A starboard quarter view of the Iranian Navy's second Russian-built Kilo class diesel-powered attack submarine en route to Iran (Photo by United States Federal Government, available at Wikimedia Commons)

March 01, 2009

Security Structures of Iran

Iran’s military and security services are composed of a number of distinct organizations that report independently to the leadership and function in competition with each other. External military and security operations, including efforts to export the Islamic Revolution, are divided among the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Qods Force (nominally a wing of the IRGC but in fact independent of it), the conventional armed forces (the artesh), and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Internal security is handled by the Law Enforcement Forces (under the Interior Ministry), the IRGC, and the Basij, a group that is like a combination of a military reserve, Boy Scouts, and the Komsomol or Hitler Youth. Clerical representatives of the Supreme Leader (including Friday Prayer Leaders in large and small towns) also play a role in the internal security function, reporting separately from any other group to the Supreme Leader’s office and working through the local basijis to maintain Islamic law and, in many villages, public order. The overlapping functions and authorities of these separate groups stem from historical developments, but were always purposeful. Just as the Soviet Union maintained a balanced but tense relationship among the Red Army, the KGB, and the Interior Ministry, so the Islamic Republic’s leaders labor to ensure that no one armed or police group can dominate internal security or threaten the regime.    

Iran’s security forces developed organically in the course of the revolution, and even more during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged the growth of multiple competing military organizations during the revolution. In particular, he ordered the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in May 1979 primarily for the purpose of securing the revolution from internal challenges, but also with the aim of exporting the revolution beyond Iran’s borders.

The IRGC played an important role in cementing Khomeini’s hold on power, but it was not immediately apparent what its post-revolutionary role would be, particularly following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in September 1980. Pragmatists among the early post-revolutionary leadership argued for the restoration of the preeminence of the traditional armed forces (theartesh) because of their military proficiency in the face of the existential military threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s invasion. Radicals argued that the revolutionary zeal of the IRGC (by which they often meant its loyalty to the regime) was as important as the professionalism of the traditional military. Khomeini compromised. He sent clerical representatives to the regular armed forces fighting the Iraqis, and he also supported the continued existence of a separate revolutionary armed force in the IRGC.

The IRGC fought the Iran-Iraq War, in its narrative, like a step-child: priority for the best arms, equipment, and supplies went to the regular armed forces, and the IRGC had to beg for tanks and modern weapons of any variety. But the IRGC played a key role in the war by commanding and supervising the hordes of young men recruited into the mobilization forces (basij), formed in November 1979 to protect the revolution from internal threats, but used most infamously in human-wave attacks against Iraqi armored forces. By the end of the war, the IRGC had persuaded the government to provide more modern equipment, but it had demonstrated above all that it would be a permanent fixture alongside of the regular military.

The end of the war coincided closely with Khomeini’s death, however, and the new regime of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rafsanjani sought to rationalize Iran’s governing structures and military forces. It appears that Rafsanjani sought, among other things, to centralize more power in the presidency. The IRGC had already ceded much of its internal intelligence-gathering role (at least formally) to the Ministry for Intelligence and Security (MOIS), formed in August 1984. In 1989, the parliament approved a measure merging the IRGC and the regular armed forces under a single ministry and headquarters. The basij, MOIS, and LEF continued to exist independent of this ministry. The balance changed slightly under reformist president Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005), who appointed a much more moderate MOIS minister, removing that agency to some degree from internal intelligence gathering and active export of the revolution. The IRGC stepped back in to fill both gaps. The most dramatic change in the power balance occurred in September 2007 under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-present), when the basij was formally subordinated to the IRGC.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the subsequent civil conflict led the Iranian leadership to assist the formation of Lebanese Hezbollah to fight directly against Israel, one of the regime’s arch enemies. More than one thousand IRGC personnel went to Lebanon in support of this task, and they were known as the “Qods” or Jerusalem Force. The Qods Force was and remains formally a subordinate body within the IRGC. It has become apparent, however, that its current commander, Brigadier General Qassim Soleimani, reports directly to the Supreme Leader, bypassing his nominal IRGC superiors. It is not clear when the Qods Force achieved this degree of independence, or whether it flows from Soleimani’s personal power base and relationship with the Supreme Leader or from a principled policy decision. The Qods Force and the IRGC have remained heavily intertwined with Lebanese Hezbollah since its foundation, moreover—Lebanese Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniya (assassinated in 2008), is reliably reported to have held rank in the IRGC, along with other members of Lebanese Hezbollah, suggesting a limited blending of the leadership of the two organizations.

Today, therefore, five security organs report either directly or by separate paths to the Supreme Leader: the IRGC, the Qods Force, the Law Enforcement Forces, the MOIS, and the regular military forces. The basij reports to the IRGC commander, and the IRGC and the Qods Force maintain close personnel links with Lebanese Hezbollah. These forces number in the hundreds of thousands (or millions, depending on how one counts the basij), and are deployed throughout Iran and the region. In the most sensitive areas of the country (major cities, regions of high criminality or potential separatist tendencies), multiple security services are deployed in an overlapping fashion—LEF, IRGC, basij, and MOIS all maintain positions in Tehran and other key cities. Volatile rural regions often see a mix of IRGC, basij, and regular military forces. Qassim Soleimani appears to have gained control of supporting Iran’s proxies throughout the Middle East for the Qods Force, but the IRGC and the MOIS reportedly maintain their own posts in Iranian embassies and their own bases in Syria and Lebanon. This security architecture is designed to ensure that no force can pose a threat to the regime and that no one can take unilateral control of the task of exporting the revolution. So far, it has succeeded in both objectives.

Debates within all of Iran’s assemblies have been vigorous. Many of Iran’s recent elections have been strongly contested by rival candidates. Successive Iranian presidents have made more or less dramatic changes in the country’s internal economic structures and functioning and even in its tone toward the outside world. The Supreme Leader’s preeminence does not mean that the president and parliament can be ignored. The entire system is designed to ensure its own stability first and foremost, to allow the Supreme Leader to remain above the political fray at least in appearances and to deflect popular dissatisfaction from himself to the formal political structure, and, perhaps, to confuse outsiders about the nature of Iranian decision-making. It has certainly achieved the last objective.


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[1] Data from Statement of Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Congressional Research Service before the Joint Economic Committee Hearing on Iran, July 25, 2006.