Protecting the Theocracy

Iran's real muscle is the Revolutionary Guard

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Founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps reports directly to Iran's supreme spiritual leader, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and stands apart from the traditional military—a reflection of suspicions that the armed forces were too secular and vulnerable to western influence.

The Guard maintains its own land, air, and naval forces and an intelligence unit against external threats. It also controls Iran's ballistic missiles.

Another branch, the volunteer paramilitary force called the Basij, or the Mobilization of the Oppressed, is used primarily for domestic control. Its roots lie in the often suicidal wave-attacks launched by Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Bombs. But it is the IRGC foreign operations wing, the Quds Force, that is drawing the most scrutiny. U.S. officials assert that the Quds Force is supplying sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs and other weapons, along with training, to Shiite radicals in Iraq as well as to insurgents in Afghanistan. The unit also aids groups the U.S. labels as terrorists: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Iran portrays them as national liberation movements.

Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a former Guard officer, as are some two thirds of his cabinet. At least 80 of the 290 seats in parliament are held by former guards, while others occupy posts throughout the government. Guard commanders helped blunt the failed reformist drive of former President Mohammad Khatami.