The Week

Who are Iran's Revolutionary Guards?

The Week logo The Week 10/04/2019 4:40:00 Rebecca Gillie

a group of people standing in front of a crowd © Provided by Dennis Publishing Limited Iran has said it will take retaliatory measures if the US goes through with a threat to designate the country's Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation. 

President Donald Trump's administration is expected to formally reclassify Tehran's elite corps on the advice of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, "marking the first time it has formally labelled another country's military a terror group", says The Independent.

A statement approved by the majority of Iran's parliament has warned that any such declaration will be met with "reciprocal action".

Iranian lawmakers added that "the leaders of America, who themselves are the creators and supporters of terrorists in the region, will regret this inappropriate and idiotic action".

So what is the elite military corps - and why does Washington see it as a threat?

Who are the Revolutionary Guards?

Formally known as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Revolutionary Guards are an elite militia established during the Islamic Revolution of 1979 as a kind of praetorian guard for the Shia clerics who ousted the Shah to become Iran's ruling regime.

The Iranian Constitution enshrines the role of the IRGC as "protecting the Islamic regime from internal and external threats" - a broad brief that in practice "endow[s] it with an enormous range of legal, political and in effect also religious powers", reports German newspaper Deutsche Welle.

The corps currently consists of around 125,000 personnel, all male. The majority are ground troops, but the corps also has its own naval and aerospace divisions, as well as the Quds unit, a special forces division tasked with carrying out intelligence and unconventional warfare operations.

In addition, the Revolutionary Guards have control over the Basij, an auxiliary paramilitary force made up of part-time civilian volunteers.

How are they different from the army?

As well as the Revolutionary Guards, Iran also has a standard army, navy and air force, known collectively as the Artesh.

At around 470,000 personnel, the conventional armed forces have almost four times as many soldiers as the Revolutionary Guards - but only a fraction of the influence.

The Artesh was "ravaged, intimidated, and gutted to the core in a series of purges after the 1979 Revolution", says the Middle East Institute. Four decades on, this collection of forces "continues to be on the periphery" of power, adds the Washington DC-based think tank.

Conversely, the IRGC "controls large sectors of the Iranian economy and has huge influence in its political system", says The Independent.

The corps played a key role in rebuilding Iran after the country's gruelling eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, and retains a significant presence in the sector. "Some estimates put the IRGC's connections at over 100 companies controlling $12bn [£9.2bn] of construction and engineering contracts," says the American Iranian Council.

Even within Iran, the corps' political influence does not sit well with everyone. In May 2017, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani made a rare public criticism of the IRGC, accusing them of attempting to deliberately sabotage Iran's nuclear deal with the West by testing missiles emblazoned with anti-Israel slogans.

The comments "underscored the president's frustration about Iran's parallel, unelected bodies that act independently of his government", says The Guardian.

Are they a terrorist organisation?

Much of the suspicion surrounding the Revolutionary Guards stems from the activities of its special forces unit, the Quds.

Although comprising roughly only 10% of the IRGC's manpower, the Quds play an outsized role through their extensive operations in the wider Middle East region, often in support of destabilising non-state militias.

Designated a terror group by the US in 2007, the unit "is Iran's main link to its terrorist proxies, which the regime uses to boost Iran's global influence", says international policy organisation the Counter Extremism Project.

The unit has provided money, equipment and training to terror organisations including Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban, as part of Tehran's push to establish majority-Shia Iran's regional dominance in opposition to the majority-Sunni Gulf states.

The IRGC also plays a leading role in Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear programmes, another factor that has pushed Washington to view the wider corps as a terrorist actor."

The change of designation has been rumoured for years," but never put into action due to fears of the risk to US forces stationed in the Middle East, says Al Jazeera.

IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari warned in 2017 that his troops "will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world" - meaning fair game for attack.

"Such threats are particularly ominous for US forces in places such as Iraq, where Iran-aligned Shia militia are located in close proximity to US troops," the news site concludes. 

Inside the Iran enigma (Reuters)

10. huhtikuuta 2019 7:40:00 Categories: Money The Week

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