By: Warren Gray
“We created a people’s army to defend the country...but it turned into a monster... suppressing reformists...a government inside a government, (with) no equivalent anywhere in the world. It’s...covering everything.”
— Mohsen Sazegara, Iranian exile, 2017
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a paramilitary branch of the Iranian armed forces, founded on May 5, 1979, after the Iranian Revolution two weeks earlier.
In the Farsi language, it’s known as the Sepâh-e Pâsdârân-e Enghelâb-e Eslâmi, or “Army of Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,” usually abbreviated to Pâsdârân (“Guardians”), and its stated intent is to “protect the Islamic republic’s political system,” essentially meaning to prevent coups, or internal and external threats to the regime. The IRGC has been officially designated as a terrorist organization since October 2018 by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and since April 15, 2019 by the United States.
Currently commanded by Major General Hossein Salami, the IRGC has approximately 125,000 personnel, with its own army, navy, air force, intelligence service, 90,000-man, reservist militia, and special forces branches, separate and distinct from the regular, Iranian armed forces, even with its own, unique, rank structure. But more than that, it has expanded its military, political, and social roles, permeating nearly every aspect of Iranian society, including commercial activity, and control of the parliament. During World War II, Nazi Germany had the Waffen SS (“Armed SS”) as an ultra-loyal, handpicked, separate armed force from the regular army, and this is probably the closest, historical parallel that can be drawn to describe the IRGC’s military function.
Exiled Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara is now an outspoken critic of the radicalized, renegade organization that he himself had helped to establish, telling British reporters in October 2017 that, “We created a people’s army (the IRGC) to defend the country and also help in emergencies, but it turned into a monster. Its role in suppressing reformists has turned it into a country inside a country, a government inside a government, and an organization that has no equivalent anywhere in the world. It’s like a river that is overflowing, covering everything.”
IRGC special forces units include the élite Qods (or Quds) Force (meaning “Jerusalem Force,” after the Israeli holy city that they someday hope to conquer), tasked with intelligence activities, unconventional warfare, and foreign operations, and ranked number eight among “The Top 10 Special Forces Units in the World” in 2017 by Cody Carmichael of Gazette Review.
Next is the Saberin Takavar (meaning “Steadfast Commando”) Battalion of the IRGC Ground Forces, for special operations and counterinsurgency, mainly on Iranian soil, and the IRGC Navy has the Sepâh (meaning “Corps,” an abbreviation for IRGC) Navy Special Force (SNSF) on Greater Farur Island in the Persian Gulf, with a nautical, special operations role.
IRGC troops wear a variety of camouflaged uniforms, including Iranian copies of the U.S. M81 woodland-camouflage pattern (BDUs, or Battle-Dress Uniforms) since the 1980s, previously as the standard pattern of the Iranian army and IRGC, but this has largely been replaced by a British-style, DPM (Disruptive-Pattern Material) in desert colors. Some IRGC units have worn a copy of the U.S. tricolor, Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) since 1992, but more recently, Iran has adopted a digital, desert-camouflage pattern of tan and brown since 2009. But in 2010 and 2011, IRGC commandos began wearing a new, arid-desert pattern with traditional DPM shapes. Most IRGC soldiers, even Qods Force, wear black berets, or dark-green berets (worn French-style, pulled down on the left side) for the Takavar unit and naval SNSF, but Qods commandos now have a desert-tan beret, just like the Iranian army commandos.
Active in Afghanistan
The IRGC, and particularly the Qods Force, have been exceptionally active in Afghanistan (recently aiding Taliban insurgents), Iraq (supporting Shi’a militias), Yemen (backing Houthi rebels), the Gaza Strip between Egypt and Israel (aiding Palestinian militants), Venezuela (assisting the anti-American, socialist government there), and especially Syria and Lebanon, where they still actively support the Syrian government, their Russian allies, and the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist groups. In this respect, Qods Force, of at least 10,000 operatives, is very similar to U.S. Special Forces in their role of training, advising, organizing, supporting, and sometimes equipping allied, foreign troops. In the case of the IRGC, however, much of the equipping is performed by illegally smuggling weapons into the affected countries, often in civilian-marked aircraft.
The 20,000-strong IRGC Navy also fiercely defends the entire Persian Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz, with 167 primary warships, mostly small, fast-attack vessels, and thousands of dhow light support boats, specializing in asymmetric, hit-and-run tactics, more like a guerilla force than an actual navy, as we’ve seen recently in the May 2019 Persian Gulf crisis. They’re also equipped with HY-2/CSSC-3 Seersucker coastal-defense, anti-ship missiles, other missiles, and coastal artillery batteries.
On November 24, 2015, Qods Force conducted the successful, rescue mission for a Russian Su-24M Fencer-D fighter-bomber weapon systems officer, Captain Konstantin V. Murakhtin, shot down by a Turkish F-16C Fighting Falcon jet along the border region just south of Turkey’s Hatay Province, after the pilot, a Russian lieutenant colonel, was killed by local, “Grey Wolves” rebels.
A special, combined squad consisting of 24 Qods commandos, Russian Naval Infantrymen, Syrian Special Forces troopers, and Lebanese Hezbollah soldiers entered rebel-controlled territory near the Turkish border in a pair of Russian Mi-8AMTSh “Terminator” armed, transport helicopters and rescued Murakhtin. One of the helicopters was damaged by hostile ground fire, and a Russian Naval Infantryman was killed in the same incident, but the rescue force was otherwise quite successful, certainly earning the respect of their Russian allies in Syria.
When it comes to weapons and equipment of the IRGC, we find that many, if not most of the designs are copied or reverse-engineered from Russian, Chinese, German, and American weapons, with very few, innovative, indigenous designs in service. There seems to be no real standardization applied, with an unusual diversity of uniforms, weapons, and equipment. We can’t possibly discuss every Iranian weapon in just one article, but here are the most widely-deployed assets:
Assault Rifles and Carbines
The Iranian-manufactured, KL-7.62 (a copy of the Russian AKM and Chinese Type 56) in 7.62x39mm is still the standard assault rifle of the IRGC, often supplemented by actual AKMs and Type 56s. The S-5.56 Sayyad (“Hunter”) is an unlicensed clone of the Norinco CQ, which is a copy of the Colt M16A2, and this weapon is employed by the Saberin Takavar Battalion. A carbine version is also produced. H&K G3A6 battle rifles in 7.62mm NATO are in widespread service with the army and IRGC.
Assault weapons issued in smaller numbers include the KH-2002 bullpup, assault rifle in 5.56mm, the Fateh (“Conqueror”), a clone of the Robinson XCR-L, and the Fajr (“Dawn”) 224, an Iranian copy of the Colt M4A1 carbine. Takavar units have also used the AK-74 rifle, AK-103 rifle, and the compact, HK53 assault carbine. Most ammunition is provided by Diomil, manufactured in Iran.
The standard, service pistols are the FN/Browning Hi-Power (favored by the IRGC) and the newer PC-9 ZOAF, an unlicensed copy of the SIG P226, although many Colt M1911A1s are still in service from the 1960s and 1970s, back when the U.S. and Iran were still allies, before the Islamic Revolution of 1978 to 1979 and the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979 to 1981. Takavar units have also employed the Glock-17 pistol, and .357 Magnum revolvers, probably early-Model 66s in stainless steel, for naval commandos, just as U.S. Navy SEALs have sometimes used similar revolvers in the past.
These include the MPT-9 Tondar (“Thunderbolt”), a licensed copy of the H&K (German) MP5A3, the Uzi submachine gun from Israel in smaller numbers, and the Star (Spanish) Z-84, favored by IRGC Navy frogmen for its reliability during amphibious warfare.
Light Machine Guns:
The existing standard is the battle-proven RPK in 7.62x39mm.
Infantry (Medium) Machine Guns:
The German-designed, MGA3 machine gun in 7.62mm NATO and Russian PKM-T80 in 7.62x54R are the most-common, man-portable, medium machine guns, now both produced in Iran.
Heavy Machine Guns:
This is an interesting category, due to recent developments. The MGD 12.7 (Russian DShKM-copy) is the standard, heavy machine gun, but there is also the Akhgar (“Spark”) 7.62mm Gatling gun, a copy of the U.S. M134D minigun. The Moharram (“Forbidden”) is a six-barrel, .50-caliber Gatling gun, a copy of the original, American GECAL-50 design from 1983, and the massive Asefeh (“Tornado”) is a three-barrel, 23mm Gatling cannon, copied from the U.S. M197 20mm cannon on the AH-1J SeaCobra attack helicopter, and upgraded to 23mm. These powerful, imposing weapons are normally vehicle-mounted, for the optimum effect.
The most common sniper rifle is the Nakhjir (“Hunting Ground”), an Iranian copy of the classic, Russian Dragunov SVD and SVDM rifles in 7.62x54R, with the .50-caliber, Steyr (Austrian) HS .50 and its unlicensed, Iranian clone, the AM50 Sayyad-2 (“Hunter-2”) also in widespread service. There are also less-common, specialty weapons, such as the 14.5mm Shaher (“Quick”), 20mm Taktab, and 20mm bullpup Arash (“Bright”) sniper rifles.
The issued knives are primarily AK 6x5 bayonets or H&K G3 bayonets. There’s very little evidence of specialized, combat knives, but photos have shown IRGC commandos practicing hand-to-hand combat, including knife fighting.
The IRGC prefers light, maneuverable, fast-attack vehicles, such as the Safir (“Ambassador”) jeeps, Sepehr (“Sky”) tactical vehicles, Aras-2 (named for the Aras River in Iran and Turkey) military vehicle (a clone of the American Humvee, in pickup-truck style), Ranger light attack vehicle, and Samandar (“Salamander”) fast-attack vehicle, an unlicensed copy of America’s Chenowth Light Strike Vehicle, usually armed with a heavy machine gun.
They have no main battle tanks or other heavy equipment, so their heaviest assets are armored personnel carriers (APCs) and armored cars, such as the BTR-60PB Sedad (“Master”) with a twin-barrel, 23mm cannon and the similar, Cobra BMT-2, the traditional, Russian BMP-1 and BMP-2 APCs, with 73mm or 30mm cannon, and new, 4x4 vehicles such as the Sarir (“Throne”) APC or the Sayyad (“Hunter”) quick-reaction vehicle.
The IRGC Navy possesses at least 167 primary warships, mostly small, fast-attack craft, including 46 North Korean-built, IPS-16 Peykaap-I/II/II-class coastal patrol boats, known in Iranian service as the Zulfiqar (named for the legendary, curved sword of the Caliph Ali ibn Ali Talib, the last prophet of Islam, and cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic Prophet Mohamed), and armed with a variety of rockets, anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, and heavy machine guns.
There are also 35 Torgah/Boghammar RL-118 and RL-130-4A, Swedish-designed, fast-attack boats, 16 Seraj-1/Bladerunner-51 speedboats, 10 IPS-18 Tir -II fast missile boats, 10 Thondar-class (Chinese Houdong-class) heavily-armed, missile boats, and a variety of other vessels, including as many as 5,900 dhow light support boats.
In addition, they have five Mi-171 Hip-H troop transport helicopters, plus a dozen armed, blue-painted, sea-skimming, Bavar-2 (“Belief-2”) WIG (Wing-in-Ground-effect) flying boats since 2010, manufactured entirely in Iran. The IRGC Navy was wholly responsible for the Persian Gulf crisis of May 2019, attacking and harassing both military and civilian shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
IRGC Aerospace Force:
The IRGC Air Force portion is equipped with eight camouflaged, Su-22UM3K Fitter-G two-seat, ground-attack fighters, four Su-22M4 Fitter-K single-seat fighters, 15 olive-green, AH-1J Panha 2091/Toufan (“Typhoon”) attack helicopters, 15 EMB312A Tucano light-attack trainers, about 15 desert-camouflaged, Mi-17/171 Hip-H transport helicopters, nine Harbin Y-12 (II) Panda light transport aircraft, five AB205A Huey helicopters, six AB206B Jet Ranger helicopters, 11 An-74T/TK-200 Coaler jet transports, three large, Il-76MD/TD Candid-A jet transports, and 17 miscellaneous aircraft for various duties.
They also operate an array of stealthy, all-composite, reconnaissance drones, including the unarmed, Ababil-2 (“Swallow-2,” the bird), Mohajer-I/II/II/IV (“Migrant”), Yasir (“Rich”), and Karrar (“Striker”) series, and the armed Shahed-129 (“Eyewitness-129”), with four Sadid-1 (“Strong-1”) laser-guided, ground-attack missiles (similar to the U.S. AGM-114K Hellfire II) beneath its wings.
On June 8, 2017, an American F-15E Strike Eagle jet fighter shot down an IRGC Shahed-129 that had just attacked the secret, CIA and Special Forces base at At-Tanf, Syria, near the Jordanian border. This was the first, U.S. air-to-air kill of the ongoing war against terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Only 12 days later, another F-15E fighter downed a second Shahed-129 drone near At-Tanf, so the belligerent Iranians knowingly continued to attack U.S. forces and our Syrian, rebel allies. Much more recently, on September 14, 2019, 18 IRGC-owned drones and seven IRGC cruise missiles operated by Houthi rebels in northern Yemen attacked the vast, Saudi Arabian oil fields and processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, causing devastating damage.
The IRGC Missile Force portion controls a wide variety of surface-to-surface missiles, and virtually all of the nation’s short-range, ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and medium-range, ballistic missiles (MRBMs), including 12 to 18 Shahab-1 and -2 (“Shooting Star-1 and -2,” copies of the Russian SS-1C/D Scud) SRBMs, and 12 to 24 Shahab-3 strategic MRBMs, with a range of over 1,100 nautical miles. But they also possess short-range, Fateh-110, Zelzal-1/2/3B (“Earthquake”), and Qiam-1 (“Uprising-1”) missiles.
Aside from the Shahab-3, newer MRBMs include the Sejjil-2, Fajr-3 (Iran’s most-advanced, ballistic missile), Ghadr-110, Khorramshahr, and Emad (“Pillar”), with effective ranges out as far as 1,600 nautical miles, and the Meshkat (“Niche”) cruise missile, with a range of nearly 1,100 nautical miles.
This brings up the terrifying but entirely plausible scenario of a possible, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States by IRGC forces, who routinely call America the “Great Satan,” secretly operating aboard a commercial ship off of either U.S. coastline. Just a single nuclear weapon, detonated in broad daylight, high in space, about 300 miles above Omaha, Nebraska, for example, would not be seen, heard, or felt from below, and would kill or injure no one, initially. But the overall effects would be devastating.
The EMP Commission, Sage Policy Group, Heritage Foundation, and others have all jointly determined that virtually all electronic devices in the U.S. would shut down instantaneously, and never start again. This includes all automobiles built within the past 40 years, all cell phones, computers, bank accounts, cash registers, fuel pumps, anything electronic, including more than 99 percent of the U.S. Armed Forces’ electronic devices, which are still supplied from the unshielded, civilian power grid.
We would instantly revert to the Wild-West, horse-and-buggy era again, except that almost no one has horses or buggies anymore. There would be no credit cards, no debit cards, no money in accounts anyway, no cars, almost no jobs, no income, no paychecks, and no law and order to protect citizens. It would be unimaginable!
The death toll from thirst, starvation, and infighting from initial looting would reach approximately 90 percent after the first two weeks, and those who survived would mostly live in remote, rural areas, those with the most horses, guns, and cash. I’ll leave out the rest of the ghastly, official details, but suffice it to say, all it will take is just one invisible, nuclear detonation in space by just one IRGC missile officer, a religious zealot. Currently, the only thing holding them back is the threat of nuclear retaliation by the United States, since they know that we could detect the launch and eventually trace it by to a specific ship at sea. Yet, an EMP weapon remains a very, very serious, existential threat, which the IRGC has already repeatedly practiced from ships in the Caspian Sea.
As the evidence indicates, the Iranian IRGC is characterized by extreme loyalty to the theocratic regime in Tehran, and a notable lack of standardization in their uniforms, weapons, and equipment, although they’re constantly developing and testing new weapons designs, particularly in the ballistic-missile arena, which is a very disturbing trend. Their soldiers have very-recent, combat experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other world hot spots, so they are not to be taken lightly.
Hopefully, much tougher, U.S. economic sanctions against Iran for the IRGC’s recent interference and aggression in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia will prevent the need for all-out warfare, which could drag on for decades, and benefit no one. Sanctions are already having a crippling effect on their economy. Meanwhile, understanding the IRGC’s capabilities and how to counter them is the best measure of deterrence in that troubled region.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, eight more military qualification badges, two command badges, 19 U.S. military medals, and three foreign medals. He also earned four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.webs.com.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, By Khamenei.ir - http://farsi.khamenei.ir/photo-album?id=23801, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61567256