Beginning with a chapter on Shiite history and political thought, it covers the organization’s founding in the aftermath of the revolution and chronicles the Iran-Iraq War, postwar reconstruction, domestic and foreign policy disputes of the 1990s and 2000s, and ends with Iran’s current military involvement in Syria. It also pays proper respect to Shiite religious culture, which “radiates through every pore of Iran’s Islamic system.” Key themes in Shiism – righteous leadership, resistance against oppression, and martyrdom – are thoroughly examined.
Understanding modern Iran, the IRGC, and the power of conflict is impossible without referencing the Iran-Iraq War. Soon after its founding, the Islamic Republic, and by extension the IRGC, was strengthened by fighting an initially defensive eight-year war against Iraq. Ostovar faithfully examines the Iranian war effort against its Ba’athist neighbor, particularly the debates over the war’s extension in 1982 and its contentious termination in 1988. In Iran’s domestic political parlance the war is styled “the Sacred Defense” and “the Imposed War.” For officials, the war remains a ceaseless rallying cry to resist oppression and export Iran’s revolution. For the IRGC, the war represents the consummation of its creed and mission.
Crucial to the Iran-Iraq War was the propaganda effort to portray the conflict as divinely ordained, and to sanctify those, like the IRGC, who partook in the fight for the soul of Iran and Islam. Mining the IRGC’s own political journals, Ostovar examines wartime propaganda to uncover the subtext underneath. Describing a mural commemorating an archetypal guardsman, he writes, “Although we still conceive of him as a soldier, he is lionized for his religious devotion … he is a willing martyr for whom the ultimate sacrifice is the ultimate reward.” Iran watchers acquainted with funeral ceremonies held for Shiite militias and the IRGC’s fallen will see continuity between Tehran’s framing of the Iran-Iraq War and its involvement in Syria.
Vanguard of the Imam aids in understanding the battles that rage today in the Middle East. The recent fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime illustrates this. Pro-government internet forums in Iran have linked the city’s “liberation” to the liberation of Khorramshahr in 1982, which holds a key place in Tehran’s cosmology of conflict as the last city to be freed from Iraqi occupation. One such post reads, “God liberated Aleppo, the same God which liberated Khorramshahr.” Similarly, newspapers that had commemorated Khorramshahr’s liberation have now been photoshopped to celebrate Aleppo’s deliverance. Even the IRGC’s martyrs from each conflict are being likened to one another.
The central challenge then becomes how best to operationalize what is written about the Guards to inform policy towards the regime they serve. Attempts to deny Tehran a foreign (read: American) adversary overlooks the theological, political, and military mandate the Guards have to “contest arrogance.” That is why a modus vivendi or rapprochement with Washington is impossible, as the past eight years of U.S. Iran policy have amply demonstrated.
Central to the IRGC’s self-perception is the waging of earthly struggle for celestial objectives. Charged with preserving the Islamic revolution, the Guards rely on the existence of continuous conflict with an adversary deemed hostile to their identity.
For the IRGC, no one fills that role better than the United States. Sound U.S. policy requires never losing sight of that fact.