Who are Iran’s Revolutionary Guards - and are they a terrorist group?
US designates the elite militia a terror organisation, sparking fears of reprisals on US troops
The US has labelled Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation, further inflaming tensions between Tehran and Washington.
“This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognises the reality that Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft,” President Donald Trump said in a statement last night.
The designation, which comes into effect in a week, means that any IRGC assets in the US will be frozen, and Americans barred from doing business with the corps, which plays a large role in the Iranian economy.
“If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism,” Trump said.
The announcement marks “the first time the US has formally branded another country's military a terrorist group”, The Independent reports. The unprecedented moves follows pressure from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to turn the long-threatened reclassification into a reality.
Tehran swiftly made good on its threat to respond in kind, declaring the US government “supporters of terrorism” and US troops in the Middle East a terrorist force.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said Washington’s attack on the IRCG was a “major threat to regional and international stability and peace”.
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.
“Few Western commentators would disagree that the IRGC is responsible for all sorts of disruptive activities in the region and beyond,” says BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus.
But “the fear is that it could encourage the IRGC or its proxies to take action against US personnel”, a scenario which would heighten the possibility of war between the two countries, Marcus adds
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”.
“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,” says Al Jazeera.