Afshon Ostovar, Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (Oxford University Press, 2016)
This past September in an audience hall in Tehran, a prominent vocalist named Sadegh Ahangaran took to a microphone to justify an Iranian military adventure. Ahangaran had earned the nickname “the nightingale of the Imam” for his melodies of martyrdom decades earlier during the Iran-Iraq War, his defiant voice often the last thing Iranian combatants heard before death. In his more recent performance, Ahangaran drew on these talents to serenade a similar crowd, but about a different war.
“I must break their windpipes in Aleppo, so that their feet do not touch Kermanshah,” sang Ahangaran, clad in the uniform of a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Reaching a crescendo, he thundered, “Since we have said no to the arrogance, we have disturbed the dream of the enemy … We are behind the Mawla until martyrdom.” Enraptured by the recital and seated on the floor before him were soldiers and commanders, past and present, of the IRGC. On a stage directly in front of them was their Mawla – Iran’s supreme leader and commander-in-chief – Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.
Spiritual ardor and military might have long been key pillars of the Islamic Republic. Their mutual dependence is highlighted during Tehran’s commemorations of war. During such ceremonies, which can oscillate between celebration and mourning, officials extoll the experience of conflict and benefit from its redemptive power.
“The IRGC is a product of conflict,” writes Afshon Ostovar in his new and welcome book Vanguard of the Imam. Ostovar, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, offers a timely and well-written contribution to the literature on the IRGC.
From its genesis in the contentious politics that birthed the Islamic revolution to the wars in Syria and Iraq, conflict in all its forms has molded the organization into what it is today. The same factors have helped shape the Islamic Republic.
Vanguard of the Imam is the most up-to-date account of the IRGC’s rise. Beginning with a chapter on Shiite history and political thought, it covers the organization’s founding in the aftermath of the revolution and chronicles the Iran-Iraq War, postwar reconstruction, domestic and foreign policy disputes of the 1990s and 2000s, and ends with Iran’s current military involvement in Syria. It also pays proper respect to Shiite religious culture, which “radiates through every pore of Iran’s Islamic system.” Key themes in Shiism – righteous leadership, resistance against oppression, and martyrdom – are thoroughly examined.
Ostovar ties the importance of conflict for the IRGC to other forces crucial to its inception: traditional Shiite activism in the service of clergy and commitment to the institution of the supreme leader. The first is a long-standing practice in Shiite lands whereby armed networks help enforce the edicts of individual clerics. The second is the status of the supreme leader, who personifies the revolution the Guards are tasked with safeguarding. The third and most important leg of the triad is the congealing power of conflict.
The significance Ostovar attributes to conflict and war is apparent throughout the text. Conflict is not just crucial to the Guard Corps’ origins and evolution, but a unifying force that sustains the Islamic Republic. Indeed, conflict animates the regime’s institutions and vindicates its worldview. Ostovar treats Iran as a laboratory to refine conceptual debates about conflict, militant organizations, and state formation. In so doing, the book builds on political scientist Charles Tilly’s maxim: “War made the state and the state made war.”
Understanding modern Iran, the IRGC, and the power of conflict is impossible without referencing the Iran-Iraq War. Soon after its founding, the Islamic Republic, and by extension the IRGC, was strengthened by fighting an initially defensive eight-year war against Iraq. Ostovar faithfully examines the Iranian war effort against its Ba’athist neighbor, particularly the debates over the war’s extension in 1982 and its contentious termination in 1988. In Iran’s domestic political parlance the war is styled “the Sacred Defense” and “the Imposed War.” For officials, the war remains a ceaseless rallying cry to resist oppression and export Iran’s revolution. For the IRGC, the war represents the consummation of its creed and mission.
Despite the book’s omission of key Persian-language accounts of the Iran-Iraq War, such as the memoir of then-IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaie and the diaries of then-acting commander-in-chief Hashemi Rafsanjani, his chapters on the conflict offer the most accurate presentation of the mission of the Guard Corps.
When reviewing Iran’s early prosecution of the war, a sharp contrast appears between the IRGC’s approach to conflict and that of Iran’s conventional military, the Artesh. The Artesh’s declaration of neutrality during the tumult in early 1979 notwithstanding, the revolution’s founding father Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, believed that the Artesh had “the Shah in their blood.” Ostovar ably documents the rivalry between these two services during the war, by the end of which the IRGC emerged with the privileged status over the Artesh it retains to this day.
As Ostovar writes:
[T]he IRGC emerged as a pillar of the war effort. Its aggressiveness, tactics, and influence within leadership circles helped the organization gain a foothold in the war-planning process and enabled it to become a leading force on the battlefield.
Crucial to the Iran-Iraq War was the propaganda effort to portray the conflict as divinely ordained, and to sanctify those, like the IRGC, who partook in the fight for the soul of Iran and Islam. Mining the IRGC’s own political journals, Ostovar examines wartime propaganda to uncover the subtext underneath. Describing a mural commemorating an archetypal guardsman, he writes, “Although we still conceive of him as a soldier, he is lionized for his religious devotion … he is a willing martyr for whom the ultimate sacrifice is the ultimate reward.” Iran watchers acquainted with funeral ceremonies held for Shiite militias and the IRGC’s fallen will see continuity between Tehran’s framing of the Iran-Iraq War and its involvement in Syria.
Vanguard of the Imam aids in understanding the battles that rage today in the Middle East. The recent fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime illustrates this. Pro-government internet forums in Iran have linked the city’s “liberation” to the liberation of Khorramshahr in 1982, which holds a key place in Tehran’s cosmology of conflict as the last city to be freed from Iraqi occupation. One such post reads, “God liberated Aleppo, the same God which liberated Khorramshahr.” Similarly, newspapers that had commemorated Khorramshahr’s liberation have now been photoshopped to celebrate Aleppo’s deliverance. Even the IRGC’s martyrs from each conflict are being likened to one another.
Indeed, Ostovar closes the book by explaining why the Syrian war matters so much to the Islamic Republic. Stressing the religious dimension of the conflict, he describes how the Guards marshaled a religious lexicon to explain their participation in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters. For example, IRGC members and Shiite militiamen who die fighting in Syria are given the honorific “defender of the shrine,” a reference to the sacred shrine of Sayyida Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad, in a Damascus suburb. Focusing on the symbiosis between military muscle and spiritual ardor, Ostovar deftly describes how the IRGC views the Islamic State threat and potential scenarios impacting the IRGC’s future.
The central challenge then becomes how best to operationalize what is written about the Guards to inform policy towards the regime they serve. Attempts to deny Tehran a foreign (read: American) adversary overlooks the theological, political, and military mandate the Guards have to “contest arrogance.” That is why a modus vivendi or rapprochement with Washington is impossible, as the past eight years of U.S. Iran policy have amply demonstrated.
The Guard Corps’ Basij paramilitary was instrumental in quashing the 2009 post-election protests, despite them coming on the heels of former President Obama’s conciliatory Norooz message. As the U.S. drew down from Iraq in 2010 and 2011, the IRGC stepped up its support to Shiite militias and attempted to coopt the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Guards and Guard-linked institutions bolstered Iran’s nuclear program in a dangerous game of chicken against Western sanctions.
The inking of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal has not changed this dynamic. The IRGC continues to covet conflict, partaking in destabilizing behavior like flight-testing ballistic missiles which were unfortunately not included in the nuclear talks. Despite the accord’s potential to enrich the IRGC and its affiliates, the Guards and Iran’s other ultra-hardliners remain united in the claim that the U.S. is duplicitously holding back sanctions relief. In sum, no dollar value can be attached to the IRGC’s need for enmity and conflict, particularly with the “Great Satan.”
Central to the IRGC’s self-perception is the waging of earthly struggle for celestial objectives. Charged with preserving the Islamic revolution, the Guards rely on the existence of continuous conflict with an adversary deemed hostile to their identity. For the IRGC, no one fills that role better than the United States. Sound U.S. policy requires never losing sight of that fact.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.