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Ordinary Brother, Exceptional General

2 9 0

At a humble Revolutionary Guard “cultural office” run by Iran-Iraq War veterans in southern Tehran, a poster pinned to the wall displayed portraits of about a hundred men identified as the “martyred commanders” of a single division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). One of the veterans I was there to interview noticed my interest in the poster and explained, with unmistakable pride: “We have at least 20 times as many fallen commanders in war as any other army.”

Many guards and Basijis, as the volunteers who worked with the IRGC were known, are proud of a signature battle order in the organization: that the commanders fought alongside soldiers on the frontline, instead of “laying back” in the command headquarters. “They were great commanders, but they had to risk and be present on the frontline,” the veteran continued. “It was hard for us to lose them, but the IRGC’s strength was that other great ones replaced them immediately.”

Qasem Soleimani, the controversial commander of the IRGC Quds Force, was an ordinary IRGC commander in this regard, but also an exception. He was himself one of the “great” young commanders who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, having started as a Revolutionary Guard in his hometown of Kerman and progressed to higher levels of command the way all guards were promoted in the absence of a systematized hierarchy and professional training: by showing dedication, initiative, and a penchant for bold, independent action.

Such was the dynamic that ran the entirety of the IRGC in its early years. A nonprofessional, volunteer-based militia, the IRGC was introduced after the 1979 revolution as a transitional force to impose order and repress counterrevolutionary uprisings until the police and the army could be restored. But as conservatives and radicals struggled for power in the early 1980s, the IRGC was institutionalized as a radical militia—and, later, military—parallel........

© Foreign Affairs