Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is facing criticism on the home front from politicians of all stripes. He’s caught between the left, which wants him to negotiate a settlement with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, and the conservative Republican Guard faction, which opposes any accommodation. There’s been a lot of talk about the Revolutionary Guard and its increasing power. Is it hard to get into the guard?
No. The Revolutionary Guard, or Pasdaran, isn’t an elite subset of the Iranian army. It was formed in 1979 as an entirely freestanding, second military to counter the power of the Artesh, the existing army that had been loyal to the deposed Shah. The 120,000-member guard employs the same personnel as any other army—infantry, fighter pilots, sailors, mechanics, and bureaucrats—so it’s not difficult to enlist. You just have to walk into one of the many recruiting stations all over the country.
Or you can wait to be drafted. Iranian men between 18 and 50 (60 during emergencies) are eligible for the military draft, and those who are actually drafted can opt to serve in either the Revolutionary Guard or the Artesh. While some go for the Pasdaran only because its alumni network offers great career opportunities, most are true believers in the core principles of the Iranian revolution—namely, strict adherence to a particular interpretation of Islam, the unquestioned authority of the supreme leader, and the moral bankruptcy of the West. Generally speaking, Pasdaran members tend to be far more religious or fanatical than their counterparts in the Artesh.
The guard can find a spot for just about anyone—well, except women. Their ranks include high-school dropouts and people with limited literacy. (Unskilled and undereducated recruits are often sent to work on infrastructure projects in Iran’s rural villages.) But only the most ideologically pure can advance. The higher you go in the ranks, the more you are subjected to background checks that focus on your religious and political views. The most powerful officers often have relatives who fought or died in the Iran-Iraq war, and their families and friends have to vouch for their commitment to the supreme leader and the principles of the revolution. When people talk about the Revolutionary Guard grabbing power in every segment of Iranian society, they’re referring to this small number of zealots.
The Pasdaran may not have Ivy League admission rates, but the government still treats it like an elite force in many ways. The guard, which is one-third the size of the Artesh, gets superior facilities and equipment. (The country’s missile silos, for example, are run by the guard.) Even though the government has stocked the Artesh with loyal commanding officers, they still don’t trust the rank and file.
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Explainer thanks Reza Kahlili, author of A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran, and Ali Nader of the RAND Corporation.