IRGC Messaging: Insight into a Revolutionary Regime
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is extremely influential in Iranian national security affairs. It affects the formulation and execution of policy regarding Iran’s nuclear program, conflict in Syria, global asymmetric operations, domestic security, and many other matters. The IRGC leadership constantly makes public statements, tailored for a variety of audiences, sometimes with remarkable candor. Analyzing the patterns and nuances of those public statements provides critical insight into the way some of Iran’s decision-makers are thinking about their security challenges and their own strategies. On the issues of greatest concern to the United States, the IRGC leadership seems to be unified and tightly bound with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on a platform of defiance.
With very few exceptions the messaging of the IRGC leadership is unified, consistent, and reflective of the Supreme Leader’s position. For example, Khamenei issued a rare explicit warning to Israel during his widely-covered March 2013 Nowruz address. Khamenei cautioned, “[Israel] sometimes threatens us with a military strike, but they themselves know that if they make any mistake the Islamic Republic of Iran will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.” IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari affirmed this declaration a little more than a month later: “The Supreme Leader’s deterrence warnings to our enemies are serious and based on the realities and capabilities of Islamic Iran’s decisive and defensive power.” Two days earlier, IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami said, “Everything that the Supreme Leader orders is based on realities that exist within our defensive powers. If Israel makes a mistake, all of his statements will be put to action.” Speaking at the same event, Armed Forces General Staff Deputy IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Hejazi said, “We are preparing our armed forces and have used all capabilities so that we can operationalize the Supreme Leader’s statement in the smallest amount of time. We hope that [Israel] does not act stupidly.” Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) deputies IRGC Major General Mostafa Izadi and IRGC Brigadier General Ali Shadmani also reiterated this threat almost verbatim in the following weeks. The consistency and timing of these senior commanders’ statements suggests a coordinated messaging campaign.
The significance of messaging depends in part on the influence of the messengers. The IRGC is led by a small core network of individuals. The origins of this network can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq War, during which this group shared common professional military experiences and built enduring personal relationships. This network now dominates the upper echelons of Iran’s military and controls planning, operations, intelligence, covert and irregular warfare operations, and internal security. These individuals are positioned to influence the decision-making and worldview of Iran’s senior leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and significantly impact Iranian policy on issues of critical importance to U.S. national security. Many of these individuals are also very active organizational messengers.
The following is an overview of IRGC senior leadership messaging from 2010 to 2013 on critical national security issues, including: the IRGC’s response to an attack on Iranian territory, Iran’s involvement in Syria, and Iran’s nuclear program. This is not a comprehensive compilation of IRGC messaging. The data selected, however, are representative of the IRGC’s consistent, unified messaging on these topics and an accurate reflection of IRGC public positions. Available evidence does not indicate diverging viewpoints among the IRGC’s senior leadership on these issues.
Rhetoric, of course, does not equal intent, nor does it always reflect reality. IRGC messaging is as much a psychological operation as it is a public affairs campaign. Iran perceives itself to be actively engaged in conflict with Israel and the West, and Iran’s response to this perception has been, in part, to mount an aggressive messaging campaign aimed at deterring its enemies, assuring a domestic audience, and supporting its claims of regional dominance. The intent of this overview is not to argue that IRGC messaging reflects reality in all cases, but rather, to lay out the positions that many of the IRGC’s key decision-makers have asserted repeatedly in order to gain insight into the regime’s behavior.
IRGC Response to an Attack on Iranian Territory
Will the IRGC consider the United States complicit in an Israeli strike?
Yes. Senior IRGC commanders have stated that Iran will consider the U.S. complicit in an Israeli strike, including IRGC Commander Major General Jafari, who stated on September 16, 2012, “I doubt that Israel would perform such an attack without the permission of the United States because they know of the security of Iran’s nuclear facilities…. Israel is small and it would only [attack unilaterally] if it were caught up in madness and insanity.” The significance of this distinction lies in what it portends about the IRGC’s likely response to an Israeli strike. IRGC leaders have said repeatedly that they would strike both Israeli and American targets if Israel launches a strike. IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh stated this explicitly on September 23, 2012: “We cannot imagine the Zionist regime starting a war without America's support….Whether the Zionist regime attacks with or without U.S. knowledge, we will definitely attack U.S. bases in Bahrain, Qatar, and Afghanistan.” Hajizadeh makes such threats from a position of authority, as the force that he commands has operational control over Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missile arsenal.
How would the IRGC respond to an attack on Iranian territory?
The IRGC has repeatedly and consistently stated that its “conventional” response to a strike on Iranian territory will entail launching short- and medium-range ballistic missiles at Israel and U.S. interests in the region and threatening global energy security in the Persian Gulf. The opening vignette is indicative of IRGC messaging on its intentions to launch missiles at Israel post-strike. Senior Advisor to the Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS) IRGC Brigadier General Morteza Ghorbani spoke to the scale of Iran’s response on September 21, 2012: “Everything depends on one order from the Supreme Leader, and with his command 2,000 missiles will be launched at the enemies’ naval ports and airbases.” Two days later, IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Salami articulated the scope of Iran’s targeting: “We have identified the enemies’ vital interests and have created an aggressive power structure for striking a major blow and destroying these vital interests…. We know that their vital interests are [their] regional bases, the security of the Zionist regime, the security of energy flow, and the safety of the [their] military personnel.” This commentary is congruent with what the U.S. military would call a “centers-of-gravity” analysis of the enemy by which planners determine what effects they must generate on their opponent in order to achieve their objectives. IRGC Navy Commander Brigadier General Ali Fadavi painted a dramatic picture of his force’s response in a June 2012 ceremony honoring “martyrs of direct combat with the U.S.”: “We do not want the caskets of thousands of American soldiers to be sent from the Persian Gulf to the U.S., but if we see any stupid move from the enemy…this will be only one part of Iran's response…. America knows that the world’s future is connected to the Persian Gulf. If something happens in this region, all of their material interests will be in danger.”
Would the IRGC launch asymmetric attacks outside of the region?
IRGC commanders have threatened an asymmetric response outside of the region in the event of a strike on Iran; however, not surprisingly, the IRGC has been mostly quiet about any potential global asymmetric attacks. Perhaps tellingly, the Supreme Leader’s Senior Military Adviser, Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, has been the most forthcoming on this topic. Safavi said on August 24, 2012, “Wisdom says that Iran’s armed forces should prepare and strengthen themselves for all-out defensive and retaliatory attacks on the enemies, even outside the region.” Safavi’s remarks came less than one week after the Supreme Leader said that Iran’s response to a strike “will not be merely regional, but will cover a vaster scene.” Safavi echoed this sentiment one year later: “In the event of any type of military or security conspiracy against Iran, the Supreme Leader will choose the geographical location and manage the battlefield.” IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Salami was more explicit in a threat made on September 7, 2012: “In the case of any attack against Iran we will bring war inside the enemies’ borders.”
Iranian Activity in Syria
Iranian support for Bashar al Assad in the ongoing conflict in Syria is well known. Syria is central to Iran’s vital strategic interests in the region and has long been Iran’s closest state ally. Fear of losing Syria has prompted an extensive, expensive, and integrated Iranian effort in order to maintain Iranian influence regardless of Assad’s fate. Several IRGC commanders have underscored Iran’s commitment to preserving its interests in Syria while fostering a narrative that the conflict is driven by foreign forces seeking to destroy the “axis of resistance” – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Palestinian groups – against Israel. Iran has deployed this narrative to defend its involvement in Syria and shield its self-perceived status of vanguard of the Islamic world. Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Suleimani, who directs Iran’s regional activities, plainly stated the thesis of the Islamic Republic’s narrative on April 15, 2013: “The enemy is not pursuing Assad’s destruction in Syria, their goal is much greater. They are trying to destroy the resistance, and they have targeted Hezbollah.” AFGS Basij Affairs and Defense Culture Deputy Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri argued on March 23, 2013 that the existence of foreign elements among the Syrian opposition supports the Iranian narrative: “The composition of the Syrian opposition is an expression of the legitimacy of the Syrian government and nation. The U.S., British, French, Arab reactionaries, Turks, and the Zionist regime currently make up the anti-Syrian ring; this combination is a good indicator of the anti-resistance front.” Head of the AFGS Passive Defense Organization Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali expressed the centrality of Syria to Iran’s regional goals on November 22, 2012: “Iran has been a powerful country in its encounters with the [West] in the soft-war, the front line of which is the conflict in Syria. We hope that Syria will be able to overcome its problems, because if Syria wins this war we will be able to strengthen our defensive position against Israel and take a large step towards becoming a regional power.” Each of these commander’s remarks echo in various ways the Supreme Leader’s stance on the issue, as expressed in a speech he gave to Hajj officials on November 19, 2012: “The reality of the Syria issue is that [Israel and the West] plan to disrupt the chain of resistance against Israel in the region.”
The two airstrikes reportedly carried out by Israel against Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) weapons convoys in Syria in early May prompted the IRGC senior leadership to speak to the nature of Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in the conflict and potential responses. Quds Force Commander MG Suleimani warned on May 13 that “just as stones were replaced by missiles with a range of 100 kilometers…the resistance will soon produce missiles with a range of 400 kilometers.” The “resistance” is a term used to describe the anti-Israeli front that includes the Islamic Republic, LH, Syria, and certain Palestinian groups. Suleimani’s comments followed a similar statement made by LH Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on May 9: “Syria will give the resistance special weapons it never had before. We mean game-changing....” Head of the Basij Organization Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naghdi on May 10 alluded to militia forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad that have formed in Syria with Iran’s support: “Israel’s attack on Syria was a great scandal for them…. Hamas was formed with an enemy attack on Palestine and, today, this model has been repeated in Syria. God willing, a strong corps will be formed in Syria that wipes Israel from the pages of time.” Naghdi’s remarks fell on the same day that Chief of the AFGS Major General Hassan Firouzabadi said, “Fortunately, with [Assad’s] strategic administration, the people’s resistance composed of Lebanese Hezbollah has been formed throughout Syrian territory, and [this force] is now cohesive.” Finally, when asked on May 17 about groups forming to defend the sacred Shi’a sites in Syria, AFGS Basij Affairs & Defense Culture Deputy IRGC Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri said, “Yes, many measures are taking place in this field that are constantly increasing.” Jazayeri’s comment is likely an allusion to the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, a group consisting of Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militants, LH fighters, and elements of the Syrian armed forces that have organized in Syria to protect the Sayyeda Zeinab Shrine in Damascus.
Iran’s nuclear program
The IRGC’s stance on Iran’s nuclear program is an important indicator of the regime’s stance and approach to negotiations, as the organization is deeply involved in the program, including security, procurement networks, and research. The IRGC’s senior leadership has unequivocally expressed support for Iran’s right to possess nuclear technology and rejected the West’s ability to influence the regime’s calculus regarding its nuclear program. Perhaps the most unequivocal expression of this sentiment came from IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Salami, who said on February 3, 2013, “The P5+1 formula is no longer able to prevent the Iranian nation from taking steps in nuclear technology. We are at the apex of our power today and taking last steps towards victory, and this is the final obstacle.” Two of the IRGC’s most important strategic thinkers have also clearly stated IRGC positions on Iran’s nuclear program. Deputy Chief of the AFGS Major General Gholam Ali Rashid said on April 30, 2011, “The [West] and its regional supporters should know that, as they could not isolate or weaken the Iranian nation and could not trample upon the Iranian nation’s rights through their support for Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, they will not succeed in ignoring [Iran’s] inalienable rights by continuing their threats, sanctions and Iranophobia strategy.” AFGS Strategic Affairs Deputy and Strategy Advisor to the Supreme Leader Major General Mostafa Izadi said one year later, “As the Supreme Leader has stated, nuclear energy is not a problem for the enemy. They are just trying to fight the Islamic system as a whole.” One of the IRGC’s senior-most intelligence officials, AFGS Intelligence Deputy Brigadier General Gholam Reza Mehrabi, in a rare public statement on February 16, 2013, vigorously defended Iran’s nuclear program and rejected the notion that Tehran should negotiate with the U.S. on this issue: “If we back down they will advance further, therefore we resist. Iran is a great country with abundant holdings; it has a powerful military, intelligent people, decisive leadership, many natural resources and energy. Therefore, if we are present and aware nothing will happen.”
The Islamic Republic’s opaque decision-making process, myriad institutions with apparently overlapping responsibilities, and complex informal influence networks present significant challenges for those who seek to understand and anticipate Iranian behavior. However, the IRGC, as the single most influential institution in the Islamic Republic, can serve as a signpost for some issues, particularly national security affairs. The informal influence network that dominates the upper echelons of the IRGC has proven to be remarkably cohesive through political and security crises, and we can expect that its members will continue to have significant influence in the years to come. We can therefore look to changes (or consistency) in this network’s positions on key issues in order to assess the direction in which the regime is moving. On those issues about which we currently care a great deal – Iran’s nuclear program, regime response to a strike, and Syria – these individuals have time and again made their positions very clear. Until the IRGC’s leadership says or does something to indicate that its position has changed significantly, we would do well to consider a scenario in which their rhetoric, in fact, equals intent.