Vanguard of the Imam – Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

24.02.2021
Mert Aslan Assistant, Foreign Policy

Vanguard of the Imam – Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Afshon Ostovar

Ostovar, A. (2016) Vanguard of the Imam – Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. New York: Oxford University Press. 306 pages.

ISBN: 978-0199387892


Afshon Ostovar, who completed his undergraduate education in the field of Near East Studies at the University of Arizona between 2000-2003, received his doctorate in History from the University of Michigan in 2009, which he started in the same year. While Ostovar continued his doctoral studies, he worked as a fellow at Combating Terrorism Center for three years. He worked for more than ten years in important projects, especially in National Security and the Middle East. He has been working as Associate Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, National Security Affairs since 2016. Ostovar, who specializes in the areas of religion-based security and conflict in the Middle East, is also interested in the Middle East policies of the United States. Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which he wrote in 2016, is the only book of Ostovar, who has many academic studies on Iran’s regional-scale military power elements. In addition, Ostovar has written various articles about Iran in the leading media organizations and magazines such as Foreign Affairs, New York Times, and Reuters.

Although Afshon Ostovar wrote his book “Vanguard of the Imam” along the axis of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the historical roots of the Shia faith, the politicization of the clerics in Iran, the role of the IRGC in the Iran-Iraq War, the effects of the Arab Spring on the IRGC, the role of IRGC in the Syrian Civil War, its fight against ISIS and the Nuclear program of Iran are the topics which are also included in this book. Ostovar, who especially examines the effects of religious, ideological, cultural, and political factors in the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also mentions the changes the IRGC has undergone in the historical process. Ostovar also refers to the effects of the Shia belief in the historical process and the process that led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Ostovar’s work is divided into thirteen main chapters: “Introduction”, “From Ali to Khomeini”, “Vanguard of the Imam”, “The Imposed War”, “The Long War”, “Exporting the Revolution”, “Warriors of Karbala”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “The War on Terror”, “Big Bang, Big Crunch”, “In Defense of the Family of the Prophet”, “Epilogue” and “Conclusion”. In addition, the author also includes many sub-titles in the chapters, and “Notes”, “Bibliography” and “Index” sections at the end of the book.

The “introduction” part of the book begins with the narration and analysis of the actions taken by university students against the British Embassy in Tehran on November 29, 2011. The information that the students, who took part in the protests that started after acceptance of British for the US sanctions against the Iranian banking systems, are members of a government-sponsored military organization, the Basij Organization, were among the striking details in this chapter. The mentioned Basij Organization is accepted as the representative of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the country. One of the main motivations of the Basij Organization and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which are symbolic representatives of the Supreme Leader, is the Shia belief that legitimizes the movements of the organizations. Other basic topics included in the introduction can be listed as “Brief Overview of the IRGC”, “Pro-clerical Activism”, “Primacy of the Leader” and “Conflict and State Formation”. The last part of the introduction is completed by explaining the chapters in the book.

In the second chapter titled “From Ali to Khomeini”, Ostovar explains Shiite Islam, which constitutes the moral, historical, and spiritual stones of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, based on the name of the chapter. In the section, Imam Hussein, who has an important place in the Shia belief, the Karbala, which is still effective in Iran, the definition of Shi’ism and the effects of the 1953 Mosaddeq Coup in the period leading up to the revolution are mentioned. Khomeini’s understanding of “velayat-e faqih” is also included in the section. The spread of Khomeini’s ideas and ideologies since the 1970s is also described at the end of the chapter. This chapter is very important in understanding Iran’s religious structuring in the post-revolutionary period.

The third part, which is also the name of the book, “Vanguard of the Imam”, begins with Khomeini’s statement in 1979 that explains that Islam should be perceived as an ideology rather than a religion. In the chapter, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran just before the revolution is explained. The section, which also includes the difficulties faced by the IRGC in its establishment as a guardian of the revolution, also touches on the connections between the Mujaheddin of the Islamic Revolution and the IRGC. In the last part of the chapter, the increasing influence of pro-Khomeini groups in order to prevent counter-revolution by the USA is mentioned.

The fourth and fifth chapters, “The Imposed War” and “The Long War”, focus mainly on the Iran-Iraq War that ended on August 8, 1988, and UN Resolution 598. The eight-year state of war is analysed in detail in the chapters that mention the role of Khomeini and the IRGC during the war. The sixth chapter, titled “Exporting the Revolution”, in which the effects of the war and Iran’s foreign policy strategies are explained, is the result of the two previous chapters. In the sixth chapter, it is mentioned that as a natural consequence of the Iran-Iraq War, the IRGC has institutionalized the protection of the revolution as a military formation on its own. The political formations that emerged in Iran during the war, the process of declaring Jerusalem as the primary target, and the activities of the IRGC in Lebanon are among the other important issues mentioned in the section.

The seventh chapter, called “Warriors of Karbala”, describes the formation process of the identity dynamics of the IRGC. The IRGC’s structure was an Islamic-based military force as of its establishment. In this context, the IRGC describes itself as a Khomeini vanguard and acts with the motivation of faith. IRGC soldiers are defined as new warriors of Karbala, where religious factors are considered, from the choice of military camouflage to the determination of special days. The IRGC differs from other armies due to its religious nature. With the influence of Shiite Islam and the inclusion of the Basij militia, the IRGC had close to three million members in 1986. IRGC is not only in war and conflict areas; it also produces many written sources such as books and pamphlets. With its publications, the IRGC has also become a pioneer of cultural activism and has gained 90% of its operations after the Iraq War as non-combat thanks to ideology.

The eighth chapter of the book, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” describes the expansion process of the IRGC in the post-war period. In this section, especially the effects of Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the restructuring process are mentioned. In this context, Rafsanjani paved the way for the development of the Basij militia due to its concerns about internal security and state-sponsored industrialization, which soon resulted in an increase in the pressure and influence of the IRGC on politics. With the spread of military power to civilian areas by war veterans, the IRGC influence in domestic politics has increased significantly. Notably, the ninth chapter, called “The War on Terror”, mentions the increasing effects of the IRGC and the foreign policy preferences of the USA towards Iran after September 11. Another important issue mentioned in the chapter is the election process of President Ahmadinejad.

The tenth episode called “Big Bang, Big Crunch” and the eleventh episode, “In Defense of the Family of the Prophet”, mentions the 2009 Iranian Elections, the Israeli-led operations conducted by the West against the nuclear program in Iran, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War and the effects of the fight against ISIS on IRGC, respectively. The tenth section, in which the presidential elections in Iran, as well as Barack Obama’s coming to power in the USA and his speeches on the Middle East foreign policies, are mentioned, explains the debates in Iran’s domestic politics and Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions. Furthermore, the eleventh chapter was created on the axis of the difficulties created by the Arab Spring on Iran, which was mentioned in the previous section. In the section emphasizing the importance of the Assad family in Syria for Iran, the pragmatic axis shifts in Iranian foreign policy and the effect of the IRGC in the struggle against ISIS in Iraq are explained.

Topics such as IRGC, Iran’s regional rivals, and global collaborations are explained in detail in the last chapters of the book, which are called “Epilogue” and “Conclusion” by the author and include a general evaluation. The chapter titled “Epilogue” starts by talking about the reflections in Iran of Russia’s intervention in Syria on September 30, 2015. Despite the statements of President Hassan Rouhani stating that they are not in a coalition with Russia, the IRGC’s moderate view of the idea of being in coalition with Russia stands out as the main differences within Iran. As a matter of fact, the influence of Qasem Soleimani, one of the strong faces of the IRGC, who visited Russia weeks before Russia intervened in Syria and held a series of meetings on diplomacy and Iranian foreign policy is undeniable. At the end of the section named “Epilogue”, the rivalry and tension areas of the regional rival Iran-Saudi Arabia are mentioned. However, in the “Conclusion” section, Ostovar embodies the IRGC’s argument for the importance of Iran in the state formation process through the different sections in the book. According to Ostovar, the Islamic Republic of Iran owes its existence to the IRGC. The IRGC is an important power element that Iran applies both within Iran and regionally with its political, social, cultural and economic spheres of influence, rather than being a power that Iran benefits only as a military group in conflict areas. According to Ostovar, the IRGC is a conflict product that perceives threats from many different areas as the guardian of the dynamics of the Islamic Republic. The IRGC served as a shield of the Supreme Leader in the post-revolutionary period. Due to this duty, the attitude, and preferences of the IRGC will be decisive for Iran in the post-Khamenei period.

Ostovar’s book, focusing on IRGC, is not only important in terms of the widening and deepening influence of the IRGC after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the changes it has experienced, the sources of legitimacy within the country, and its relationship with the Supreme Leader, it is also important in terms of understanding the historical origins of Shiite Islam and the cultural and ideological dynamics of today’s Iran. The book preserves its originality as it was built on the IRGC, which is rarely mentioned in the Iranian literature, and it describes in detail the events experienced in Iran and the IRGC axis almost after the Islamic Revolution. I think it is a must-read book for anyone who is curious or who wants to learn about the historical origins of Iran’s most important military power, the IRGC, its post-revolutionary changes and current structures.