This video provides a basic descriptions of Iran’s internal and external security services, including lines of command and control, the responsibilities of different services, and personnel and funding figures.
Iran’s security services have two goals: to defend Iran, but more specifically the Iranian Revolution, from internal and external threats. Defending the revolution means guarding not just Iran’s territorial integrity, but also its current form of government. These two goals define both the structure of Iran’s security services and its national security strategy, which I will discuss in a separate video.
To begin with, I divide Iran’s security services into those responsible for domestic and international security. This is a bit of a false dichotomy, since several agencies have dual responsibilities, but at least highlights the different roles and responsibilities they take. In each area there are two sets of security forces – traditional police and military and IRGC forces – in a system that complements Iran’s dual civil and religious political institutions.
As noted earlier, Iran’s Supreme Leader is the Commander in Chief and the heads of the IRGC and regular military services report directly to him. The police (which come under the purview of the Ministry of Interior) and cabinet ministers, including the Intelligence and Defense Ministers technically report to the President, although he needs to coordinate his activities in this area with the office of the Supreme Leader. Iran has a National Security Council led by the President that helps with this coordination function.
Iran’s regular police (the Law Enforcement Forces), the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Ministry of Intelligence, abbreviated MOIS for Ministry of Intelligence and Security, all share responsibilities for internal security. The primary branch of the IRGC responsible for internal security is the Basij, but the IRGC ground forces also have responsibility for the protection against domestic threats.
The Basij are primarily responsible for mobilizing popular support for the regime, conducting mass surveillance to identify regime opponents, and specific policing functions (including enforcement of dress codes and taking down satellite dishes, which are illegal even though an estimated 70% of the Iranian population has one). As the Golkar article describes, the Basij have an extensive presence throughout Iran – it is designed to be in every local community. And they are the “black shirts” that are brought into repress demonstrations when needed.
The Law Enforcement Forces handle traditional criminal and civil offenses as well as border control and counternarcotics.
Finally, the MOIS is also responsible for rooting out sedition and domestic conspiracies. Of particular note is that the LEF and MOIS share responsibility for controlling the internet in Iran –managing infrastructure to cut it off needed but primarily controlling what content can be seen in Iran (“filtering” inappropriate sites)
I would just like to note that I love the fact that the MOIS went full-on Orwell with its logo – it is awesome.
But in theory, Iranians can get arrested for participating in a demonstration by the police, basij, IRGC and MOIS.
Internationally, the IRGC and regular military are the big players (the MOIS works internationally as well, obviously, in intelligence collection and propagating Islam).
The IRGC and Artesh avoid command and control problems created by their dual structures by having different areas of responsibility. In particular, the IRGC Navy has responsibility for the Persian Gulf, while the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) operates outside the Straits of Hormoz. Similarly, the Air Force manages regular combat aircraft, but IRGC air operations cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and drones. And the Qods Force handles special operations, including liaison with Iran’s proxy forces in the region. The Qods Force is now led by Esmail Qaani, who was Qassem Soleimani’s deputy and is likely to maintain a more low-profile role than Soleimani did.
So, while the IRGC is smaller than the Artesh in terms of number of personnel, it gets disproportionate resources and handles Iran’s most sensitive and vital programs.
Just FYI, Iran is one of many countries that has mandatory conscription – all men are required to serve 18 months to 2 years in the military. When I was interviewing Iranians for visas for as my first tour with the State Department, I talked to lots of Iranians about conscription and the consensus view was that the most ambitious young men would seek to do their conscription service in the IRGC, because it was more prestigious and would give them the best access to connections later on. It isn’t an ideologically driven force so much as an elite one within Iran.
The last thing I will note on resources is that Iran’s official defense budget has fluctuated in recent years with the size of Iran’s overall budget – when sanctions and the low price of oil keep Iran’s income small, that does trickle down to defense spending. This does not include off-the-books spending, of course.
Finally, while I am not going to give you long lists of the number and type of weapons Iran has, I will note IRGC resources in two areas: ballistic missiles and its naval assets in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s ballistic missile program is advanced and their arsenal includes missiles with the ability to target Israel and more that can target US forces and allies in the Persian Gulf. I haven’t seen great estimates on how many missiles Iran has overall, but the Federation of American Scientists estimates Iran has 500-750 Shahab 1 and 2 missiles – those are older scud-style missiles that have a range of up to 500 meters (that can hit targets in Syria and Saudi Arabia). Most of these missiles come from North Korea.
Finally, I’ll talk about Iran’s asymmetric force projection in the video on Iran’s national security strategy, but here I’ll just note that Iran’s naval assets in the Persian Gulf emphasize those tactics. Iran’s naval force posture focuses on large numbers of “fast boats” that can attack larger targets with swarming techniques, and my personal favorite, mini-submarines that are difficult to detect and capable of launching torpedoes.
There is much more to Iran’s security services, but this has been an overview of structure, resources, and key capabilities.