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Pondering the Pasdaran

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?

11 Responses to “Pondering the Pasdaran”

  1. Schmedlap Says:

    See Uskowi on Iran, posts tagged with "IRGC"

  2. slapout9 Says:

    Hi Mark, over on SWC I was talking to a former Doctor about some systems thinking concepts. Insurgencies are a lot like Infections (germ warfare/body infiltration) and COIN/CT or whatever you want to call it is alot like Infection Control. We don’t have a very good anti-biotic for the infection yet or better yet a vaccine.

  3. Abu Thaar Says:

    As Twelvers, the leadership of the IRGC are very unlikely to support a caliphate.  The caliphs, except for ‘Ali, were the enemies of their religious precursors and killed ‘Ali’s son Husayn in a key portion of the Twelver Shi’a origin story. An imamate is closer, but even there, there are substantial issues.  Ayatollah Khomeini toyed with identifying himself with the Hidden Iman returning from occultation/ghaybah, mostly by not denying it.  The Siloviki hypothesis seems very likely to be the dominant position within the IRGC.Also remember that the IRGC leadership is full of people who remember Ayatollah Khomeini who, despite his limitations and hostility toward the U.S., was an inspirational leader.  There are likely to be IRGC members who sympathize with the "democracy movement" around Rafsanjani, Moussavi, and Karroubi.  And the IRGC is large enough now that lots of its rank and file will be far less ideological (in any direction) than the leadership.  The IRGC is likely to go in as many directions as the Iranian government.  To use the KGB analogy, the Ahmadinejad/Khamene’i faction will have, in the back of their minds, the fear that the Alfa Team will to storm the White House to dispose of Yeltsin.  We can’t trust the IRGC, but neither can they.

  4. david ronfeldt Says:

    Mark (and others), thanks for the assistance.  More than I expected.  
    If I may be metaphorical, today I’m seeing that my “stray” thought of yesterday may be a bit of a “dog.”  Much as I’ve tried to be informed about differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, my mind hadn’t grasped that Caliphates pertain almost entirely to Sunnis, Imamates to Shias, and that Shias are not particularly interested in having a Caliphate — though my main source (the Wikipedia entry on “Caliphate”) indicates exceptions (e.g., the Fatimid dynasty).  So, much as I liked the turn of phrase — “a caliphate within a state” — today I see it’s evidently inadvisable to apply it to the IRGC.  
    Or could this “stray” thought yet turn out to be a “cat” (with the proverbial nine lives) in some sense?  I still wonder that something more is going on than is captured by the notion of a “state within a state” and related concepts.  
    The above comparisons to the SS reinforce this.  That’s interesting.  A look at a RAND report from early this year — The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (RAND, MG-821, 2009) — adds to understanding its economic reach, as a kind of conglomerate.  This report compares the IRGC mainly to the case in China.  Also, I’ve now spotted that the IRGC has expanded lately into energy and telecommunications.  
    What a hybrid amalgam!?  The RAND report and other sources regard it mostly as just another complicated, expansive institution enmeshed in domestic factional politics, not to mention crime and corruption.  And this results in a fairly conventional range of possible future scenarios.  Yet, because of my TIMN efforts, I remain struck by the IRGC’s odd fusion of tribal, institutional, market, and network designs, and wonder more about unconventional scenarios.  
    My understanding of TIMN says that this kind of hybrid is dysfunctional over time.  But it works for certain kinds of digressions from the mainstream of social evolution, and particularly for fascism.  This kind of hybrid may also gain momentum if it is infused with millenarian tendencies like those we’ve discussed here at your blog previously (e.g., posts on Mahdism).

  5. Karaka Says:

    @Abur Thaar: the IRGC is large enough now that lots of its rank and file will be far less ideological (in any direction) than the leadership.
    Do you think that the expansion of the IRGC’s (privately held) economic interests will contribute to that lessened ideology, as a result of the power accumulated through economic strength?
    I really want to make a Star Wars comparison–the cultivation of the Sith lords under Emperor Palpatine–but I don’t think its relevance bears out and also, I am a geek.

  6. Larry Dunbar Says:

    I think you’re comparing apples with apples, only of different variety.

    "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."  The Pasdaran is a System Administration force, but of a different variety than say the PLA. The PLA looks to be much more integrated than what I perceive to be the case of the Pasdaran. When the Pasdaran administers to a system, inside its orientation, it looks like an army; when the PLA administers to a system it looks like a bunch of guys in blue jump-suit, like those in New Guinea.   A System Administration Force administers to the orientation formed as an advantage to its environment. While we all understand, or at least think we understand, what a Leviathan Force looks like, it is hard to imagine a System Administration Force. I suppose this is because “force” is the smallest part of a System Administration Force and there doesn’t appear to be much written, at least anything exciting, about how different orientations are administered to.    Likewise, when a System Administration Force uses force, as the SS did, it is hard to see them as anything more than thugs. The difference is, of course, the relationship with its Orientation. The German Leviathan force was used mostly to generate diversity between outside forces, while the SS was used mostly internally, to enforce or administer conformity. My guess is that the Pasdaran is used by Iran to enforce conformity within the Shia movement, and a part of being good administrators is creating opportunities to expand horizontally throughout an Orientation.

  7. Abu Thaar Says:

    @Karaka:  I suspect that it will.  It’s much easier to be radical when you have nothing to lose–look at the difference between al-Qaida and Hizballah, or even the difference between Hizballah in its early days and Hizballah now.  Once an organization acquires something worth blowing up, it starts to think about how to avoid having it blown up.  

  8. TMLutas Says:

    Even though the language of caliphate within the state may not be appropriate for historical reasons, something similar might be. Perhaps a better lens is a state within an imamate. The unfamiliar duck is not the tumor within a conventional state threatening to kill its host and take over. It is rather the unconventional state, the Iranian islamic revolution is being threatened by what may be a more conventional secular authoritarian (totalitarian?) IRGC. This is not to say that the IRGC may be people we can do business with, unfettered by this strange new Shia sect, khomeinism that has ruled it since 1979. They might be people who are less restrained by the religious rulings against the use of nuclear weapons and thus vastly more dangerous on nuclear issues. 

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, Zen:

    As I understand it after a little Googling, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, currently Head of the Armed Forces General Command Headquarters, has a Pasdaran background, and his willingness to promote the Mahdist cause can be derived from this letter which he wrote to the Imam Mahdi as published by ISNA on July 12 and reported by MEMRI on August 17th, 2009.


    Here are the closing paragraphs:

    [, and [some of them] voted for [these candidates]…, as did [other] Iranians, according to the dictates of their conscience. Despite this, you witnessed the curses and accusations that [these presidential candidates] hurled at us. They harmed the people’s security, and when we stood up to defend the people, they called us dictators and tried to disgrace us…
    Dearest Mahdi, we have taught our children and our grandchildren to await your arrival, and to raise the banner of this holy regime until you do… O lord, please beseech God, as we do, that the Islamic Revolution take root alongside the worldwide revolution that you [will bring]…
    Awaiting your arrival,
    Hassan Firouzabadi.


    And if I might… I’d be far from suggesting that Mahdism is “quasi-heretical”. The Mahdi does not figure in the Qur’an, and according to some authorities one can legitimately be a Sunni Muslim without believing in him, but references to him are found in ahadith in both Sunni and Shi’i collections.
    Thus Suhaib Hassan writes in his (Sunni) Introduction to the Science of Hadith:

    Although the Mahdi is not mentioned explicitly in the collections of al-Bukhari and Muslim, numerous sahih ahadith, which are mutawatir in meaning, speak of the coming of the Mahdi.


    Such hadith are extremely reliable, being (a) sound in regard to the quality of those who report them (sahih), and (b) reported frequently enough down each of the levels of the chain of narration (isnad) that it would be unreasonable to suppose the multiple narrations to be the result of collusion (mutawatir).
    In Twelver Shi’ite doctrine, Mahdism is of the essence, since it constitutes the return from occultation (ghayba) of the Twelfth Imam. Abdulaziz Sachedina refers to it as the “key concept of the Savior Imam” in his Islamic Messianism: The Idea of the Mahdi in Twelver Shi’ism, SUNY, 1981.

  10. zen Says:

    " the Iranian islamic revolution is being threatened by what may be a more conventional secular authoritarian (totalitarian?) IRGC. "
    Very nice, TM. I caught one of your posts recently on Ceaucescu at Chicago Boyz – are you returning to more active blogging? If so, good.

  11. zen Says:

    "My understanding of TIMN says that this kind of hybrid is dysfunctional over time.  But it works for certain kinds of digressions from the mainstream of social evolution, and particularly for fascism"
    I think this is exactly correct, David. If we delve into certain movements, like National Socialism, we see a "Radical Reactionary" hybrid that takes from both extremes and sheds their self-imposed, intellectual constraints. American Populism in the 19th century had the same dynamic to a far, far, milder degree, which Richard Hofstadter picked up on when he coined "the paranoid style". We can see it elsewhere, from Romania’s macabre Iron Guard to the Taiping Rebellion against the Q’ing, when political movements are hybrid or fusion in nature they manage to tap into the irrational aspects of social mass psychology.

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