Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard special forces participate in military training near the Gulf in April 2006.
Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard special forces participate in military training near the Gulf in April 2006. AFP/Getty Images
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was once a member of his country's Revolutionary Guard, the force that recently captured 15 British sailors in the waters between Iran and Iraq.
Before announcing the Britons' release Wednesday, Ahmadinejad pinned a medal of bravery to the chest of the Revolutionary Guard commander who oversaw their capture.
Analyst Bruce Reidel was a CIA officer focused on Iran when the Revolutionary Guard established itself as a major force.
"The Iranian Revolutionary Guard was formed in May 1979, almost immediately after the revolution," Reidel said. "It was set up by the then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini to be the guardian of the revolution."
Now associated with the Brookings Institutions Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Reidel says the ayatollah wanted protection against threats by Iran's regular army, loyal to the previous government, and foreign intelligence agencies, like the CIA.
"Iranian's had a vivid memory of 1953, when a coup had been launched against a much-less revolutionary government … and put the shah back in power," Reidel said. "I think you can effectively characterize them [the Revolutionary Guard] as the hardliners within the Islamic Republic."
Mohsen Sazegara helped found the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and says the group was originally intended to be a popular force like the Swiss army, the National Guard in the United States or Vietnam's Viet Cong.
"The Revolutionary Guard was supposed to be a people's army," Sazegara said. "It was supposed to mobilize the people of Iran in front of any foreign attacks to Iran."
In 1980, when Iran and Iraq went to war, the Revolutionary Guard acted as human waves in some of the toughest battles. Hundreds of thousands of fighters perished.
At the same time, the Guard began to export the ideals of the revolution throughout the Middle East. The Quds Brigade acted as its external affairs branch, helping set up Hezbollah and developing other ties with Shia extremist groups.
"The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, for more than 25 years, has been involved in shipping weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, including [the] missiles used against Israeli cities last summer," analyst Reidel said. "They've also been involved in shipping arms to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian occupied territories."
Former Revolutionary Guard leader Sazegara says he became disillusioned with the organization as they gained more power within Iran. What bothered him most, he says, was when the Revolutionary Guard turned its attention to making money.
"The Revolutionary Guard started to intervene in economic and financial affairs in Iran," Sazegara said. "And, gradually, they have established about 100 companies all around the country, in construction, in trading, in manufacturing
"And now, the Revolutionary Guard is something really strange. It's an organization which is like a political party because they have 80 seats in the parliament, they have more than half of the members of the cabinet. They are like the KGB because they have secret services, and the act like that. And they are like a cartel or trust."
Sazegara, now a visiting researcher at Harvard University, was imprisoned in Iran in 2003 for criticizing the government.
"You can call the Revolutionary Guard a kind of government inside the government of Iran," he said.