- Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics and Iran's Revolutionary Guards by Afshon Ostovar
The apparent rise in influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Iranian politics, particularly under former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has precipitated wider interest in the institution and its role in both domestic politics and foreign relations. While most of these studies so regard the IRGC as a pillar of the Islamic Republic that was established following the 1979 revolution, its position within Iranian politics is often underestimated in large volumes of Iranian studies. Afshon Ostovar's Vanguard of the Imam stands out among recent studies in this respect. Based on the author's dissertation in history at the University of Michigan, this study claims to fill a void in the literature by contextualizing the emergence, evolution, and rise of the IRGC in postrevolutionary Iran.
The IRGC has the distinctive mission of safeguarding the revolution and its achievements. While known primarily as a military organization, it also controls an "economic empire" and a "media empire" (pp. 7–8). In [End Page 156] addition, the IRGC oversees two affiliated entities: the Basij, which functions as both a sociocultural organization and security force, and the Quds Force, which is responsible for extraterritorial military operations.
Ostovar treats the IRGC as the "product of three intersecting impulses and experiences" (p. 10). First is a "pro-clerical activism" that is "firmly grounded in the Shiite religion." The second is "devotion to the leader," which is also "grounded in Shiism and Islamic history" and shares "parallels with historical models of leader-loyalist relationships in Eurasian history" (p. 9). The third factor is the impact of conflicts both within and around Iran. Hence, in an effort to contextualize the emergence and growth of the IRGC, Ostovar portrays it as a unique organization rooted in a selective reading of Shi'i and Iranian culture and history. Indeed, in order to address a wider audience while focusing on the IRGC, the author avoids theoretical debates and comparative analyses in favor of historical analysis. Inspired by Charles Tilly's theory of war-making and state power,1 he highlights the role of post-revolutionary conflicts in state formation and the evolution of the IRGC.
The author's approach to the IRGC shaped the organization of the book, which consists of 10 core chapters and an epilogue. Considering religious and cultural factors fundamental to its formation and ideology, the second chapter traces the religio-cultural origins of the revolutionary movement in Iran, including the formative period of early Shi'ism and the rise of clerical authority. The third chapter deals with the early revolutionary militia that eventually united to form the IRGC. The subsequent three chapters address historical context, in particular the implications of domestic conflicts, the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, and the policy of exporting the revolution to the IRGC and to Iranian politics. These chapters elaborate the expansion of IRGC institutions, missions, and manpower, along with that of its institutional identity and culture, and argue that the IRGC, once a revolutionary resistance movement, became a conservative official organ of the Islamic Republic. The seventh chapter, "Warriors of Karbala," includes well-in-formed reviews of selected IRGC visuals that reflect the author's view of the close association between Shi'ism and the Guards, and its evolution from a revolutionary movement into a religious militia (p. 122).
The eighth chapter deals with postwar challenges for Iran in general and the IRGC in particular. This chapter is sarcastically named "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" in apparent contradiction to the author's tendency to locate the IRGC exclusively within Shi'i Iranian culture. The reader is left curious why he chose an American lyric arguably celebrating the victorious return of "Johnny" to denote the return of an exhausted IRGC, which had failed to achieve its aims in war. Nonetheless, the chapter provides a detailed analysis of developments within the IRGC during the 1990s, especially its expanding security missions, economic activities, turn to conservatism, and involvement in...