Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enghelab-e Islami is the single most powerful organization in Iran. The direct English translation is Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution or the Iranian (Islamic) Revolutionary Guards Corps, as it is popularly known in the West. Their recent seizure of British sailors and marines has reminded the world once again of their disregard for international norms.
Western media and politicians have tended to simplify the role of the Pasdaran as a praetorian guard for the clerical regime — essentially an elite military unit. While this is true, it is only part of the story.
Formed in May 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to counter the established left-wing militia, the Pasdaran was the first military revolutionary instrument completely under Iranian clerical control. As such it swiftly became the protector not only of the Islamic revolution, but of the clerical leadership itself.
From its earliest stages, membership in the Pasdaran assured a special political status. Heroic fighting during the Iran/Iraq War (1980-88) made them truly the guardians of the nation far more than the regular armed forces.
In the late 1990s a reformist government under President Mohammad Khatami was voted into office, much to the annoyance of the far more conservative clerical leadership in the Council of Guardians, the ultimate governing body of Iran’s Islamic revolution. With the support of this body the Pasdaran now took on a more active role in internal security aimed at, among other things, countering the reformist movement.
Reporting directly to the office of the Supreme Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the Pasdaran developed its own independent foreign intelligence organization, control over missile and nuclear research, and even a separate naval and air capability. In other words, the Guardians of the Revolution became equivalent to an enhanced version of the Shutz Staffel, the vaunted SS of Nazi Germany.
Since the first Gulf War the Iranian leadership has encouraged the Pasdaran to go into business as a way to covertly supplement its funding. In this manner the organization gained an element of self financing — and the ability to kick back upstairs a portion of the profits. Its private business activity allowed the Pasdaran to create a covert slush fund for illicit operations and embargoed technology.
From 1997 on the role of the Pasdaran grew in all aspects of political affairs, domestic and foreign. This was extended to economic and strategic matters. Pasdaran commercial involvement expanded into active participation in both legitimate business and the burgeoning black market. This clandestine commerce increased exponentially after the international sanctions took hold.
The annual profit on these white, gray, and black market enterprises has been estimated at well over a billion dollars. Former Pasdaran ranking officers have taken up major political roles in the Iranian parliament and now form an impressive voting bloc.
Perhaps most important in business terms is the Pasdaran’s increasing role in Iran’s energy and transportation programs. One of their companies, Khatam-ol-Anbia, last year won a $1.3 billion contract to build a gas pipeline and an affiliate obtained the $1.2 billion construction contract for the metro line in Tehran. The head of Khatam -ol-Anbia is Brig.General Abdol-Reza Abed, the deputy commander of the Pasdaran.
In the broad military context the Pasdaran also has had the responsibility for the operations in Iraq and Lebanon of special operations forces known as the “Quds Force” or “al Quds.” In February, the defection of Brig. General Ali Rez Asgari, a Pasdaran hero who had risen to the position of Dep. Defense Minister, deeply embarrassed the Pasdaran leadership, to say nothing of the exposure of considerable covert information.
This defection was followed a month later by the unexplained disappearance in Iraq of a top al Quds operations officer, Col. Amir Mohammad Shirazi, and preceded in January by the arrest by U.S. forces in Irbil of five members of a self-proclaimed “diplomatic liaison office.” All of the latter have been characterized as al Quds operatives, and the American ambassador, Salmay Khalilzad, has dubbed one of them the director of al Quds operations in Iraq.
Such was the situation affecting Iranian operations in Iraq when the British personnel were captured. An Iranian diplomat who had been kidnapped by unknown elements in Iraq was conveniently released prior to the return of the Brits. Meanwhile the much expected exchange of the five al Quds officers so far has not been achieved. If this circumstance remains unchanged, the frustrated Pasdaran will certainly try again to obtain another bargaining chip. Organizationally they cannot afford the embarrassment of inaction.
For those who are looking towards reformist changes in Iran to alter the direction of that country, it would be well to recognize the spider web of military, political, and economic control now in the hands of the radical and avaricious Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution.