Dr. Gawdat Bahgat is a Professor in the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University. Bahgat’s career blends scholarship with national security practicing, having served as an advisor to several governments and oil companies.
Iran was one of the closest allies the United States had in the Middle East in the 1970s. This close cooperation between the two nations came to an abrupt end at the end of the decade. The toppling of the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi regime and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 was a turning point in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. Since then, mutual suspicion and hostility have characterized the relations between Washington and Tehran. In May 2018, the Donald Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. A year later, it designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization. In late June 2019, the IRGC shot down a U.S. drone in a sign of growing tension between the two nations.
Against this background, the academic literature on the IRGC, Iran’s elite force, has been rapidly growing. Nader Uskowi’s book differs from other offerings in the sense that the author does not claim objectivity. On the first page, the author dedicates the book to his father, a former major general in the Iranian Imperial Army—the military arm of the Pahlavi regime, toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. There is nothing wrong or unusual about taking one side in a political debate. The Islamic Revolution created a large number of both loyalists and opponents. Certainly, both sides have the right to make their case.
The IRGC, also known as Pasdaran or Sepah, is a leading force in implementing the country’s asymmetrical defense policy. It was created in May 1979 to defend the Islamic Revolution against internal and external enemies. Since then, it has expanded its influence in both the security and policy apparatuses as well as in the economic system. The IRGC is an institution of the state, has its own army, navy, and air force, and coordinates policies with militias and political parties overseas, mainly through the Qods Force. The Sepah’s role is enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic (Article 150) and is assigned specific but wide-ranging responsibilities. According to the constitution, “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, organized in the early days of the triumph of the Revolution, is to be maintained so that it may continue in its role of guarding the Revolution and its achievements.” The IRGC is separate from the Artesh (conventional armed forces), but there is a great deal of cooperation and coordination between the two forces, and they work together to deter attacks on the Islamic Republic.
Uskowi claims that “Khomeini’s senior advisors planned to establish a people’s army to stage a protracted armed struggle against the Shah.” Most scholars disagree with this assessment and argue that Ayatollah Khomeini realized that the Artesh was too loyal to the deposed shah to be trusted by the newly established Islamic Republic. This realization was the driving force behind creating the IRGC.
Uskowi seems to overestimate the role of ideology in shaping Iran’s foreign and security policies. He claims that Iran has created a “Shi’ite Liberation Army” to “impose its own brand of militant Islamist ideology on the region.” True, the majority of Iranians are Shi’ites and, as in other countries, ideology (Shi’ism) plays a role in shaping the country’s domestic and foreign policies. But it is also true that, as in other countries, Iran’s policy is driven mostly by its political/religious leaders’ perceptions of the nation’s interests. Stated differently, U.S. policy reflects both U.S. values and perceived national interests. Iranian policy is not different. Indeed, one can argue, Iran’s policy has always been driven by ideology, perceived national interests, and other forces. Shortly after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, ideology took a back seat, and perceived national interests (that is, regime survival and economic prosperity) have emerged as the main forces in shaping the nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Furthermore, since the early days of the revolution, Iranian leaders have realized that although their political/religious system works for them, it does not mean it can work for other nations. Lebanon is a case in point. Despite historical ties between Shi’ites in Lebanon and Shi’ites in Iran and close alliance between Tehran and Hezbollah, Iranian leaders have understood the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon and have never thought to “export the revolution” to Lebanon. It has always been clear that Lebanon is not Iran, and one size does not fit all.
Within this context, one can question Uskowi’s claim that the founders of the Islamic Republic “intended to create a revolutionary movement that would encompass not only Iran but the entire region.” The truth is Iranian leaders understand that the majority of populations in surrounding countries are neither Persian nor Shi’ites. They are Arabs, Turks, and other nationalities and are largely Sunnis. Equally important, Uskowi argues that the Qods Force seeks to create “a Shi’ite arc of influence across the Middle East.” This assessment reflects a deep misunderstanding of Tehran’s defense policy. For years, Iranian strategists have developed a “forward defense doctrine” based on a close partnership between Tehran and its regional allies. Iranian military leaders believe the best way to fight their opponents is to take the battle outside Iran. The close strategic ties Tehran has with Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon ensure that the fight with Sunni extremist groups and their regional allies will take place outside Iran.
Uskowi claims that Iran took “decisive action to protect the Shi’ite-Alawi regime of President Bashar al-Assad and defeat Sunni opposition forces.” This is a gross mischaracterization of the civil war in Syria. There is very little in common between Shi’ism and the Alawi sect. The majority of Shi’ites do not consider the Alawis as fellow Shi’ites. Furthermore, the main drivers for the Syrian civil war are more geopolitical and less sectarian. Iran is mostly interested in the survival of the Assad regime because Tehran wants to maintain its supplies and contacts with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the only way to do so is to have a friendly regime in Damascus. Uskowi claims that Tehran seeks “permanent bases” in neighboring countries. He has not provided any proof to back his claims. The majority of Syrians are Sunni-Muslims with strong national/Arab identity.
In chapter after chapter, Uskowi argues that Iran is the main reason for all problems in the Middle Eastern region. Certainly Iran has its own share of the blame, but other countries also have contributed to political instability and economic stagnation. The war in Yemen is a good example. The war in this country between the Huthis and the Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates–supported government and coalition started in March 2015 and developed into one of the worst human disasters in the 21st century. The majority of Shi’ites in Yemen are Zaydi, the closest sect in Shi’ism to Sunni Islam. Unlike Hezbollah, the Huthis have chosen to maintain some distance between themselves and Iran. It was widely reported that the Iranians advised the Huthis not to invade Sanaa (the capital of Yemen). Nevertheless, the Huthis invaded and occupied a large part of the city. The consensus in the academic literature and among political commentators is that unlike Syria and Iraq, Tehran’s role and influence in Yemen have been modest.
Similarly, the conflict in Iraq is less about sectarianism and more about perceived national security. The majority of Shi’ites in Iraq do not follow Ayatollah Khomeini or his successor Ayatollah Khamenei. Rather, they follow Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who holds a different interpretation of Shi’ism than the one dominant in Iran. Unlike their counterparts in Iran, the clerics in Iraq believe that religious leaders should maintain a distance from policy and not be directly involved in political affairs. Tehran’s main objective in Iraq is to prevent the establishment of a government similar to the ones before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Furthermore, one can argue, no country would like to see political instability next to its borders. A stable and prosperous Iraq would serve Iran’s national interests. Not surprisingly, the Iraqi government, the United States, and the international community have acknowledged the leading role Iran played in defeating the Islamic State in Iraq.
If the reader seeks nonbiased and balanced analysis of the role the IRGC plays in Iran’s defense strategy, Uskowi’s book will disappoint. Still, Temperature Rising is a good example of how the Islamic Republic’s opponents argue against the regime in Tehran and seek to portray it as the source of all evil in the world. PRISM