On April 22, Iran marked the 44th anniversary of the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as de facto the country’s second national military force, parallel to the regular Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh). It is because of this framing of the IRGC that some Western countries, particularly in Europe, have remained hesitant to sanction it as a foreign terrorist organization. But there is nothing discretely “Iranian” about the IRGC. And its notorious enmity toward Israel is an aberration in Iranian history.
The founding principles of the IRGC
Article I of the constitution of the IRGC makes it clear that “its goal is to protect Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its achievements and persistently struggle to achieve the divine aims, spread the rule of law of God in accordance with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s laws and to fully strengthen the Islamic Republic’s defensive foundations through cooperation with other armed forces and through the military training and organizing of popular forces.” This provision signals that the IRGC’s priority is the protection of a cause — the Islamic Revolution — with the country itself almost of secondary importance. Indeed, the IRGC constitution conspicuously does not even touch upon the responsibility of guarding Iran’s security or territorial integrity until later articles. And as the national Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran notes in Article 143, that latter task falls to Iran’s Army, the Artesh, as its primary function. Thus, the IRGC is at its core an ideological army, not a national one.
Considering this dynamic, the Iranian system must endeavor to indoctrinate the Artesh with the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ethos. The Artesh has an Ideological and Political Organization alongside a representative directly appointed by the supreme leader to ensure loyalty to the velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist). A United States intelligence assessment from 1984 notably underscores the fearsome nature of this apparatus, which is driven by paranoia among the clerical establishment that the Artesh retains loyalties to the former Pahlavi monarchy. As such, the U.S. intelligence document concludes, “the system of informers and political/ideological officers is so extensive that we judge the regular Iranian armed forces are unable to pose a serious threat to the clerical regime.” Indeed, despite the commanders-in-chief of both the IRGC and Artesh holding seats on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Iran’s Army is comparatively and purposely under-resourced due to this historical suspicion of its allegiances.
Israel’s longstanding ties with Iran’s Army
Because the Artesh is Iran’s national military, it is the entity that Israel traditionally had close relations with before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and even for a limited period afterward. Israeli arms sales to Iran started in the late 1950s, according to declassified U.S. intelligence records. That relationship stemmed from a shared threat perception of Arab powers and Soviet military support at the time. As one American intelligence report noted in 1985, citing unclassified sources, “Israel regularly sold armaments to Iran during the Shah’s reign, mainly small arms, mortars, and ammunition; provided engine overhaul and maintenance support for Iran’s air force and army; and extended technical support to Iran’s infant defense industry.”
But the arms trade may have even included advanced weaponry. In 1977, Israel and Iran inked a series of oil-for-arms contracts, codenamed Project Flower, which allegedly included a deal for Israel to modify advanced surface-to-surface missiles for Iran that could even be customized to fit a nuclear warhead. An Iranian general visited Israel for a test of the missile. Some officials in Israel denied the documents, which were later published by the Islamic Republic; whereas, according to journalist Ronen Bergman, the Israelis only intended to provide an “outdated” version of the missile. Nevertheless, these episodes reveal the degree of intimacy between the Israeli security establishment and Iran’s traditional army in the pre-revolutionary period.
Israeli trust in the Artesh lasted even after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Some estimates suggested the value of continued arms transfers from Israel to Iran was in the billions of dollars in the early 1980s. And during the Iran-Iraq War, Israel brokered a deal authorized by the Reagan administration to supply arms to Artesh officers who were mired in a feud with the IRGC. According to one incident, reported by The Washington Post, the IRGC seized the first such shipment at Tehran’s airport, which resulted in the Artesh later redirecting the weapons delivery flights to more secure locations in Tabriz and Bandar Abbas.
Even in 1985, a report from the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Directorate of Intelligence suggested, “We believe the Israeli Government’s relatively benign attitude towards the sales is influenced by the same strategic concerns that impelled Israel to forge links to Iran in the late 1950s.” The U.S. intelligence community concluded, “Israelis want to retain the option to restore ties with Iran.” Israel also calculated that keeping Iraq consumed with fighting against Iran would distract Baghdad and Tehran enough to deflect attention and resources away from targeting the Jewish state.
Among the factors that might compel a change in the Israeli government’s outlook, the 1985 document suggests, would be an inability to maintain plausible deniability or if the weapons were used against Israel. The latter is why Israel focused on empowering elements in the Artesh rather than the IRGC in those early years. In fact, Israel had trained over 400 Iranian army officers before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with some who participated in the training serving in their posts as late as 1986. Likewise, one of the interlocutors whom Israel utilized in these arms transfers — Yaacov Nimrodi, who served as the Israeli defense attaché before the Islamic Revolution — continued to maintain some of his same contacts in Tehran after the shah’s ouster. Nimrodi notably liaised with Iran’s Ministry of Defense, which, at the time, focused on resourcing the Artesh as the IRGC maintained its own separate ministry for this purpose before a reorganization and unification of both ministries in 1989.
Over the ensuing decades, the Islamic Republic attempted to purge and purify the Artesh while keeping it marginalized within the broader state power structure. But many Israelis to this day think Iran could be a natural partner as long as the country gave up its pursuit of ideologically driven regional dominance, disavow calls for the destruction of Israel, and were instead to again allow the regular army to pursue Iranian national interests. Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy raised just such a prospect on CNN, on March 15, in the context of the Iranian-Saudi agreement to normalize relations concluded that same day. Rhetorically, he asked “whether the time has come […] to try and assess whether there is a possibility of finding a […] rapprochement between Israel and Iran.” Halevy went on to recount the two countries’ warm relations during Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s rule and the fact that Israel did not seek conflict with Iran at the outset of the Islamic Revolution. But such rapprochement would be unthinkable with the current Iranian clerical establishment, especially given the primacy of the IRGC in the national security decision-making process. It would require regime change.
Nevertheless, the will on the part of Israelis to rebuild ties with Iranians remains present even today. This can be seen in the historic visit of Iran’s exiled Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi to Israel — his first — as the Jewish state commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) in April. Pahlavi received a notably warm reception when meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog. And he reminded Israelis of the enduring bonds that exist between the two nations, dating back to when Cyrus the Great liberated the Jewish people — a history the Islamic Republic has arrested Iranians for commemorating.
In the end, the IRGC is a manifestation of the Islamic Republic and not the Iranian people. In fact, one of the system’s primary nemeses, Israel, has throughout history seen Iran as a natural friend, not an inexorable foe. Western governments that hesitate to sanction the IRGC because they perceive it as an inherently national military organ utterly misunderstand its mission.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Iran Program. His research focuses on leadership dynamics in Iran, the IRGC, and Iran’s relationship with Israel.
This article is part of a series about Iran and Israel made possible by a grant from the Iranian American Jewish Federation of New York and the Nazee & Joseph Moinian Foundation.
Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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