Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is Iran’s premier military force. It’s also much more. As the official protector of the 1979 revolution that overthrew Iran’s monarchy and established an Islamic Republic, the Guard exerts political and economic power and has a direct line to the country’s highest authority. Through the years it’s been accused of supporting militant organizations and terrorist activities around the world. Most recently it’s been accused of involvement in the explosions that damaged two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13.
At 100,000-man strong, the corps is one-quarter the size of Iran’s traditional army, navy and air force. But it has its own ground, air and naval divisions, controls Iran’s ballistic missile program and has a chain of command separate from the military that leads directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Scholars estimate that the Guard controls 20% to 40% of Iran’s economy; as the owner of one of Iran’s largest engineering conglomerates, the Guard directly and indirectly employs some 200,000 people in construction jobs. At least 229 Iranian companies are significantly under the influence of the Guard, according to one study. The Guard also incorporates a sizable volunteer paramilitary organization, the Basij, that is seen as vital to maintaining the Islamic Republic’s influence on wider society.