By Russ Read
January 23, 2020
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps may be spread too thin to handle both a large-scale regional conflict and major domestic unrest, according to a report.
Iran’s Reserve of Last Resort: Uncovering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces Order of Battle, the report from the American Enterprise Institute examines the IRGC’s command structure and its responsibilities both domestic and foreign.
“We think that the regime could face a dilemma at a certain point if it were stressed in the region and also stressed by domestic unrest that rose to the level where it actually needed to use IRGC ground forces units,” co-author Fred Kagan told the Washington Examiner. Kagan leads AEI’s Critical Threats Project, which produced the report.
The death of Qassem Soleimani has focused attention on the unit he commanded, the Quds Force, the report states, but, while notorious for operations that have killed Americans, the unit “is only a small portion of the IRGC’s combat power.”
The approximately 125,000-strong IRGC ground forces represent a large reserve that would be called to fight beyond Iran’s borders and to quell internal unrest, the report says. But, the authors add, the post-Soleimani corps may not be up to both tasks.
Civil unrest in Iran has risen drastically since last year, with massive protests becoming more and more common. In November, as many as 1,500 people were killed following a crackdown on protests. More protests followed Soleimani’s death, the result of a U.S. airstrike, earlier this month, especially after Iran admitted to shooting down a Ukrainian airliner after firing missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.
The corps’s forces have had a light footprint in quelling domestic dissent so far, according to Kagan, but he noted the organization’s dual role helps explain some of Iran’s “conservatism” when using the IRGC in foreign operations. For example, the IRGC engaged in a “surge” in Syria in 2015 to help prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad in the ongoing civil war but quickly withdrew forces in 2016.
“For the IRGC, its self-conception and mission is to defend the revolution at home and abroad,” Kagan told the Washington Examiner. “And so it has always been as much like the KGB as the Red Army.”
Kagan and his colleagues believe the IRGC “appears still to be a largely uncommitted reserve.” But, he said, that could change if Iran suddenly finds itself in a situation requiring “large-scale military operations abroad.”