December 1, 2015 | House Foreign Affairs Committee

Iran and the IRGC: Fueling Conflict in the Middle East

Download the full testimony here 

Thank you Chairman Royce, Ranking Member Engel, and members of this committee for the opportunity to appear before you today.

Iran’s regional goals remain inimical to U.S. national interests and the security of U.S. allies. The emergence of President Hassan Rouhani,  his promise of engaging in bilateral talks with the United States,  the nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1,  and the rise of the Islamic State have led some in the West to hope for a new alignment of strategic interests between Washington and Tehran.

To this end, Secretary of State John Kerry formally invited Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif to participate in negotiations at the end of October in Vienna to resolve the war in Syria.

President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif, however, command little influence over the Islamic Republic’s regional policies. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) owns this portfolio,  and beyond a fleeting tactical convergence of interests, the Revolutionary Guards and Washington do not have aligning strategic goals in Syria. Washington wants to resolve conflicts in the Middle East; the IRGC benefits most by seeing these conflicts continue.

According to the recent testimony of Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, the United States is pursuing four objectives in Syria:

“(1) defeat ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] militarily in both Syria and Iraq; (2) develop a political transition that gives Syria a future without Bashar al-Asad; (3) ease the suffering of the Syrian people; and (4) stabilize our regional allies and help European partners as they cope with a massive refugee crisis.”

If one examines the public statements of the IRGC leadership and the activities of the IRGC in Syria, it’s clear that the Islamic Republic is pursuing the exact opposite goals. For the Guards, the primary objectives are to: (1) keep Assad in power by deploying IRGC forces and non-Iranian Shiite militias in Syria; (2) highlight ISIL as a worse alternative to Assad while making no serious military effort against the Islamic State; and (3) concentrate Iran’s military resources against Syrian rebel forces threatening the Assad regime, including the secular opposition, which might offer an acceptable alternative to Assad.

Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the Corps’ chief commander,  and Major General Qassem Suleimani, head of the expeditionary Quds Force (IRGC-QF),  have repeatedly expressed their support for Assad and his regime. Brigadier General Hossein Hamadani, the field commander of the Iranian forces in Syria who was killed in the suburbs of Aleppo on October 7,  has not only praised Assad as “more obedient to the leader of the revolution [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] than some of our statesmen,” but also recalled the supreme leader stressing the importance of the “strategic depth” Syria provides to Iran. 

In Jafari’s words, Hamadani’s mission had been to “transfer experiences from the sedition of 2009” to Assad. That “sedition” is a reference to the Revolutionary Guards’ suppression of the anti-government, pro-democracy rallies in Tehran in the wake of the fraudulent June 2009 presidential elections.  In that capacity, Hamadani not only reorganized Syrian paramilitary forces using Iran’s Basij militia as a model,  but he also served as the most senior field commander in charge of IRGC units and non-Iranian Shiite militias deployed in Syria.

Iranian officials often deny their military involvement in Syria and insist that IRGC forces there are volunteers guarding Shiite pilgrimage sites in Damascus.  Yet this author’s survey of funeral services for Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani Shiite fighters killed in the war (since the first recorded Iranian combat fatality in Syria in January 2012) provides proof of the Islamic Republic's military engagement. (See Addenda, Tables 1-3. Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite combat fatalities in Syria since the beginning of the war in Syria are not included in this survey.)

According to open-source data, 201 Iranian nationals, 178 Afghan nationals, and 33 Pakistani nationals—all Shiites, with the exception of two Iranian nationals—were killed in combat in Syria from January 2012 to November 30, 2015. 

Public accounts indicate that all 201 Iranians served in the IRGC. Breaking down the casualties by IRGC branches, 40 served in the IRGC Ground Forces, 24 fought for the Quds Force, and 10 served in the Basij militia. Funeral photos and online biographical materials suggest that the remaining 127 were identified as generic active-duty IRGC members, though it is not known in which units they served. For some of these individuals, the lack of information may reflect the IRGC’s attempt to obscure their service in the Quds Force or to cover up the deployment of IRGC Ground Forces. Deployment of the Ground Forces seems to have spiked since October 2015, in the wake of mounting casualties among the Quds Force, a relatively small unit within the Corps. This left Guard commanders with no other choice but to deploy mainline IRGC forces to Syria.