamist parties and militias, including  ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq and the Badr Organization, are supported financially and militarily.  More recently, the Houthi movement in Yemen has also reportedly received logistical and military support from the IRGC to help fuel the ongoing civil war in that country that pits the Iran and Hizbullah-backed Houthis against a coalition of Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States.  The IRGC’s role, however, has gradually expanded in recent years into the political and business/economic spheres with current and retired Guards officers playing an increasingly important role in both.  The support of the IRGC has also had a significant impact on Iranian domestic politics, particularly during the two presidential terms of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose two administrations included numerous members who were former Guards officers.  The IRGC also continues to play a major role in Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and ongoing conflict in Iraq through the Quds Force, financing, training, and equipping militia forces to fight to uphold Iranian interests in the Middle East.

In the book under review, Bayram Sinkaya provides an in depth look at the IRGC as a major political force in Iranian politics, both domestically and internationally, that traces the organization’s involvement in the political sphere since its inception.  Rather than being politicized later, the IRGC from its inception was conceived of as a revolutionary political entity, one that was tasked with protecting the Islamization of Iran’s broad-based revolution by Khomeini and his supporters.  The trajectory of the IRGC’s participation and reaction to politics is determined, Sinkaya argues, by two sets of variables: first, the organization’s ideological outlook and corporate characteristics, and second, changes in Iranian political dynamics since the revolution including the ideological positions of the ruling elite and cohesion and division among its different and sometimes competing segments.  Comparing the Iranian case with revolutions and revolutionary armies in France (1789), Bolshevik Russia (1917), and Maoist/Communist China (1949), he pinpoints three critical variables that influence the relationship of revolutionary armies with politics: first, the balance between the corporateness and ideological commitments of the revolutionary army; second, the relationship between the ideological outlook of the army and the political elite; and third, the power of the political leadership vis-à-vis the military leadership.  Shifts in any of these areas has an impact on civil-military relations.  When faced with liberal or weak political leaderships, ideologically-committed revolutionary armies, Sinkaya argues, tend to see intervention in the political sphere as both increasingly possible and necessary.

Constitutionally backed, the IRGC has been since its founding a primarily ideological driven force.  Its very identity, according to the new post-revolution constitution, was to be a military defender of the ideological principles of the Iranian revolution and specifically its “Khomeini-zation” following the ouster of more moderate political and religious voices in the aftermath of the flight of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the return of Khomeini from exile.  A volunteer force, the IRGC attracted ideological recruits, but the organization’s membership still included individuals with a variety of sometimes differing ideological views beyond being supportive of the “Islamic” revolution.  Ideological uniformity was aided by the utilization of Shi’i Islam, specifically important concepts such as martyrdom and self-sacrifice, that were reformulated to encourage striving and sacrifice for the revolutionary Islamic republic.  IRGC members are encouraged to see themselves as participants in a cosmic conflict between “good” and “evil,” between belief and unbelief (kufr), beliefs that encourage ideological commitment.  Differing views on what the organization’s specific goals and duties should be have allowed IRGC commanders to gradually expand the realm of the Guards’ involvement in Iranian society to the political, economic/business, and social spheres, thus expanding the IRGC’s influence and power.  The ongoing turmoil in the Middle East has also enabled the IRGC to play a major role in regional affairs by acting to prop up the faltering Syrian Ba’th Party government and support allied groups such as Hizbullah and the Houthi movement.

The increasingly broad-based nature of the IRGC’s involvement in Iranian daily life became most apparent during the two presidential terms of the neo-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  After his election in 2005, however, Ahmadinejad and Iran’s neo-conservatives began to face competition from traditional conservatives and were thus forced to seek the blessing of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, or engage in compromises with the traditional conservatives.  Khamenei and the traditional clerical conservatives also tightened their ideological influence over the IRGC by establishing a close relationship between the organization and a set of clerics appointed to serve as ideological advisers and officials in the Guards and the Basij.  Rising threats in the early 2000s, such as the rumbling of war drums among American neo-conservatives and the presidential administrations of George W. Bush, also enabled IRGC commanders to increase their political clout.  The Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, joined later by the re-sparking of a “hot war” in 2006 between Hizbullah and Israel, and Yemen, have also allowed the IRGC to maintain a role at the forefront of the Iranian state’s foreign policy.  The organization is heavily involved in both Syria and Iraq, providing military advice along with funding and military supplies to an array of armed Shi’i Islamist militias and political factions in both countries and losing an increasing number of officers from both the IRGC and Basij as military casualties, including a number of generals and other senior officers.  The highest thus far has been Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who was instrumental in forming the Syrian government’s “National Defense Forces,” which was modeled after the Basij.

Sinkaya’s book places the IRGC in a broader historical framework both within modern Iranian history as well as the literature on revolutionary militaries and states.  Drawing from previous studies of revolutionary states and militaries in France, Russia, and China, the book traces the evolution of the IRGC’s involvement in Iranian domestic politics and foreign policy with a careful attention to detail and the specifics of changes on the ground inside Iran since 1979.  The book is a welcome addition to the literatures on modern Iranian politics, modern Middle East history, revolutions and revolutionary politics, and military affairs.

Reviews By Year

Reviews By Category