Why you should care
Despite being labeled “terrorists,” this elite force is deepening roots in Iranian society through humanitarian work.
In the week that the Trump administration labeled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, volunteers from the elite force showed a different side as they arrived in rural Khuzestan province to provide aid to victims of the recent floods.
Abbas Parsaei, who runs a medical facility in the city of Mashhad, traveled more than 600 miles across Iran to the stricken village of Dehlavieh, joining dozens of other volunteers from the guards to dig trenches and deliver supplies to families in need.
“We prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for 600 people and take it by boat to villages that are underwater,” Parsaei says as he assembles food parcels. Like more than 10 million other volunteer members of the guards, his efforts are unpaid. “What Trump doesn’t understand is that money isn’t part of my ideology,” he says. “The revolution survives because of the dedication of its supporters.”
The guards’ lead role in the relief efforts following devastating floods that claimed 76 lives and caused $8 billion plus in damage shines a spotlight on the group’s widening role in Iranian society. Branding the guards as a foreign terrorist group was part of Washington’s continuing efforts to hurt Tehran by depriving the organization of vital funding. President Donald Trump’s administration views the guards and particularly the expeditionary Quds force led by Gen. Qasem Soleimani, as instrumental in sowing instability in the Middle East.
Only the guards have helped us.
Naji, flood victim
But in Iran, the role of the guards in public life is more complex. The organization was established after the 1979 revolution in parallel with the conventional army to protect the Islamic establishment from domestic and foreign threats. The 120,000-strong force and its millions of devoted volunteers have used that mandate to turn it into a commercial powerhouse, building a significant presence in the energy and construction industries and the importation of consumer goods.
Pro-democracy groups say the guards also play a leading role in suppressing dissent in Iran and accuse them of using brutal tactics to put down street protests, including during the mass unrest in 2009. The force’s intelligence service has also arrested social and political activists citing national security.
The guards’ role following natural disasters is also well-established — even if their efforts this time have been more high profile. When a massive earthquake hit the western province of Kermanshah last year, a group of Iranian film stars and sports celebrities came to the fore to raise money for the relief efforts. This time it was the guards who took the lead, which also meant sidelining the government of Hassan Rouhani with which they are often at odds.
“Solidifying the social role of the Revolutionary Guards is a guarantee of our national security,” says one regime insider close to hard-liners who are critical of Rouhani. “If we wake up tomorrow and face a crisis, the guards need to be able to rely on a strong network.”
Rouhani and his team gambled on the 2015 nuclear accord — which in return for abandoning the country’s nuclear ambitions led to a lifting of many sanctions — to lure much-needed investment and tentatively open the country to the outside world. But the decision by the U.S. last year to withdraw from the landmark agreement and reimpose crippling sanctions was a severe blow.
The new restrictions rolled back the economic achievements of the Rouhani government, pushed inflation above 25 percent and led to an economic contraction of 3.8 percent from March to November, according to official figures. The U.S.’ belligerence also emboldened the hardliners, including the guards, who have long claimed that the West could not be trusted and that Rouhani had signed up to a bad deal that offered few benefits to the Islamic republic. And for the guards, the recent floods provided an opportunity to bolster their social role and strengthen their network of supporters.
In Hamidiyeh, a village in Khuzestan where both the Dez and Karkheh rivers burst their banks, the volunteers are joined by a group of young clerics as they prepare dishes of rice and chicken to be delivered by boat, along with ladders and spades to aid the relief effort. Men stand on a nearby bridge to measure water levels as others join locals filling sandbags to build flood barriers as they seek to prevent further damage to farmland and houses.
A few days before we visited, Gen. Soleimani had himself arrived to inspect the work and rally volunteers in their humanitarian mission. Iraqi paramilitary forces also crossed the border to join in the relief efforts.
Some Iranians dismiss the guards’ social role as politically motivated and say they only want to manipulate public sentiment or even seize control of the country’s affairs.
However, Naji, a 26-year-old mother of two, says she is grateful for their assistance, even as she refuses orders to leave her home. “Our cattle and crops are gone. Let the flood wash us away too,” she says. “Only the guards have helped us.”
Reza Abedini Sohi, a Tehran-based activist who traveled to the affected region, says there was no doubt that the guards were helping alleviate suffering. “We had to work shoulder [to] shoulder with them,” he says. “When a whole village is at risk, this is not something that activists like us can do much about.”
Ali Salek, who led the engineering efforts in Hamidiyeh, also praises his fellow volunteer guards, while insisting that his country would not be cowed by threats from the U.S. president.
“The young people who have come here know this is part of the plan that Ayatollah Khamenei has outlined to build an Islamic civilization,” he says, his sleeves rolled up and boots muddied, referring to Iran’s supreme leader. “Trump has made a mistake by challenging us. Confrontation with the U.S. means we will either be martyred or we will defeat the U.S. Both are our dreams.”
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