Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite unit at the heart of the latest Middle East crisis, has greater power today than at any point since the revolution's early days to export Islamic militancy and challenge the West's presence in the region, say U.S. officials and Iran experts.
Its naval forces abducted 15 British sailors and marines nine days ago. Its special forces unit is operating deep in Iraq, providing militias with deadly roadside explosives used against American troops, U.S. officials say. It supplied missiles used by Hezbollah last summer in the longest war Arabs ever fought with Israel. And it now plays the largest role in Iran's ambitious military industries, including attempted acquisition of nuclear weapons and surface-to-surface missiles, according to an upcoming book by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But almost three decades after the 1979 revolution, the Revolutionary Guard has also become a leading political and economic force in Iran. One of its veterans, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became Iran's president in 2005. The force and a network of current and former commanders have also moved into Iran's oil and gas business, won bids on major government construction contracts, and even gained lucrative franchises such as Mercedes-Benz dealerships, the sources say.
"The Revolutionary Guards are quickly emerging as the most prominent actor in Iran," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They're playing an increasingly active role on the domestic political scene, have enormous economic assets and interests, are a key player in the nuclear program, and are essentially running Iranian activities in Iraq and Lebanon."
Assets frozen, fighters detained
The Guard's high profile is one of the reasons that the assets of its top officials were frozen, because of ties to sensitive nuclear and missile programs, under two U.N. resolutions passed on March 24 and Dec. 23. Among the officials cited were the Guard's top commander, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, and deputy commander, Brig. Gen. Morteza Rezaie, as well as the heads of the Guard's ground forces, navy, Quds Force and Basij (Mobilization of the Oppressed) volunteers.
The widening presence of its Quds Force in Iraq is the reason U.S. troops launched two raids in December and January on Iran's operating bases, detaining seven men in Baghdad and Irbil. Five are still held, although Iranian officials expected them to be released on the Iranian new year, March 21.
Although neither Tehran nor London has linked the events, the 15 Britons were captured two days after Tehran expected the five in Iraq to be freed and the day before the U.N. vote freezing the assets of seven top Revolutionary Guard commanders.
In his first public comments on the matter, Ahmadinejad said yesterday that the Guard had demonstrated "skill and bravery" in detaining the Britons.
Ahmadinejad, who was a midlevel officer, mirrors the evolution of the Guard, formed to protect the revolutionaries and prevent a military coup. The Guard is separate from Iran's conventional military -- and less than one-third the size, according to Cordesman. Iran's regular army, navy and air force total more than 400,000 troops. The Guard numbers about 125,000. But its numbers belie its power.
The Guard gained stature during Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, when it fought some of the toughest battles, provided human minesweepers and took huge casualties. That generation has now come of leadership age, said Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, the author of "Warriors of Islam," a book about the Guard.
"They fought as young men, and now they're middle-aged. They have gone from the battlefield to mayoralties, governates and management of ministries," Katzman said. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf was a senior Guard commander.
The Guard is now a less effective conventional fighting force than it was during the Iran-Iraq war, Cordesman said. But it controls the deadliest arms, including adapted Scud missiles with ranges up to 1,200 miles, along with a chemical and biological weapons program and missile production. The Revolutionary Guard remains "the center of Iran's hard-line security forces," he said.
Secretive, international force
The most secretive Guard unit is the Quds Force, which conducts operations beyond Iran's borders using proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Cordesman says in the book. It has several directorates -- for Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Jordan; Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula; North Africa; and Europe and North America, Cordesman writes. It has operatives in many embassies abroad, he says, and runs Iran's training camps for unconventional warfare.
In January, Cordesman says, Iran's Supreme National Security Council gave the Quds Force control of Iran's operations in Iraq and expanded it from 5,000 to 15,000 troops. After its men were captured in Iraq, the force has lowered its visibility and changed its style of operations, U.S. officials say.
The Quds Force is led by Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and reports directly to the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many senior Revolutionary Guard officers have close family ties to top members of the clergy, according to a study of the Guard by Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Guard's ties and the widening corruption in Iran have increasingly led its commanders, companies and connections to bid on and win government contracts, including for recent oil and gas projects, for which they are not qualified, U.S. officials say. The result, they add, is that key projects are either poorly done or farmed out to other contractors, for a commission.