Rand emeritus David Ronfeldt posed an interesting question in the comment section of an earlier post that I wanted to bring to the fore, make a few observations about and open for some crowdsourcing to see if anyone has some good information on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran) leadership:
I had a stray thought this morning about Iran’s IRGC, and wanted to risk asking about it somewhere. in doing a quick search of blogs I follow, this is the only one that has recently made passing reference to the IRGC, specifically in this post. so I’ll try first here.
I keep re-learning what a massive operation the IRGC is – tantamount to what Jane Jacobs termed a “monstrous moral hybrid” perhaps. the IRGC/IRG starts as an effort to consolidate various paramiltary forces following the 1979 iranian revolution. now it has its own ground, naval, air, and special forces. more interestingly, it has expanded economically, and acquired assets to become a multi-billions enterprise, including public construction projects, and even dentistry and travel. it can shut out private business competition, for it can easily underbid and then overrun, while also using recruits and conscripts as labor. in sum, it represents an hybrid of tribal, hierarchical, and market priniciples, if not network ones too.
Now, that supports the usual way of looking at this: just a gigantic hybrid operating inside a state, almost as a semi-autonomous state within a state. and that’s not uncommon in many countries. the chinese and cuban militaries are heavily involved in economic enterprises too. and in parallel fashion, this is a growing trend among criminal enterprises as well, like the zetas mentioned in your reading recommendations above.
but then I had this stray thought: the IRGC is not so much a state within a state, as a caliphate within a state. I am not well-informed about how to define and think about caliphates. but the little I know leads me to think this might be a thought worth further consideration and analysis. esp. if the irgc could be considered as a model for an emerging Shia caliphate, and one that is way ahead of radical Sunni aspirations.
so: an emerging caliphate within a state. any comment? advice for further thinking?
I am not a Persianist or expert on Twelver Islam but David’s questions cross a number of disciplinary boundaries, as most interesting questions usually do. Using one “lens” here, such as security studies or Iranian history or IR theory, by themselves, are not enough with a semi-opaque government like that of Iran. This analysis probably should be approached in a multi-disciplinary fashion, so I welcome anyone out there with a relevant perspective to add what you know about Iran and the Pasdaran in the comment section.
I think that the issues here are structure, behavior and motivation of the Pasdaran as an institution within Iran.
First on the “state within a state”model:
If we look at previous historical examples of “state within a state” entities with which to compare the Pasdaran, the SS and the NKVD stand out as superior in my mind to that of China’s PLA, which was always tightly integrated into the CCP ( much moreso than the Soviet Red Army leadership in the USSR) and as a regular army, never dominated the party after 1949. By contrast, the SS after 1934 quickly “mestastasized” to “colonize” the Gestapo ( memory tells me that SS men were something like a third of Gestapo officers) and Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler attempted to do so with other ministries by granting influential Nazi party organ and German state officials high SS rank, enjoying a limited success in penetrating other centers of power in the Third Reich. The war and the Holocaust allowed the SS to field an elite guard army in the Waffen-SS and supplementary expeditionary/constabulary forces abroad in the form of Einsatzgruppen, Totenkopf and ordinary reserve police battalions under SS command.
The expanding concentration camp structure permitted the SS to become an economic power within the Third Reich in its own right both as a provider of slave labor to private industry and Nazi ministries for Labor, Agriculture and Armaments and War Production and in factories and mines controlled directly by SS concentration camp commandants. Albert Speer was Himmler’s most determined (and successful) rival in thwarting the growing power of the SS in economic affairs and Speer’s last book, published posthumously, INFILTRATION is a rambling but detailed account of Himmler’s bureaucratic imperialism and chilling ambitions for a postwar Nazi world ( an understudied and valuable book for insights into what might have been had Hitler won WWII).
The NKVD in the Beria period had an even more privileged and extensive place in Stalin’s USSR than the SS occupied in the Third Reich but the Soviet planned economy was substantially different from that of Germany’s or that of Iran’s today. While the NKVD had its own empire of enterprises, the capacity of the NKVD to maximize their value was sharply limited by fear of Stalin”s paranoid caprice and the absence of any private economy in the Soviet Union with which to profit from any ill-gotten gains. Nazi Germany’s weird, Fascist, economy with it’s mixture of oligopolistic cartels, private enterprise and state planning ( described well in Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy) and the place of the SS in it is a better analogy to Iran’s state enterprises, bazaari business elite, bonyads and undercapitalized small business sectors
On the IRGC as the seed or kernel of a “Caliphate”:
This is an ideological and motivational question that is apart from normal, secular, bureaucratic expansionism.
First, I’m not certain that “caliphate” is the best way to frame the discussion. All Shia Muslims are literally the Shiat ‘Ali or “Party of Ali”, going back to the dispute over succession to the Prophet Muhammed. I have to heavily qualify my comments by stating this is not my area of expertise, but as far as I am aware, “caliphate” has not been a major part of historical Shia dialogue as the modern Iranian clerical establishment emerged under the Qajar dynasty or later under the Pahlavis. The Persian Shahs did not claim that title, which was held by the Ottoman Sultan until it was abolished by Ataturk. A more appropriate question, which I believe David is getting at, would be “Is the IRGC leadership Mahdist?”.
If the IRGC is orthodox Shia in its orientation, then we might expect that the Pasdaran would behave more or less as a secular, if ideologically hardline, national security bureaucracy and a force within Iran for “siloviki” policies, Iranian style.
If the IRGC senior leadership has a heavy crossover in membership with the Hojjatiyeh, that would be far more worrisome and would raise the level of uncertainty regarding Iranian state behavior in crisis situations .
“Mahdi” theology is semi-heretical Islamic doctrine and has differing forms in Sunni and Shia Islam, on which I am not qualified to opine, but for our purposes, we can state that it contains a fairly dangerous element of apocalyptic millenarianism as a worldview. Moreover, in the Iranian context, the quasi-divine Hidden Imam emerging from Occultation, as virtually a messenger of Allah, would not be bound by any of the constraints contained within the Quran. Islamic jurisprudence normally disdains “innovation”, in interpreting scripture, but the Mahdi (and more importantly, his true believer followers) would be the great and messianic exception.
Of course, what we really need here is some hard data ( or at least reasonably informed speculation) regarding the factions within the Pasdaran and the clerical hierarchy, and their strength relative to one another. Since the election protests, the Pasdaran appears to have become the major political force inside the regime, akin to the KGB in the days of Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev, except the KGB in the 80’s saw the need for economic reform in the USSR and the Pasdaran today appears to be entirely reactionary in its policy prescriptions for Iran.
Comments? Questions? Complaints?