Despite its pivotal status in defending and exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) role and composition is poorly understood outside Iran. Beyond Borders: The Expansionist Ideology of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a new report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change clearly reveals the extremist ideology that shapes the IRGC, the sharp edge of Iran’s theocratic state. Using the IRGC’s own internal training manuals, this new research uncovers the material used to radicalise recruits as part of a comprehensive system of indoctrination. This is the first time these manuals have been translated and analysed from Persian into English. This new report offers a unique insight into the violent and extremist ideas that underpin the Guard’s worldview. Crucially, it exposes a blind spot for Western policymakers, who have to date largely shied away from viewing the IRGC as an extremist entity.
The training material shows that the Guard is best understood as an institutionalised militia. It is often forgotten that the IRGC began as a pro-Khomeini militia and that many of its senior ranks
had trained with Palestinian extremists in Lebanon prior to 1979. In the immediate aftermath of the Iranian revolution, these radicals returned to Iran, forming a militia called the “Guardians of the Islamic Revolution”, which would prove critical in violently consolidating the theocratic principle of velayat-e-faqih – a system of governance that transfers all power to the Shia clergy. Over time, the Guard became increasingly institutionalised, yet has retained its militia status in order to continue advancing its ideological goals. Terrorist attacks, hostage-taking and assassinations continue to be part of the IRGC toolkit.
The textbooks the IRGC uses to radicalise its members illustrate the dual ambition of the Guard: first, to uphold Iran’s clerical regime at home, and second, to export its Islamic revolution abroad through “the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way.” These are brought together by an interpretation of Islam that elevates the standing of Iran’s supreme leader to that of the Prophet Mohammed. Recruits are taught that Khamenei “as the supreme leader, has the same authority of the Prophet and the infallible [Shia] imams.” The IRGC states that this authority means Khamenei “can control [and manage] the affairs of all Muslims in all matters” and has a responsibility to “spread Islam to other countries and regions of the world.” This strengthens Ayatollah Khamenei’s grip on power at home while also providing a blueprint for violent expansionism abroad. Members of the Guard are reassured that subjugating domestic needs to fund proxy militias abroad is a necessary sacrifice to export their Shia Islamist revolution across the Muslim world and beyond.
From Lebanon to Afghanistan, this ideology enables militant groups to spread violence and destabilise fragile states. Sectarianism is at the crux of the IRGC’s strategy. The training documents achieve this through conspiracy theories that depict an existential threat to Shia Islam from a “[Sunni] Arab-Zionist-Western axis.” This is then exploited to create and arm Shia Islamist militias across the Middle East – from Hizballah in Lebanon to the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq – that foment sectarian conflict and turns their divisive ideology into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a reminder that Salafi-jihadi groups and Shia Islamist extremists rely on each other in order to rally their fighters.
Within Iran, this ideology has the insidious effect of deepening repression. The IRGC – and its voluntary paramilitary unit, the Basij – has been the clergy’s main weapon to hold onto power, with the Guard playing a key role in brutally repressing protests for more than forty years. But the level of violence inflicted by IRGC members becomes unsurprising after viewing the content the Guard uses to indoctrinate its members. As the Institute’s report uncovers, recruits are taught that Iranians who rebel against the regime are “waging war on God” (moharab) and must therefore suffer torture as well as death. Growing anti-regime dissent in Iran catalysed the IRGC to dedicate more curriculum time to the radicalisation of recruits through “ideological training”, particularly following the 2009 pro-democracy uprising. Coupled with the intensification of indoctrination, from 2011 the civil war in Syria provided the IRGC with the opportunity to operationalise the ideology it was teaching from the classroom to the battlefield. A decade on and the results of this investment in radicalisation are becoming clear. The IRGC fighters who returned from the frontline in Syria brought the tactics of unbridled violence which they deployed against Syrian opposition back home and used them to crack down on domestic unrest. In November 2019, in less than two weeks, over 1,500 Iranian protesters were killed by the IRGC.
What enhances the IRGC’s ability to encourage and carry out violence against its own compatriots is the fact that recruits are taught to reject the concept of nationalism. Like other Islamist extremist material, the IRGC training manuals used to radicalise IRGC members teaches them to reject the concept of the nation-state and instead divide the world into the “Dar al-Islam [land of Muslims] and the Dar al-Kuffar [land of the disbelievers]”. By dismissing Iran’s status as a nation-state and instead viewing it as an ideological Islamic cause, the IRGC is able to position internal opponents as enemies of the state even if they are Iranian. Members of the Guard are taught that those who rebel against Ayatollah Khamenei are “enemies of Islam” that must be killed.
But the rejection of nationalism also serves the regime’s external ideological ambitions. The training modules refer to “Islamic Iran” as a home of co-religionists rather than a nation-state with a raison d’état. This is particularly useful when appealing to proxy militias such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, or when expecting young Iranians to die fighting for the Syrian regime.
Once the IRGC divides the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, recruits are taught that they must wage jihad on the disbelievers with the objective of extending Islam across the world. The training manuals authorise IRGC members to kill Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians on the basis that they are “enemies of Islam” who must be forced to give up their “devious beliefs”. The language the IRGC uses, and the methods it prescribes, mimics that of designated Islamist extremist entities from ISIS to al-Qaeda.
Western commentary on the IRGC - and its overseas operations wing, the Quds Force - typically views the organisation as simply a military force, and interprets its behaviour through the logic of a regional balance of power. Yet the internal training manuals of the IRGC paint a very different picture of how the Guard understand their own behaviour. In the region, it views its network of Shia militias and support for militancy not through deterrence – a line pushed by Western orientated analysis – but as part of long-term project to establish a pan-Shia state centred on Iran’s supreme leader. At home, it sees itself as much more than an army; it is the protector and enforcer of the Ayatollah’s Shia Islamist utopia, with the IRGC’s role extending way beyond military life.
Indeed, all politics is local, and none understand this better than the IRGC. Indoctrination encompasses every aspect of the Guards’ lives, including instructions on behaviour which demand practising and upholding the regime’s Islamist worldview in their own homes and on the streets of Iran. From teaching recruits that “[men] are superior to women” and therefore must be obeyed, to providing male members with solutions to avoid ogling, which the IRGC manuals blame on women “for not wearing their hijab, wearing make-up and fashionable tight clothing.” Most importantly, the textbooks provide guidelines on how this code should be enforced, including the use of violence.
Viewing the IRGC as simply an Iranian defence resource ignores their significance as an ideological asset for the theocratic regime and a source of Shia extremism worldwide. Once these other dimensions are appreciated, significant policy implications follow.
Chief among these is the need for governments to follow the United States’ lead in designating the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in order to limit their scope and reach abroad. This could also spur greater action on the part of civil society. Technology companies should prevent IRGC and other Shia Islamist material from circulating online. Perhaps most importantly, Shia religious authorities around the world should be supported in developing counter-narratives that expose the IRGC’s manipulation of Islam to violent ends.