Iran’s Reserve of Last Resort: Uncovering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces Order of Battle
- The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces are organized around headquarters that are meant to coordinate the operations of Iranian paramilitary forces and support the Quds Force’s use of proxy groups such as Iraqi Shi’a militias abroad.
- Their basing in Iran indicates a primary focus on suppressing internal unrest and waging irregular warfare in the rear of an invader rather than on defending against an invasion conventionally.
- Their organizational structure and the pattern of their operations in Syria suggest that they might be challenged to coordinate large-scale (multi-division) operations abroad and possibly at home.
- The fact that the Iranian leadership has not yet had to use them on a large scale to suppress growing domestic unrest suggests that the regime still has a potent reserve force to ensure its survival even if the unrest grows considerably, as long as it does not also face a requirement for large-scale military operations abroad.
Qassem Soleimani’s death, the prospect of further U.S.-Iranian military escalation, and the reemergence of large protests in Iran in recent months raise the question of Iran’s capacity to conduct military operations beyond its borders while suppressing dissent within them. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces are Tehran’s reserve of last resort for both internal and external security challenges. They fought extensively in Syria in 2015–16 and could be used to crush domestic opposition in the last extreme, although they have not yet fully taken on that role.
Their capabilities are limited by both their need to remain available to meet internal challenges to regime survival and their reliance on other paramilitary forces to fill out their ranks. They would likely be challenged to handle a large-scale regional conflict at the same time as major domestic unrest, potentially forcing the regime to choose between maintaining internal stability and continuing some external military operations.
The killing of Qassem Soleimani has focused attention on the branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that he commanded—the Quds Force. The Quds Force is the IRGC’s external operations arm and has conducted the most well-known attacks against American and other international targets including, most recently, ordering the rocket attack that killed one American and wounded several others in Kirkuk, Iraq, on December 27, 2019.1 The Quds Force is only a small portion of the IRGC’s combat power, most of which resides in the divisions and brigades of the IRGC Ground Forces, however.2 Soleimani commanded the Iranian effort to help Syrian despot Bashar al Assad crush Syria’s rebellious population, but Soleimani drew on regular IRGC combat units to support the Quds Force at the peak of that fight.3
Soleimani’s death calls into question the future of the Quds Force’s dominance over Iranian military operations abroad. Its new commander, Esmail Ghaani, has nothing like Soleimani’s presence and influence. The regular IRGC forces may come to play a more significant role in shaping and conducting Iran’s activities around the region. It is therefore urgent to understand the organization and capabilities of the regular IRGC units.
The regime’s response to the most recent round of large-scale protests in Iran underscores this urgency. The regime moved much more rapidly to using brutality and lethal force against protesters in November 2019 than it had in any previous protest suppression operation.4 The operational units of the IRGC Ground Forces seem not to have participated directly in that crackdown, however. They appear to be the only category of forces with an internal security mandate held entirely in reserve during this crisis.
Iran’s leaders committed some of those forces to Syria only at the height of combat operations in 2015 and 2016, moreover. The regime leadership’s apparent reluctance to use the IRGC Ground Forces in the most severe internal crackdown since the revolution and even in the largest military operation Iran has conducted beyond its borders since the Iran-Iraq War suggests that it sees the IRGC Ground Forces as a reserve of last resort. We therefore must consider the scale and capacity of these forces and at what point the regime might have to choose between supporting foreign activities and ensuring its domestic security if protests worsen as external security requirements rise.
The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute has therefore developed an order of battle of the IRGC Ground Forces to help make that assessment. An order of battle is a list of units, their relationships to one another, equipment, structure, leadership, and locations. The basic order of battle presented in this report gives insight into the capabilities the Iranian leadership apparently values most in the IRGC Ground Forces—specifically the ability to organize, plan, and oversee the conduct of military, paramilitary, and internal security operations beyond the scale of what the Quds Force can handle outside Iran and what Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Basij can manage inside the country.
1. Julian E. Barnes, “American Contractor Killed in Rocket Attack in Iraq,” New York Times, December 27, 2019, https://www. nytimes.com/2019/12/27/us/politics/american-rocket-attack-iraq.html.
2. Defense Intelligence Agency, “Iran Military Power: Ensuring Regime Survival and Securing Regional Dominance,” November 19, 2019, https://www.dia.mil/Portals/27/Documents/News/Military%20Power%20Publications/Iran_Military_Power_LR.pdf.
3. Paul Bucala and Frederick W. Kagan, “Iran’s Evolving Way of War: How the IRGC Fights in Syria,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, March 16, 2016, https://www.criticalthreats.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/imce-imagesIrans_ Evolving_Way_of_War_IRGC_in_Syria_FINAL-1.pdf.
4. Nicholas Carl and Kyra Rauschenbach, “Iran File: November 22, 2019,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 22, 2019, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/iran-file/iran-file-november-22-2019.