Recent events in the Middle East have put the spotlight on Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Guard naval units seized 15 British service personnel in the waters of the Persian Gulf last month, and Revolutionary Guard agents have been accused of aiding insurgents and terrorist groups in Iraq and Lebanon. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas gives us a look at the Revolutionary Guard and its role inside and outside Iran.
According to Western analysts, the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) runs businesses, maintains its own ground and sea forces separate from the regular army and navy, mounts foreign and domestic intelligence operations, and has become a major player on Iran's political landscape.
The Revolutionary Guard was born in the tumult surrounding the Islamic Revolution 28 years ago. Mohsen Sazegara, who accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini on his return to Iran in 1979, said the new revolutionary government did not entirely trust the regular armed forces, and also feared attack from the United States. So, Sazegara says, he was given the task of forming a kind of people's militia to protect the revolution.
"I remember, in those days, I studied the model of the National Guard of the United States, the Swiss Army, the peoples' army of Switzerland, and the army of Israel and the Viet Cong in Vietnam - the models of how we can mobilize the ordinary people to defend the country - in any case, to help the regular army of the country," he said.
After Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980, poorly armed, but fiercely zealous Revolutionary Guard units threw themselves in the front lines of attack. In the years following, the Revolutionary Guard grew into a highly disciplined and deeply ideological military force. Many analysts estimate the guards number about 125,000 in air, land, sea and intelligence units.
Mohsen Sazegara left Iran in 2003, after being imprisoned for dissident views. He now lectures at Harvard University. He says the Revolutionary Guard's power has grown enormously, and it now dabbles in politics and gets lucrative business contracts from the government.
"Now, the Revolutionary Guard has been converted into a kind of organization, a kind of government inside the government of Iran,” he noted. “They are like the KGB, because they have a secret service, as well. They are like the Red Army, they are like the Communist Party, and they are like a complex of companies, as well."
The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a Guard veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. Some analysts attribute his 2005 election to active intercession by the Basiij, the nearly one-million-person strong domestic volunteer militia under Guard control. It is known for enforcing ideological purity. One analyst likens the Basiij to the Red Guard in the days of Mao Zedong's China.
But Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Ahmadinejad's past ties with the Guard do not necessarily mean he controls it.
"The Revolutionary Guards are increasingly a very powerful force in Iran,” he explained. “They have tremendous economic interests and assets. They are very active on the political scene, and they are essentially running Iranian activities in Lebanon and Iraq. But Revolutionary Guards are under the constitutional authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei."
The Guard's foreign operations arm is known as the Quds force. U.S. Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, says Quds force agents provide training and arms, including deadly roadside bombs, to Iraqi insurgents to attack U.S. forces.
"I would say, though, it is clear that they continue to interfere, the Quds Force continues to attempt to interfere in Iraqi, in operations inside of Iraq,” he said. “We continue to intercept weapons. We know there's money that's flowing in from Iran to certain insurgent groups in Iraq, and we will continue to work through this."
In January, U.S. forces detained five Iranians in northern Iraq. The U.S. says they are Quds force operatives; Iran says they are diplomats. Many analysts believe the U.S. detention of the Iranians was at least one cause of the Iranian seizure of the British sailors.