"The Islamic Revolution does not have any borders…The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps does not even have the word ‘Iran’ in its title. This means that it seeks to defend the Islamic revolution and its achievements without regard to particular borders.”
-- IRGC General Ahmad Qolampour, 2016. Quoted in Temperature Rising.
Nader Uskowi starts his superb new study of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) with a startling personal anecdote. In November 1978, he met with the then-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini outside of Paris just two months before the cleric returned to Iran in triumph following the overthrow of the Shah. Uskowi told the future Supreme Leader that he intended to return to their shared homeland. The Ayatollah reproached him, saying “No, you shouldn’t go back to Iran … the revolution is not about Iran, it’s about the whole region … we have many revolutionaries in Iran, but we need people like you to drive the revolution abroad.” The book is not an autobiography, and Uskowi never explains how he outgrew his youthful enthusiasm for the Islamic revolution to become a fellow at the D.C.-based think tank the Atlantic Council, a consultant for the U.S. Central Command, and one of the Iranian theocracy’s most trenchant critics.
The author’s personal odyssey aside, Temperature Rising takes its place among the few “must read” publications on contemporary Iran. It describes concisely and precisely how over the past 40 years the IRGC has labored to fulfill Ayatollah Khomeini’s pledge to export the Islamic revolution, thereby making Iran the primary danger to the region’s moderate Arab states, to Israel and to the United States.
The “Shia Liberation Army”
One of Uskowi’s major themes is the IRGC’s heavy reliance on proxies and non-Iranian Shia militias from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as force multipliers. Alone, the IRGC’s relatively small Quds Force (meaning Jerusalem Force, itself an indicator of the group’s pan-Islamic aspirations) would be hard pressed to operate simultaneously in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This vast undertaking became possible because of the IRGC’s use of what the author calls the “Shia Liberation Army (SLA)” model. The SLA is an Iranian-controlled “multinational expeditionary army” of some 200,000 fighters recruited, funded, trained and led by the IRGC’s Quds Force. Iran developed this model in the early years of the revolution, during which the IRGC founded Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Afghanistan and the Iraqi Badr Corps—Shia Iraqis who fought with Iran against their own country in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. For Uskowi, “the SLA is not your typical ragtag militia force; it acts as an advanced conventional land force.”
Professionally trained and organized, the SLA deploys with its own armor, artillery, drones and sometimes anti-tank and anti-aircraft capabilities. Although Uskowi does not make the comparison, the SLA recalls the International Brigades that the Soviet Union recruited from Communists and Communist-sympathizers worldwide to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. As with the SLA, the International Brigades formed an elite shock force that spearheaded most Republican battlefield successes during the Civil War. Moreover, both units were political as well as military entities; fighters in the Brigades supported Communism and the Soviet Union, while those in the SLA pledge allegiance to and recognize the infallibility of Iran’s Supreme Leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. The International Brigades, of course, could not save the Spanish Republic from defeat; it remains to be seen whether the SLA can indefinitely perpetuate the Islamic Republic’s campaign for regional hegemony.
The bulk of Uskowi’s book is a detailed analysis of how Tehran has used the SLA to advance its regional aggression since the Islamic Republic emerged in 1979. The historical sections tie in directly to the book’s coverage of current events by illustrating the continuities in Iran’sexpansionist military practices. Names drawn from today’s headlines—IRGC-QF Commander General Qassem Soleimani, current Iraqi Shia militia leaders Abu Ali al-Muhandis, Qais al-Qhazali and Hadi al-Ameri—all cut their teeth fighting for Iran against Iraq during the 1980s, and the Houthi Shia rebels in Yemen were first radicalized when they visited Tehran shortly after the revolution. Besides this historical background, Temperature Rising contains the most complete and up-to-date description of Iran’s ongoing military machinations throughout the Middle East. The author devotes separate sections to the SLA’s four main campaigns:
• Forging Lebanese Hezbollah. Uskowi details how the IRGC-QF helped found Hezbollah and turned it—along with the Iraqi Badr Brigade and Afghan militias—into the nucleus of the SLA. He shows how Iran provides virtually all of Hezbollah’s funding and describes important recent developments, such as the Quds Force’s “precision program” designed to enhance the accuracy and lethality of Hezbollah missiles by upgrading their guidance systems. Uskowi also shatters the illusion that Hezbollah is primarily a military, rather than a terrorist, organization, by showing how the IRGC helped the group pioneer the tactic of suicide bombings in the 1980s, among other examples.
• Abetting Shia Militias in Iraq. Uskowi traces the origins of today’s largely Shia and Iranian-controlled Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) from a variety of IRGC-trained groups forged during the Iran-Iraq war. These militias were directly responsible for the deaths of some 500 U.S. servicemembers during the Second Iraq War of 2003-2011. The book’s comprehensive analysis of the many PMF leaders and groups and their ties to Tehran is an indispensable reference tool for understanding Iran’s objectives and capabilities in Iraq.
• Aiding the Houthis in Yemen. Qassem Soleimani himself described the Shia Houthi seizure of Yemen’s capital in 2014 as a “golden opportunity” to support an insurgency almost 1,500 miles from Tehran. Another IRGC General boasted that assistance to the Houthis was integral to Iran’s goal of bringing about “the unification of all [Shia] Islamic territories.” Iran has worked assiduously to turn the Houthi movement into a Yemenite version of Hezbollah, supplying it with missiles to launch at Saudi Arabia as a complement to the ones the Lebanon-based terrorist group aims at Israel.
• Winning the Syrian Civil War. The SLA’s signal achievement was snatching victory from the jaws of defeat for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Before Moscow and Tehran intervened in 2015, Assad’s days in power appeared numbered. A massive injection of Russian airpower and SLA ground forces turned the war’s tide and contributed more to Assad’s eventual victory than did the dictator’s own forces. This clout was on display during the battle for Aleppo in 2016, in which General Soleimani orchestrated the SLA’s largest campaign ever, bringing together IRGC and regular Iranian army troops, Shia militias from Afghanistan and Iraq, and Hezbollah forces from Lebanon, all strengthened by Russian air support. The victory in Aleppo tempted Iran to move to stage two of its Syria gamebook, in which it mounted direct air attacks against Israel from Syrian territory.
But Iran Is Not 10 Feet Tall
The most important contribution of this book, however, is its policy recommendations. These are more implicit than explicit, but they derive directly from the author’s analysis of the IRGC’s strengths and weaknesses:
•The total cost of Iran’s foreign adventures is approaching $20 billion per year—5 percent of Iran’s GDP. This level of expenditure may not be sustainable over the long run; tougher sanctions on Iran could make deploying the SLA prohibitively expensive.
•Israel has severely attrited Iranian capabilities in Syria over the past year; the SLA there is stretched thin. Strong U.S. political and military support for Jerusalem’s defensive campaign in Syria could force Tehran to rethink its effort to use Syria as a platform to attack the Jewish state.
•SLA depredations are bringing the U.S., Israel and moderate Sunni Arab states together. The closer the intelligence and military cooperation among them, the harder it will be for Tehran to continue its policies of expansion throughout the region, especially in areas—such as Yemen and Lebanon—that are distant from Iran.
•Iraqis are increasingly critical of Iran’s efforts to steer Baghdad away from the U.S. and Western camp. A continued strong U.S. military and political presence in Iraq will likely accelerate this criticism.
The Jury is Still Out
Uskowi compares Iran’s complex system of parallel Islamic and Republican political institutions to the Communist Party/State division within the old Soviet Union. In both cases, the regime’s ideological element—Communism in the Soviet Union and radical Islamism in Iran—wielded the real power.
But another analogy is even more telling. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought global dominance, just as Iran is bent on regional hegemony in the Middle East today. The Soviets tried to undermine NATO and drive the U.S. from the Third World, just as Iran hopes to expel the U.S. from the Middle East, clip the wings of the region’s Sunni Arab powers and destroy Israel. Washington’s strong support of NATO and robust defense of Western interests throughout the world yielded a decisive Cold War victory over Communism. Some analysts judge that Islamist Iran is today suffering from internal political and economic pressures similar to those that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Determination on the part of the U.S., Europe, Israel and our Sunni Arab allies to keep up the external pressure on Iran—just as we did on the Soviets during the Cold War—may yet yield a comparable victory.
Temperature Rising: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Wars in the Middle East By: Nader Uskowi 226 pp. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.
Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report