MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: Irans Revolutionary Guard and the Rising Cult of Mahdism: Missiles &Militias for the Apocalypse
May 3, 2022Saeid Golkar MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE WASHINGTON
SummaryAs the U.S. administration considers whether to remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, understanding its nature, development, and ideology is essential to making an informed decision. There is much about it that differentiates it from a conventional armed force. One fundamental aspect of its ideology that until now has been overlooked is the doctrine of Mahdism
- As the U.S. administration seriously considers whether to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), understanding its nature, development, and ideology could not be more important to making an informed decision. There is much about it that differentiates it from a conventional armed force.
- Indoctrination has become an increasing focal point in the Guard. Khamenei and his hardline circle have sought to nurture a more radical IRGC generation by dedicating more time to ideological indoctrination of its members.
- Mahdism has been given increasing priority within the IRGC’s ideology, as a main prism through which the IRGC and affiliated hardline clerics understand the world around them and the IRGC’s actions.
- There has also been a greater emphasis on viewing the IRGC as the military vehicle to prepare the foundations for the reappearance of the 12th Imam, with policy objectives such as hostility toward the U.S. and the eradication of Israel being understood through this prism.
- The IRGC’s younger generations are becoming more radical and extreme, in line with efforts by Khamenei and the Guard’s Ideological-Political Organization to nurture greater radicalism.
As negotiations between world powers and the Islamic Republic of Iran continue over the revival of the 2015 nuclear agreement, the last barrier to a deal is Tehran’s demand for the U.S. to remove its IRGC from the FTO list. Naturally, this demand has triggered a heated debate in Washington between proponents and opponents. Proponents of such a move — including Khamal Kharrazi, former Iranian foreign minister — claim the IRGC does not belong on the FTO list as it is a “national army” that is no different from “Saudi Arabia’s National Guard.” By contrast, opponents argue that removing the IRGC from the FTO list would “legitimize” an entity that has the characteristics of a terrorist organization and engages in “widespread acts of terrorism.”
As the U.S. administration seriously considers whether to remove the IRGC as an FTO, understanding its nature, development, and ideology could not be more important to making an informed decision. Much is to be understood about the IRGC’s system of beliefs to differentiate it from a conventional armed force. However, one fundamental aspect of its ideology that until now has been overlooked is the doctrine of Mahdism. There are signs today that the preparations for the return of the 12th divinely ordained Shi’a imam are becoming of pivotal importance to the IRGC’s lens on the world. The rise of a militaristic Mahdist cult among the senior ranks of the IRGC is now not inconceivable and the repercussions far-reaching.
The Development of the IRGC: From Militia to Parallel State
The development of the IRGC is fundamental to understanding its DNA. It began as an umbrella of Islamist militias that acted as the clergy’s bodyguards and helped them consolidate power in post-revolutionary Iran. Since its inception the IRGC has also been the main organ for advancing the clergy’s objective of exporting the Islamic Revolution abroad. This is confirmed by Iran’s 1979 constitution, which establishes the IRGC as an “ideological army” and mandates it with “an ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is extending sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.” Unlike the regular Iranian army (the Artesh), whose primary objective is to protect Iran’s borders, the IRGC’s principal mission is to protect the Shi’a clergy and advance the Islamic Revolution at home and abroad.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) resulted in the IRGC expanding its remit and professionalizing as a military organization, moving toward becoming an institutionalized militia. In 1985 it expanded into three main branches: a ground force, an air force, and a navy. The end of the eight-year conflict with Saddam Hussain in 1988 and the death of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 would accelerate the IRGC’s growth. Upon assuming the mantle of supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added a new extraterritorial branch, the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, to double down on exporting the Islamic Revolution and promoted the volunteer civil militia, the Basij, as a separate branch under the IRGC’s purview.
The early 1990s would propel the IRGC into economic activities. Its newly established Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, an engineering and building conglomerate, would lead Iran’s post-war reconstruction efforts and over time carve out an economic empire. In parallel, the IRGC also became involved in the provision of social services for its own members after it became closely affiliated with several ideological-charitable organizations (bonyads). Later on, these bonyads would become deeply entrenched in the Iranian economy, from the stock market to the oil and gas industry. The late 1990s and early 2000s gave rise to the IRGC’s involvement in politics and “elected” roles in the regime. It served as the hardline clergy’s vanguard against the liberalization of Iranian society and the so-called reformist President Mohammad Khatami, with the IRGC even threatening to remove Khatami from power over his soft response to anti-regime student protests. An election boycott by many Iranians in response to the failure of “reformists” to support the people’s aspirations would see a surge in IRGC members being elected across city councils in 2003 and the Iranian parliament in 2004. The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 — a Basij member — as president further entrenched the Guard across the Iranian government, including in ministerial positions.
The anti-regime Green Movement unrest, which emerged after Iran’s fraudulent elections in 2009, would see the IRGC further expand its remit in the intelligence field. In October 2009, upon Khamenei’s orders, its Intelligence Directorate was upgraded to the Intelligence Organization of the IRGC, directly challenging the authority of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The election of so-called “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013 would not impede the IRGC’s rising trajectory. This period would see it streamline its focus on monopolizing culture in the Islamic Republic, investing heavily in social and cultural programs, especially in rural areas. The IRGC’s increasing representation within the clerical regime (IRGC-ization) also resulted in a significant influx of Guard members seizing seats in the February 2021 parliamentary elections, which were boycotted en mass by the Iranian people. Today, the IRGC is the foundation of the Raisi administration, with its members occupying key ministerial roles and many of the 874 political appointee positions.
All of these developments have contributed to the IRGC’s growing prominence within the Islamic Republic over the past four decades. What began as an armed Islamist militia in 1979 with fewer than 500 members transformed itself into a state within a state with its own economic, political, intelligence, and cultural arms. Tracking the development of the IRGC reveals that it is anything but a conventional state armed force and any discussion about it should start by acknowledging this.