Iranian military organization created in 1979 to protect the Islamic revolution.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Islami, was formed in May 1979 as an ideologically committed force entrusted with protecting the political success of the Iranian Revolution from external and internal enemies. Initially, it comprised the several unofficial militias that had been organized spontaneously during the final weeks of the revolution in Tehran and other cities to protect demonstrators from the shah's security forces. These militias continued to grow after the revolution, taking on security functions and tracking down suspected counterrevolutionaries. Even though Iran's armed forces had declared political neutrality in February 1979, deep suspicions about military officers' loyalty to the revolution existed among the new revolutionary leaders. Consequently, the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan accepted the argument that the various militias should be organized into a centralized force, the Revolutionary Guards, that could counter a potential military coup.
The Revolutionary Guards assumed a primary role in suppressing the armed autonomy movements among ethnic Baluchis, Kurds, and Turkmen in 1979 to 1980, the antigovernment demonstrations in Tabriz in December 1979, and the armed uprising by the Mojahedin-e Khalq that began in June 1981. They also had a central role in prosecuting the Iran-Iraq War, which Iraq initiated in September 1980 by launching an invasion of western Iran. Throughout the eight-year war, the Revolutionary Guards remained a separate and rival military force to the army, but after Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became Iran's president in 1989, he implemented a policy of integrating the militaries as co-equal units of a National Defense Force with a unified command. In 2004 the Revolutionary Guards was a force of 120,000 men, the overwhelming majority of whom had elected to serve their compulsory 18-month military service in this branch of the armed forces.
The Revolutionary Guards has overall authority for the 40,000 volunteers of the paramilitary force known as the Sepah-e Basij, which was formed in November 1979. The impetus for organizing the Basij was a perceived need for a mobilized and armed population to confront a possible attack by the United States. At the time, there was widespread fear that the United States might attempt to overthrow the revolution and restore Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, as it had done in 1953. Any Iranian sixteen years and older could join the Basij and receive training in the use of small arms. Some women joined, and the Basij organized several women's units. The majority of volunteers, however, were young men from the lower urban classes or from rural backgrounds, and they constituted an important source of recruits—hundreds of thousands—during the war with Iraq. Since 1989, the Revolutionary Guards generally, and its Basij militia specifically, have seen their mission to be maintaining the ideological purity of the revolution. Given the lack of consensus among the political elite with respect to what policies are consistent or inconsistent with revolutionary ideals, these guardian organizations of the revolution risk becoming entangled partisans in the intense factional politics that have characterized Iran since the early 1990s.
Katzman, Kenneth. Warriors of Islam: Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.