In August, news emerged that Russia had begun to use Iran’s Shahid Nojeh Air Base to stage bombing raids on northern Syria. For those familiar with the region, this was a shocking reversal of long-standing Iranian policy—signaling the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that foreign troops had been allowed to use Iranian bases.
The significance was not lost on Iranians. In protest, one member of parliament quoted the revolutionary slogan “Neither East nor West,” which had symbolized Iran’s quest for self-determination and rejection of American and Russian imperialism. National security officials defended the agreement, but within days, Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, announced that Russia’s use of the base had ended. Dehghan explained that Russia’s access had been based on shared strategic interests in Syria and could occur again, but also blamed Russia for “showing off” by publicizing the partnership to begin with. Whatever Dehghan’s intentions, his explanation highlighted the fact that the Syrian conflict had compelled Iran to rethink one of the ideological cornerstones of the Islamic Revolution.
Dehghan’s position was also ironic. In addition to being a government official, Dehghan is a senior officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—Iran’s foremost military institution and one famous for its hard-line politics against foreign influence in Iran. That the agreement with Moscow was said to have been personally arranged by Major General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most revered IRGC commander, only added to the apparent contradiction.
But to base one’s view of the IRGC purely on its outward reputation is to misread it. The IRGC is at once both a champion of Iran’s revolutionary ethos and a pragmatic organization, with an approach to strategic affairs that comes closer to realpolitik than Islamism. Understanding the IRGC is essential to understanding Iranian politics; the organization’s history is in many ways a microcosm of the Islamic Republic’s, from the struggle to carve an independent path to
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