The birth of a new class

How Iran’s Revolutionary Guards became the country’s political and economic heavyweights.

Iran''s revolutionary guards
Founded after Iran’s revolution, the Revolutionary Guards are now 500,000-strong [EPA]

The Islamic Revolution in Iran was a novel experiment for the Middle East and the wider Islamic region.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision encompassed the notion of a political system derived from Plato’s Republic and tinged with Shia Islamic values and messianic expectations.

However, 30 years after the formation of that regime, what stands out is the rise of a new ruling class; a class that sees the symbiosis and integration of the clerical and Bazari classes, which come to power after the demise of the monarchy, with the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution – the IRGC or Revolutionary Guards – and their auxiliaries, the Basijs.

After the revolution, Khomeini and his clerical brethren were fearful that the armed forces might stage a coup, so they created an alternative paramilitary group, the Revolutionary Guards.

The Iranian experiment shows remarkable analogies with European experiences of totalitarian rule during the 20th century, where revolutionaries organised their own military forces to control the old power centres.

Hitler had the SS and the Gestapo, Lenin and Stalin had the Soviet Revolutionary Guards and the Commissars.

Khomeini and his supporters never thought they were creating a new class but that was the unintended consequence of purposeful political action.

Garrison state

While Khomeini, in his last will and testament, called on the military forces to follow the guideline of non-intervention in the affairs of state, in reality the opposite took place.

The theocratic state adopted, in time, the features of a garrison state. In fact, Ayatollah Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader, came to use his position as commander-in-chief of the armed forces to expand his power.

In time, Khamenei came to appoint many Revolutionary Guard commanders to top political positions, thus blurring the line between military and civilian authority.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, Ali Ardeshir Larijani, the secretary of the supreme council of national security, Ezzatolah Zarghami, the head of state television and radio services, Mohsen Rezai, the secretary of the expediency council, and Mohammad Forouzandeh, the head of the Mostazafan Foundation, are all former members of the IRGC who were appointed by Khamenei.

Since the turn of the millennium, the Revolutionary Guards have become the dominant group in not only defence policy, but in domestic political and economic affairs.

Its preeminent role has been coupled with the emergence of central security issues at the forefront of Iranian policy deliberations and planning, particularly Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Guards’ emergence was already apparent during the administration of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami.

Their political role expanded as networks of retired officers began to take on increasingly executive roles, which in turn enabled the Guards to emerge as a sort of Praetorian army seeking to displace and repress Khatami’s supporters from political power and ascendency.

Between 2003 and 2004, more Revolutionary Guards officers saw their way into local and national politics and the IRGC acquired all the trappings of a state within a state, accountable only to the supreme leader and increasingly dominating many facets of society.

Growing economic power

The Guards oversee many sectors of the Iranian economy [EPA] 

After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Guards began engaging in reconstruction and during the 1990s they developed a taste for commercial dealings, real estate speculation and the profits that came with them.

By the time Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, the Guards had come to oversee many sectors of the Iranian economy, including oil, construction, agriculture, mining, transport, the defence industry and import-export companies.

The Guards were also thought to control much of Iran’s business interests in Dubai, where some 9,000 Iranian businesses were registered and 400,000 Iranian nationals constituted a quarter of Dubai’s resident population.

American-led sanctions against Iran saw Tehran use its business investments in Dubai to bypass international economic sanctions and restraints.

It is unclear whether the rise of the Revolutionary Guards to the commanding heights of the political system is part of a master plan or simply a result of demographic factors as Revolutionary Guard veterans of the Iran-Iraq war come of age.

Even some of Iran’s reformers have Revolutionary Guard backgrounds.

Historically, however, the rise of the Guards as a vehicle of social mobility is not hard to explain. Even under the shah, Iranian society was characterised by relatively high degrees of social mobility and cooptation.

A combined armed force with its own ground force, air force, navy and intelligence branches, the IRGC has become a bureaucratic apparatus that is embedding within Iran’s economic system.

It is estimated that one-third of the Iranian economy is controlled by the IRGC and its leaders.

In fact, the US government has implemented a policy at the international level to boycott and/or limit the ability of the Guards’ enterprises to do business at the international level.


The recognition of the Revolutionary Guards has come to be the most sought after form of patronage in Iran for those seeking political or economic benefits – a patronage that is coming to match, if not displace, that of the clerics themselves.

The Guards have never shied away from blatantly protecting their economic gains – whether by controlling Iran’s new airport or by stopping a foreign-led consortia from competing in Iran’s business world.

Thus, in time, they have deepened their interests in the civilian economy while retaining their primary role as defenders of the revolution.

As defenders of the revolution, their expanding, active, and often clandestine involvement in other states in the region – in support of militias – saw their most preeminent role in the satellisation of Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the extent that the Lebanese group became a state within a state officered by Iranians.

The relationship between the Revolutionary Guards and the ayatollahs has become a symbiotic one. The protection of the regime was given to the Guards in exchange for status, prestige, and economic wellbeing that, in turn, was increasingly linked to neo-patrimonial bureaucratic structures based on kinship and marriage.

The Revolutionary Guard’s political assertiveness may very well be the harbinger of a historical configuration of power in the Islamic world that has always seen the military component be preeminent in decision making.

From the slave soldiers of the Caliphs to the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire and the control of Pakistan by its armed forces, the rise to power of the Guards is historically not a novel phenomenon in the region. 

Morris M. Mottale is a professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics at Franklin College, Switzerland.

Source: Al Jazeera