Conflict and Fragility


The Sepah: Guardian of its self-interests since 1979

29 Jan 2024 - 11:19
Source: ©Reuters - Iranian revolutionary guard corps pray during Friday prayers in Tehran, 2005

By Ali Alfoneh

Editor's introduction

In September 2022, the death of Mahsa Amini marked a major turning point for Iran. Her death sparked nationwide protests that rapidly evolved from calls to discard controversial hijab regulations to calls for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian government responded with repression, killing over 400 protesters in the course of late 2022 and early 2023, according to human rights groups. 

The Clingendael blog series Iran in transition explores power dynamics in four critical dimensions that have shaped the country’s direction since: state-society relations, intra-elite dynamics, the economy, and foreign relations. This blog post analyzes the evolution of the ‘Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution’ – better known in the West as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – in the context of Iran’s political settlement.

An army with a state

“Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state,” Voltaire famously said of Prussia by the end of Frederick William I’s reign. The French philosopher’s dictum is also largely true for the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, colloquially referred to in Iran as the “Sepah”. Under the guise of fulfilling its constitutional mission, but in pursuit of its corporate self-interests, the 250,000-man-large Sepah and its veterans increasingly prey on the polity they are mandated to guard. They do so by shaping, rather than just enacting, the Islamic Republic’s foreign and security policies, by self-servingly intervening in Iran’s economy and even by shaping leadership succession after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But how did the Sepah morph into a predatory military, and why did the Islamic Republic’s political leadership not curtail such behavior? The Persian proverb “khodkardeh ra tadbir nist” provides the explanation: “The leaders of the Islamic Republic have only themselves to blame, and now must lie in the bed they have made”.

According to official historiography of the Islamic Republic, the Sepah was established on April 22, 1979 by the decree of Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, Iran’s then head of state and leader of the revolution. In reality, however, the Sepah was not established by anyone, but emerged organically around the time of the Imperial Army’s declaration of “neutrality” regarding the revolution on February 12, 1979. During the revolution, the opposition to the Pahlavi regime, which at the time roughly consisted of Marxists, Islamist Khomeini-loyalists, and opportunistic elements, stormed police and army garrisons, equipping itself in the process to fill the power vacuum in Iran. The Islamist Khomeini-loyalists were organized in four distinct groups that ultimately merged into what became known as the Sepah. They were endorsed by Khomeini on April 22, 1979.

Rafsanjani keeps the Sepah in check, for a time

Khomeini’s endorsement of the Sepah is understandable: Khomeini distrusted the Imperial Army, and despite its declaration of neutrality and the revolutionary leadership’s ruthless purge of the army leadership, Khomeini feared a United States-backed military coup, similar to the British-American orchestrated one of 1953. Moreover, Khomeini correctly perceived his revolutionary allies, such as Marxist guerillas and the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization, as future rivals. The Sepah would not only counterbalance the remnants of the Imperial Army, but also help Khomeini consolidate power and suppress his competitors. Once these objective were achieved, the next challenge for Khomeini and his clerical allies was to make the Sepah strong enough to protect the regime against domestic rivals, but not so strong as to be able to dominate the regime. From the very beginning, this task proved to be difficult.

The newly formed Sepah immediately drafted its own Statute, defining itself as an army tasked with defending the regime against external enemies, a police force to protect the revolutionary leadership from domestic rivals, an intelligence organization and a supporter of “justice seeking movements of the oppressed” elsewhere. The Sepah leadership also lobbied the Assembly of Experts – an elected body tasked with electing the Supreme Leader - which was preparing a draft constitution at the time, to anchor its mandate in the constitution of the new Islamic Republic. This lobbying effort resulted in Article 150 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic: “The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Republic… is to be maintained so that it may continue in its role of guarding the revolution and its achievements.” In other words, the Sepah was no longer a temporary phenomenon, and, for all practical purposes, granted a blank check to intervene in politics to safeguard the ideological nature of the regime. Furthermore, Article 147 of the Constitution stipulates that in times of peace, the Army and the Sepah’s personnel and technical equipment must be utilized by the government for the development of the country. In other words, it opened the door for the Sepah’s involvement in the Iranian economy. The Constitution, adopted by referendum on October 24, 1979, and the Statute of the Guard, which parliament approved on September 6, 1982, have since been the legal basis for the Sepah’s interventions in politics, economy, and elements of the Islamic Republic’s foreign and security policies.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ©Reuters

Despite these vast powers granted to the Sepah, Khomeini reigned supreme due to his charismatic leadership. When Khomeini suffered a heart attack on January 23, 1980, four men formed a secret Cabinet to rule while he was incapacitated. It was comprised of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of parliament, Khamenei, who at the time served as Tehran’s Friday prayer leader but was subsequently elected president, Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardebili, an influential clerical figure, who came to run the judiciary soon after, and Khomeini’s son Ahmad. Once the heads of the three branches of government agreed on a decision, Ahmad Khomeini used his father’s signet ring to stamp the documents.

The powerful quartet effectively ruled Iran, even after Khomeini was released from the hospital in March 1980 and until his passing in 1989. It constituted one of two foundational pillars of the Islamic Republic. The other one was the Sepah, which protected the rulers against internal and external enemies, of which there were many: In cooperation with the Air Force, the Sepah suppressed separatist groups in Iran’s periphery, hunted down and defeated the armed opposition to the regime, and mobilized the nation during the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980, along with the Army. Beyond Iran’s borders, the Sepah revived Imperial Iran’s tradition of cultivating proxies, primarily Iraqi Kurds, whose insurgency against the government in Baghdad aligned with Iran’s interests, but also militant Shia groups in Lebanon, the Persian Gulf region and beyond.

As internal and external threats continued to threaten regime survival throughout the 1980s, the quartet became more dependent on the Sepah, and struggled to assert control over it. While Rafsanjani and Khamenei sought – and to some extent managed - to curtail the powers of the Sepah prior to the passing of its Statute in 1982 via a young parliamentarian named Hassan Rouhani, a parliamentary majority nevertheless voted to give the Sepah near-unrestricted powers to protect the Islamic Republic against the combined threats of separatism, the Mojahedin-e Khalq and Iraqi forces. The ranks of the Sepah had grown from 20,000 to 30,000 members in 1981 to a quarter of a million members by 1988, and with it the organization’s political influence. Beyond Iran’s borders, Lebanese Hezbollah emerged as the most successful Sepah proxy. These developments tilted the domestic balance of power towards the Sepah. Tellingly, in his memoirs, Rafsanjani constantly laments how the Sepah conditioned military offensives during the Iran-Iraq war on concessions from the political leadership concerning funding and materiel, and how Sepah leaders managed to marginalize clerical political commissars meant to act as Khomeini’s eyes and ears among its ranks.

Nevertheless, the quartet managed to keep the Sepah out of the leadership succession after Khomeini, in no small part due to Rafsanjani’s political astuteness. In 1989, Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Ardabili, and Ahmad Khomeini lobbied for a constitutional amendment to replace the position of supreme leader with a leadership council on which they would serve. The idea of collective leadership, however, was dismissed by the Assembly of Experts tasked with amending the constitution, and Rafsanjani then opted for Plan B, namely to elevate Khamenei as leader of the revolution despite his lack of the constitutionally required religious qualifications. Rafsanjani also managed to pass constitutional amendments to strengthen the presidency, which he subsequently assumed. Rafsanjani may have found Khamenei malleable and the Sepah manageable at the time, but ultimately it was Khamenei that outsmarted Rafsanjani (and every president who has followed since) by partnering with the Sepah.

The Sepah’s rise after Rafsanjani 

Throughout his two consecutive terms in office (1989-1997), Rafsanjani and his technocratic allies tried hard to transform revolutionary Iran into a normal state. Inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in post-Mao China, Rafsanjani believed in economic development minus democratization, and sought ways to keep the Sepah onboard of his economic reform agenda. First, Rafsanjani and his technocratic allies proposed to merge the Sepah with Iran’s regular military. Khamenei, who had agreed with Rafsanjani on the merger before becoming Supreme Leader, vetoed the idea. Most likely, Khamenei feared that Rafsanjani would remove him from power one day just as he had helped him seize power, and wanted to maintain the Sepah as an alternative support base.

Having failed to defang the Sepah by merging it with the regular military, Rafsanjani bribed the Sepah to stay out of politics: All major post Iran-Iraq war infrastructure reconstruction projects were awarded to the Sepah Corps of Engineers - later renamed Khatam al-Anbia Construction Base. In this, he was encouraged by Khamenei. The maneuver gained Khamenei a support base in the Sepah and helped Rafsanjani keep the Sepah out of politics throughout his presidency. However, the Sepah’s newfound economic independence further weakened civilian control and motivated greater Sepah intervention in politics in the longer-term to protect its economic interests. 

President Mohammad Khatami’s two consecutive terms in office (1997-2005) enabled the Sepah to intervene directly in the domestic politics of the Islamic Republic. Khatami was not Khamenei’s choice for president, but his personal charm, sophisticated vocabulary, and promise of political freedom resonated with Iran’s well-educated, urban middle class eager to leave revolution, war, and Rafsanjani’s authoritarianism behind. 

Khamenei feared Khatami was Iran’s equivalent of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: a regime loyalist whose well-intended promises of political liberalization would only accelerate public demands for reforms and potentially lead to regime collapse. Khamenei’s fears materialized with the 1999 student uprisings in Iran and protests against censorship of the media. Khatami proved reluctant to suppress the students that had elected him into office upon which Sepah commanders published an open letter threatening to take affairs into their own hands. Ultimately, the Law Enforcement Forces (Nirou-ye Entezami) suppressed the protesters, but from then on Khamenei encouraged the Sepah and its allies, such as its vigilante group Ansar-e Hezbollah, to sabotage Khatami’s work in government and beat up the president’s supporters in the streets. 

The Sepah also showed remarkable pragmatism at the time. Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Islamic Republic not only condemned them, but the Sepah also provided the United States with critical intelligence to fight the Taliban. Khamenei and the Sepah only ended their sub rosa tactical alignment with the United States after President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Khamenei and the Sepah chose to turn the threat of encirclement by the U.S. military into an opportunity by arming insurgents to impose significant casualties on the US. This, they believed could deter a potential U.S. invasion of Iran, which, like Iraq, was accused by Washington of harboring nuclear weapons ambitions.

Turbulence: The Sepah from Ahmadinejad to Raisi

From 2005 onwards, populist politician Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Sepah’s extraterritorial operations Quds Force Chief, Major General Qassim Suleimani, became the political and military faces of Iran’s opposition to the United States. With Khamenei’s blessing and Sepah support, Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani and spent his eight years in office haranguing the United States, engaging in anti-Israeli - and sometimes rank antisemitic vitriol – while expanding Iran’s domestic uranium enrichment capabilities. Soleimani and the Sepah, in turn, built Iran’s Iraqi Shia network against the U.S. military in Iraq.

At first, Khamenei was perfectly happy with Rafsanjani’s humiliation and Ahmadinejad’s anti-U.S. posture. He did not mind Iran’s growing diplomatic isolation over the nuclear issue and resulting sanctions. Ahmadinejad’s victory in the disputed 2009 elections, however, imposed a political cost on Khamenei. In a precursor to the Arab Spring uprisings, millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest what they saw as electoral fraud. When the Law Enforcement Forces proved ineffective in containing the Green Movement protests, and at times even joined the demonstrators, the Sepah came to Khamenei’s aid. The Sepah’s support to Khamenei was not free, however: in return Ahmadinejad transferred ownership of a number of state-owned companies to the Sepah, which further cemented its clout over Iran’s economy. 

military drill
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ground forces take part in a military drill, in the Aras area, in northwestern Iran, October 17, 2022 ©Reuters

Somewhat burned by the chaotic Ahmadinejad era, Khamenei reached out to Rafsanjani’s protégé Rouhani to restore balance in 2013. Rouhani obliged in the expectation that Khamenei’s advanced age would allow him and Rafsanjani to influence the post-Khamenei era. Yet, this proved to be wishful thinking. Rafsanjani’s suspiciously drowned in a swimming pool in 2017. Rouhani’s hopes were frustrated on other fronts as well, primarily concerning the Iran nuclear deal. 

On the campaign trail, Rouhani asserted Iran is a part of “the global village,” and declared his intention to “make a deal with the village head,” referencing the United States, to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Rouhani even managed to persuade the Sepah to accept nuclear concessions in return for sanctions relief, which could secure Foreign Direct Investment and even enable joint ventures between foreign companies and Sepah-owned companies. Rouhani indeed delivered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal in 2015, but it proved short-lived when President Donald J. Trump withdrew from it in 2018 and reimposed sanctions against Iran, designating the Sepah as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Tired of independent-minded men like Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad, and Rouhani, Khamenei has increasingly surrounded himself with cronies and yes-men since and relies on the Sepah for protection against the masses. One such yes-men is Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s current president, who would arguably not have won the 2021 presidential election without Khamenei disqualifying serious contenders and the Sepah providing street-level support. Raisi too had to turn to the Sepah to repress anti-regime demonstrations after the killing of Mahsa Amini in September 2022.

The Sepah’s role in Iran’s transition 

Khomeini and Khamenei’s empowerment of the Sepah over the past few decades represents a mixed record. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Iran was neither invaded nor bombed into submission by the United States. In this sense, the Sepah has provided effective deterrence to foreign adversaries. From a regime perspective, the Islamic Republic has also fared better than Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen, all of which imploded under the weight of popular protests. Thanks to the Sepah’s effective machinery of suppression, Iran was not only spared a civil war such as the one in Syria, but, by deploying Iranian and allied forces, secured the survival of the Syrian regime. Just as important, at least in part thanks to the Sepah’s circumvention of sanctions, the Islamic Republic also survived the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure campaign’ – effectively a regime change policy - and managed to become a nuclear threshold state.

The Islamic Republic’s survival and Sepah successes must, however, also be weighed against the price that the prominence of this organization imposed on Iran. Iranians suffer from a lack of personal and political freedoms, deepening poverty due to economic mismanagement, corruption and sanctions. In addition to the economically and diplomatically debilitating isolation it has had to endure, the regime also suffers from a lack of political legitimacy due to decreasing electoral participation and weakened performance legitimacy. Khamenei’s overreliance on support from the Sepah also ended Iran’s theocratic experiment: With the combination of weak political institutions and frequent countrywide anti-regime protests ignited by minor incidents, the Sepah today not only protects what remains of the revolutionary regime but also rules Iran. The country may remain an Islamic Republic in name after Khamenei, but for all practical purposes it is fast chanting into the military dictatorship of the Sepah. 

This is the first out of two blog posts in 2024 about Iran’s Sepah. A forthcoming article will provide a more detailed analysis of its political and economic power in today’s Iran.

Read all blogs in this series