Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Will Never Stand Down

The biggest obstacle to regime change is a security force designed to protect the regime to the point of civil war.

By , an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards during a ceremony to mark the 27th anniversary of the Islamic revolution at the mausoleum of Iran's late founder of Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on Feb. 1, 2006.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards during a ceremony to mark the 27th anniversary of the Islamic revolution at the mausoleum of Iran's late founder of Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on Feb. 1, 2006.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards during a ceremony to mark the 27th anniversary of the Islamic revolution at the mausoleum of Iran's late founder of Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on Feb. 1, 2006.

Iran is undergoing an identity crisis. For almost a month, in streets and neighborhoods across the country, people have rebelled against the Islamic Republic, calling for the death of its supreme leader and an end to the theocratic regime’s 43 years of rule, after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Tehran’s morality police. The protests are mostly led by young women and teenage girls, who have abandoned their state-imposed religious headscarves in rejection of the very premise of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the theocracy it birthed.

The nature and scope of the protests have made many wonder whether this could be another revolution—one that could topple the Islamic Republic and replace it with a more liberal and representative democracy. The success or failure of the current movement in engendering change in Iran could depend on any number of factors, but the primary obstacle standing in the protesters’ way is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the 1979 revolution’s most potent offspring. In that earlier revolution, it was the Iranian military’s decision to declare neutrality and stand down that signaled the end of the Pahlavi dynasty, setting Iran on a new course. The IRGC, by contrast, was designed precisely to stand with the regime no matter what—even if that means standing against the people.

The IRGC is a powerful military force that serves as the bedrock of the Islamic Republic’s order. It oversees the regime’s security and is the most influential voice, apart from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the country’s strategic decision-making. That role has made it the primary mechanism for organizing repression within the country. In past episodes of political unrest, such as the 1999 student protests and the mass demonstrations that followed the 2009 presidential election, it was the IRGC and its volunteer militia, the Basij, that led the charge against protesters, using brute force, arrests, and torture to quell the tumult.

Iran is undergoing an identity crisis. For almost a month, in streets and neighborhoods across the country, people have rebelled against the Islamic Republic, calling for the death of its supreme leader and an end to the theocratic regime’s 43 years of rule, after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Tehran’s morality police. The protests are mostly led by young women and teenage girls, who have abandoned their state-imposed religious headscarves in rejection of the very premise of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the theocracy it birthed.

The nature and scope of the protests have made many wonder whether this could be another revolution—one that could topple the Islamic Republic and replace it with a more liberal and representative democracy. The success or failure of the current movement in engendering change in Iran could depend on any number of factors, but the primary obstacle standing in the protesters’ way is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the 1979 revolution’s most potent offspring. In that earlier revolution, it was the Iranian military’s decision to declare neutrality and stand down that signaled the end of the Pahlavi dynasty, setting Iran on a new course. The IRGC, by contrast, was designed precisely to stand with the regime no matter what—even if that means standing against the people.

The IRGC is a powerful military force that serves as the bedrock of the Islamic Republic’s order. It oversees the regime’s security and is the most influential voice, apart from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the country’s strategic decision-making. That role has made it the primary mechanism for organizing repression within the country. In past episodes of political unrest, such as the 1999 student protests and the mass demonstrations that followed the 2009 presidential election, it was the IRGC and its volunteer militia, the Basij, that led the charge against protesters, using brute force, arrests, and torture to quell the tumult.

The IRGC reprised that role in protests that stretched from late 2018 into 2020 but escalated its tactics in some places into a fully militarized response, using live fire and armored vehicles to kill protesters at a much higher scale than in previous crackdowns. In the southwestern city of Mahshahr alone, the IRGC killed an estimated 180 mostly young protesters across a four-day span in November 2019, with many of the victims fired on indiscriminately by troops armed with automatic rifles as they sought refuge in a nearby marsh. Similar operations took place throughout the country as the IRGC sought to prevent the widespread protest movement from metastasizing into outright rebellion.

The lethality of those tactics was deliberate and in direct response to the threat the protests posed to the regime. Unlike the demonstrations in 1999 and 2009, which advocated for reform, the protests that have occurred since 2018, including those ongoing, have been distinctly anti-regime. The slogans used and the actions taken by the protesters have signaled a complete rejection of the Islamic Revolution and all that it stands for. Through acts such as the removing of headscarves, crowds chanting “Death to the dictator,” and the torching of billboards bearing the image of Qassem Suleimani (the late IRGC field commander who led the regime’s support force to foreign terrorist groups), protestors have crafted their actions like arrows and fired them directly at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s identity.

This assault is indistinguishable from an attack on the IRGC, a security force that precisely identifies with the ideological character of the Islamic regime. The military of 1979 was above all a national one, more devoted to Iran as a sovereign country than to the crown. The Islamic Republic has cultivated a very different type of security architecture. At the top is the IRGC, which, as its name implies, was established to safeguard the Islamic Revolution, not Iran. To the IRGC, the revolution is equated with Iran’s system of theocracy, with the supreme leader as its pinnacle achievement. Beyond that, it entails the lattice work of foreign militant groups that have aligned themselves with the supreme leader, the so-called “resistance front,” which stretches Iran’s political influence across the Middle East. Although the IRGC has at times attempted to paint its foreign exploits with the veneer of patriotism, the organization does not involve itself in regional conflicts for the sake of Iran’s national interests but rather to expand the Islamic Revolution and export its particular brand of political ideology.

The IRGC’s loyalties are neither to Iran nor bound by geography. The political entity that they serve is transnational and, more than anything, defined by the place of the supreme leader. For that reason, the IRGC views the current protests and those that preceded them in recent years, which have expressed distinctly anti-theocratic demands, as far more dangerous than earlier periods of unrest. By challenging the Islamic system, protesters challenge the IRGC’s very raison d’être. The IRGC cannot exist under a form of government that is no longer defined by the Islamic Revolution. If the current order is overturned, the IRGC will have no place in whatever comes next. Further, as with Iran’s other armed forces, the IRGC’s top commanders are all hand-picked by the supreme leader on the basis of loyalty to him. They, along with the other top military and police commanders, owe their place in society and all that they have gained from the regime’s rampant corruption to the supreme leader. Should he fall, they will all be brought down with him.

The organization is thus not likely to stand aside or give in to the protesters. The IRGC’s loyalty is to the Islamic Republic, and it will oppose all opponents of that system, no matter the cost inflicted on the Iranian people. Should it be deemed necessary, and should the supreme leader demand it, the IRGC will not hesitate to order its troops to use as much violence as necessary to eliminate the threat posed by the demonstrations. Severe military counterprotest operations are already occurring in parts of Iran, most notably in Sanandaj, Amini’s hometown, and they are likely to increase the longer protests continue.

Despite such willingness and resolve, the current protests nonetheless present a unique challenge to the regime. Although they have united both men and women from across the country and from all walks of life in opposition to the prevailing order, they are fueled by young women whose most revolutionary act has been simply uncovering their hair. Iran’s security forces have already beat and killed scores of female protesters in an effort to coerce people back into their homes, but it has not worked. The level of violence necessary to discourage this wave of fearless youth is likely to be greater than the regime currently wants to risk.

The gamble for the regime is primarily twofold, with both domestic and international concerns. On the international front, Iran’s leaders must worry about the optics and potential consequences of crushing a popular movement striving for gender equality. But the bigger worry is exacerbating the crisis at home. The more people killed by regime forces, the more hardened anti-regime sentiments are likely to grow, and the more radicalized the younger generation is likely to become. The more violence low-ranking troops are asked to commit against their fellow citizens, the more likely the resolve of those troops is to waver. Even though the top brass of Iran’s security forces has benefited handsomely from the current system, rank-and-file troops have not. Their risk calculus is entirely different from their commanders, and their loyalties to the system are more vulnerable and more likely to be tested the more they are asked to murder and maim in the name of the supreme leader.

The Islamic Republic has had no compunction about killing its own people, as its long track record of oppression attests. But when the enemy is your daughter or niece or sister or cousin, the reality of the situation cannot be escaped. In order to win, the regime must go to war against young women and teenage girls. That’s not a war it can win. And it probably knows it.

Afshon Ostovar is an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Twitter: @AOstovar

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