The powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran has attracted significant attention from western policy makers, intellectuals and the media, especially over its growing influence in the Middle East post-2003. This scrutiny has intensified, in particular for the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, following the assassination of its commander, General Qasem Soleimani, in a targeted US drone strike in 2020, a year after the Trump administration designated the IRGC in its entirety as a terrorist organisation.
Decades of oversight of the IRGC and the “lack of foundational understanding of Iran since 1979” has cost the US and its allies dearly, argues Alma Keshavarz in her new book, The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps: Defining Iran’s Military Doctrine.
The author served on the US Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State. She sets out what can be described as a foreign policy review and recommendation for policy makers in Washington. The emphasis is on the prominence of hybrid warfare in shaping Tehran’s own foreign policy and the need for Western states to incorporate this understanding in their strategies when confronted with hybrid wars, a concept which Keshavarz acknowledges is not novel. This is particularly relevant given that key adversaries, such as Russia and China, have already adopted similar approaches.
While there isn’t one definitive definition, hybrid warfare, as the name suggests, integrates various modes of conflict and “involves prolonging conflict and mounting costs for the opposition side.” This strategic doctrine has been developed and employed by the IRGC since its early days, after its establishment following the Islamic Revolution and during the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a conventionally superior adversary against the nascent Islamic Republic that had purged its own regular armed forces, the Artesh. The author, however, shows a recurring tendency to assert that Iran “lost the war” or was “defeated” in the Iran-Iraq war, despite the prevailing view being that it ended in a stalemate.
Nevertheless, the consequences of this devastating war for the contemporary Middle East are still felt to this day. For the Islamic Republic, the conflict offered the opportunity to experiment with Shia militias and movements beyond its borders, and was “the earliest attempt by Iran to mimic the Lebanese Hezbollah model in Iraq.” Much like then and now, the alliance and patronage of non-state actors provide Iran with “deniability” when involved in covert conflicts with adversaries such as the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Before exploring the rise of the corps and its implications for Iran, the region and its connection to US interests, Keshavarz discusses existing literature on the concept of hybrid warfare and the IRGC. This was already familiar to me, having read some of the cited books and popular theories on asymmetric warfare, such as Fourth and Fifth Generation Warfare.
The evolution of the IRGC is marked by its initial domestic role of safeguarding revolutionary ideals, transforming over time into an entity attempting to export these to neighbouring countries. It has grown phenomenally, assuming the characteristics of a shadow government that operates beyond the jurisdiction of civilian leadership.
We read that Iran’s adoption of asymmetric strategies in the war with Iraq “set the stage for future hybridity” of the IRGC, and the state’s mishandling of civil-military relations further solidified this trend. Interestingly, no Iranian president has successfully reined-in the IRGC, as the corps answers directly to the Supreme Leader, despite Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leader, expressing opposition to its politicisation. Yet, over time, the corps has evolved into an immensely wealthy economic entity independent of US-imposed sanctions and its designation as a terrorist organisation, ironically strengthening it even further.
I found the section outlining the “Iranian Way of War” particularly intriguing, shaped significantly by US foreign policy in the region. There’s a sense that the IRGC is in a perpetual state of learning and adapting to lessons from experiences like the Iran-Iraq War and the Quds Force’s involvement in regional conflicts such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Relevant to this, one of the most crucial lessons for the IRGC has been its vulnerabilities in terms of cyber security; this recognition has led to cyber security being used as a tool for hybrid warfare.
Although this form of warfare has its limitations, Iran’s IRGC, the author contends, will remain a major player in the Middle East, maintaining “supremacy over military, intelligence and foreign affairs.” However, she also believes that the US-brokered Abraham Accords will become an increasingly potent deterrence against Iran’s hybrid warfare, although current events in Palestine suggest otherwise.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps… is an accessible read, and will be of interest to those looking to brush up on the history, nature and trajectory of the IRGC. It is equally valuable for individuals in policy circles seeking a comprehensive understanding of the role of the corps in shaping Iran’s positions in regional conflicts and safeguarding its sovereignty.