The period between 1978 and 1988 remains the most important decade for the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the important events that took place within this timeframe continue to exert an immeasurable impact on the outlook of the modern Iranian state. The ten years between the beginning of the 1978-79 Revolution and the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War witnessed the rise of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from a hastily gathered and disorganised militia in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution to become one of the most powerful institutions within the emerging post-revolutionary Iranian state-structure. I will argue that the key to understanding the IRGC’s rise in power and influence is to be found in the eight year long Iran-Iraq War, building on Charles Tilly’s theory of “war-making and state-making” as a guiding framework.
Created by decree from Ayatollah Khomeini on 5 May 1979, from its inception the Revolutionary Guard was but one of many revolutionary organisations competing for influence over Iranian society. The Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 however profoundly changed the role and responsibilities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. From a makeshift revolutionary militia focused on the domestic environment it developed into a well-organised, full-fledged army charged with taking the lead in the Iranian war effort. Volunteers flocked to the IRGC as popular revolutionary fervour was channelled into the War against Iraq, and with the substantial increases in manpower the Revolutionary Guard came to outgrow the regular Iranian Army and become Iran’s principal institution of organised violence. The War at the same time altered the internal Iranian power balance and provided a convenient pretext for the Khomeinist regime and the IRGC to undermine and defeat its internal rivals. The Revolutionary Guard’s increased influence also warranted its infiltration into the civilian spheres of the Islamic Republic, penetrating Iranian society by engaging in politics, industry, education, the distribution of goods and benefits to its main constituents, and developing a substantial weapons industry to name but a few of the IRGC’s extensive activities. The Revolutionary Guard’s dominating role in Iranian society today cannot be understood without reference to the all-important ten year period between 1978 and 1988, leading to the overall conclusion that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was born by Revolution, and raised by War.