RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Before announcing the release of the British marines and sailors yesterday, Iran's president pinned the Medal of Bravery to the chest of the revolutionary guard commander who oversaw their capture. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself emerged from the Revolutionary Guard. To learn more about this elite and powerful force, we turn to two men who've known the guard since it began.
Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy): The Iranian Revolutionary Guard was formed in May 1979, so almost immediately after the revolution. It was set up by the then-supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini to be the guardian of the revolution.
MONTAGNE: That's Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Back in 1979, he was a CIA officer with the hostage task force, as he puts it, for the 444 days Americans were held in Tehran.
Bruce Riedel says the Ayatollah wanted protection against threats by Iran's regular army, loyal to the deposed shah, and against foreign intelligence agencies like the CIA.
Mr. RIEDEL: The Iranians had a vivid memory of 1953, when a coup had been launched against a much less revolutionary government and which had toppled that government and put the shah back in power. And I think you can effectively characterize them as the hardliners within the Islamic republic.
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MONTAGNE: What you're hearing here is a rally in Tehran marking an anniversary of Iran's revolution. Thousands of revolutionary guards are chanting death to America.
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Mr. MOHSEN SAZEGARA (Journalist): The Revolutionary Guard was supposed to be a people army.
MONTAGNE: Mohsen Sazegara helped found the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Mr. SAZEGARA: It was supposed to mobilize the people of Iran in front of any foreign attacks to Iran. And I remember in those days, I studied about the National Guard of the United States, the people army in Switzerland, the army of Israel, Viet Congs in Vietnam to find some other like that. And the charter that we wrote for Revolutionary Guard in those days was something based on such ideas.
MONTAGNE: Mohsen Sazegara says the role of the Revolutionary Guard shifted quickly in 1980, when Iran and Iraq went to war. The Revolutionary Guards acted as human waves in some of the toughest battles, and hundreds of thousands 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. It helped set up Hezbollah and developed other ties with Shia extremists groups. Here again, analyst Bruce Riedel.
Mr. RIEDEL: The Iranian Revolutionary Guard for more than 25 years, for example, has been involved in shipping weapons to Hezbollah and Lebanon, including those missiles that you saw used against Israeli cities last summer. They've also been involved in shipping arms to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian-occupied territories. The ship that was most famously intercepted by the Israelis in 2002, the Karin A that was carrying arms from Iran to Gaza, was a ship that was registered and run by the Revolutionary Guard.
MONTAGNE: As it gained more power within Iran, former Revolutionary Guard leader Mohsen Sazegara became more and more disillusioned. Especially, he says, when the guard turned its attention to making money.
Dr. SAZEGARA: Revolutionary Guard started to intervene in economic and financial affairs in Iran. And gradually, they have established about 100 companies. They're all around the country in several branches, in construction, trading, in manufacturing. And now Revolutionary Guard is something really strange. I mean, 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 KGB because they have secret services and they act like that. And they are like a cartel or trust.
MONTAGNE: Is the Revolutionary Guard at the point where it's a parallel government? That it can freelance with impunity much of the time?
Dr. SAZEGARA: Yeah. You can call, actually, the Revolutionary Guard a kind of government inside the government of Iran.
MONTAGNE: And then the Quds force that we've heard about is a force within the force of the Revolutionary Guard.
Dr. SAZEGARA: And maybe you can call the Quds force the foreign ministry of this government inside the government.
MONTAGNE: And then it has a Secret Service of its own.
Dr. SAZEGARA: Yeah. The Revolutionary Guard has a Secret Service that, you know, arrested journalists, arrested web bloggers, they have their own prison and they do their own jobs against freedom seekers in Iran.
MONTAGNE: Mohsen Sazegara himself was imprisoned in Iran in 2003 for criticizing the government. He later left Iran and is now a visiting researcher at Harvard University.