As tensions with Tehran escalate, Washington has been struggling to understand the internal thinking of the Iranian government, and especially that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The organization, which functions as an elite military branch and a bulwark of the country’s revolution, is today the most powerful force within Iran’s complicated political structure. Understand the Revolutionary Guards, and you understand a good part of what makes modern Iranian politics tick.
To many outsiders, the organization is little more than a cartoonish Praetorian Guard that oppresses dissent at home and supports a broad range of aggressive military ventures abroad. It is true that it is a major sponsor of groups like Hezbollah, and it played a central role in the violent clampdown against the reformist Green Movement in 2009.
Things look different inside Iran. Having conducted ethnographic research among the Revolutionary Guards over a span of 10 years, including multiple years doing fieldwork with its media producers, I have watched it try to rebrand itself as the defender of a new, nationalist narrative about Iran as the regime enters its fifth decade.
Understanding this shift is key to making sense of the current international tensions and how they are interpreted in Iran. The Trump administration’s dual goals of its “maximum pressure” strategy — using sanctions to bring Iran to the table and to foment dissent in the pursuit of regime change — are in fundamental tension. Pressure from abroad makes it easier for the regime to build domestic solidarity at home. The Revolutionary Guards understands this, and thanks to its rebranding, is perfectly positioned to exploit it.
It is easy to forget that the 1979 revolution in Iran was as much about an anti-imperialist nationalism as it was about religious ideology; for most Iranians, the rallying cry “Neither East nor West” resonated just as loud as the call for Islamic piety.
Especially since the early Cold War, when the Americans and British backed a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, Iranians chaffed at what they saw as Western meddling, including continued support for the shah, whom many considered a foreign puppet. The post-revolution government was so concerned about a repeat coup that it created the Revolutionary Guards to protect itself.
The corps plays a military function, but it operates largely outside the traditional military structure — Ayatollah Khomeini, the main leader of the revolution, did not trust the establishment Iranian armed forces, known as the Artesh, which he believed remained loyal to the shah. He charged the Revolutionary Guards with protecting the revolution domestically, while the Artesh would protect the nation’s borders.
In its first few years, the Revolutionary Guards suppressed internal uprisings in Kurdistan and among the country’s Turkmen minority. Following the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980, the Revolutionary Guards joined the Artesh on the front lines. In the ensuing eight-year war, it mushroomed into a parallel military force, with its own ground, naval and air forces.
It blossomed politically as well: Even though Ayatollah Khomeini’s will had banned the guards and the Artesh from politics, shortly after Khomeini’s death in 1989, the leaders of the Islamic Republic began to grant lucrative contracts to the Revolutionary Guards for rebuilding the postwar infrastructure of the country. By the 1990s it was the wealthiest independent institution in Iran, the powerful and much-feared bastion of the republic’s founding revolutionary orthodoxy.
In the decades after the revolution, the regime’s robust media operations sought to cast the history of the revolution and the subsequent war with Iraq in an anti-imperialist language imbued with Shia Islamic imagery. But the explosion of the Green Movement in 2009 — the largest street demonstrations against the regime since the revolution, in which calls for an “Iranian Republic” to replace the Islamic Republic rang loud — showed that an emphasis on religious ideology was no longer viable.
Soon after the protests, one media producer for the guards told his colleagues in a private meeting in which I was present: “This youngest generation doesn’t understand our revolutionary language anymore. We’re wasting our time with the media we make.”
Rather than seeing the protests as an attack on the regime, he argued that the Revolutionary Guards should see them as an opportunity. “The protesters are not to blame,” he told his colleagues. His own daughters and wife had joined the Green Movement, a story I heard repeatedly throughout my research. “We’re the ones that need to adapt to the realities of our country,” he said. “We need to tell better stories. The stories we’ve told the past 30 years . . . you need a Shia dictionary to understand them. No wonder young people don’t watch what we make.”
Iran had changed dramatically in the 30 years since the revolution. It became not only better educated and more urban, but younger: 70 percent of Iran’s population of 80 million is under the age of 40. The Revolutionary Guards realized that a sizable number of Iranians were tired of the state’s propaganda, and they blamed the guards and its paramilitary Basij force for the suppression of internal dissent.
At the same time, the regime’s propaganda efforts were tanking — few people shopped at the regime’s bookstores, visited its museums, watched its TV programs or bought tickets to its movies. In short, the guardians of the Islamic Republic faced the classic paradox of any successful revolutionary movement: how to transmit the commitment to their revolutionary project from one generation to the next.
The solution, they realized, was there all along. Nationalism is a powerful force, in Iran as much as anywhere else, and it had long united Iranians across the ideological spectrum. Another Revolutionary Guards media producer told his colleagues in a closed-door meeting shortly after the Green Movement, “We have to show young people that we’re here to protect Iran as a nation, not just the Islamic Republic as an idea.”
Over the last decade, they have refocused their media production on depicting how the guards protected Iran from outside aggression, moving religious symbols to the background. With the violence in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, the advent of the Islamic State and the deterioration of the Syrian civil war, a common refrain among Iranians became: “Without the Sepah” — the way the guard is referred to in Persian — “in Damascus, ISIS would be in Tehran.”
These rebranding efforts have included a reinterpretation of the Islamic Republic’s past. The guards recently opened a vast museum in Tehran that narrates the story of the Iran-Iraq war as a triumph of Persian nationalism; in the past, that story had been told as a heroic tale that valorized the soldiers of the war as emulating religious figures such as Imam Hussein, the grandson of prophet Mohammad and the third Shia imam.
One wing of the museum features a large map of the ancient Persian Empire, ruling stretches of Asia. As the visitor continues through the exhibition, Iran’s territory shrinks; the country’s contemporary size appears small in comparison to the glorified empire painted on the wall. The message is clear: Leaders of previous Iranian kingdoms had recklessly given away territory, thinking more about filling their own pockets than about the wellbeing of the nation. When the Islamic Republic was attacked by the Iraqi army, backed by the West, it fought to maintain Iran’s borders, and, by extension, the nation’s dignity as an ancient civilization.
Instead of celebrating martyrs — like the ubiquitous yet rarely visited martyrs museums that dot the country — this museum offers a narrative of nationalism, dignity and pride. “We got Iran back from the hold of Western powers; we retook control of our country,” said Fatemeh, a museum employee and member of the Basij, who spoke on the condition that I use only her first name.
To draw new audiences, the museum, located on the hilltops of north-central Tehran, has invited artists to create exhibitions and installments, courting a more cosmopolitan audience. the very people the martyrs museums pushed away for decades. The museum’s park offers free access to anyone wanting to escape Tehran’s growing expanses of concrete. In the spring and summer, families picnic on the grounds. And it appears to be a success: During my visits, it was always crowded.
Wanting to capture young audiences on social media, the Revolutionary Guards has also invested heavily in music videos that celebrate the Islamic Republic’s armed forces as the defenders of the independence and dignity of an ancient civilization.
The most expensive music video ever produced in Iran — at $385,000 — tells the true story of the downing of an Iran Air passenger flight by an American warship in the Persian Gulf. Intercut with the attack are scenes of a group of multiethnic and multiracial Iranian men, dressed in the style of paramilitary Basijis, marching toward the ship with nothing but the Iranian flag as their weapon. They sing of defending the nation from foreign aggression as the Persian mythical heroes of “Shahnameh,” or “Book of Kings,” did. The song’s lyrics refer only to pre-Islamic Persian history, with no references at all to Islam.
These media campaigns have yielded significant dividends. Today the popularity of General Qassim Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, which oversees its external military operations, is at an all-time high. And a growing number of Iranians see the guards as their best defense against the United States, a conflict that many see in nationalist and anti-imperialist, not ideological, terms.
While the Revolutionary Guards remains a repressive organization, intolerant of dissent, for the moment it has managed to shift public opinion in its favor. The regime has long smeared its domestic critics as tools of Western imperialism, but the generations born after the revolution were skeptical of that message. In large numbers, young people kept voting for leaders who called for domestic reform, and promised dialogue with the West.
The Trump administration’s aggression has changed that. Hard-line factions in the guards and the political establishment have claimed for years that the United States cannot be trusted, despite calls by moderates and reformers for Tehran to take conciliatory measures toward the United States. With Mr. Trump unilaterally pulling out of the international nuclear accord, despite Iran’s compliance, conservatives in the Islamic Republic feel vindicated in their distrust of the United States.
Despite the frustrations that many Iranians have with their political leaders, modern Iranian history teaches that one of the core themes in the country’s political culture is the struggle for independence from foreign powers. The revolution was the most significant milestone in that struggle, but it was also just one part of this larger story. As long as the Trump administration believes it can use sanctions and hostile rhetoric to drive a wedge between the Iranian public and its leaders, the Revolutionary Guards will use that same pressure to enforce solidarity behind it and the regime — and defeat any attempt by the West to bring change to Iran.