HH: Dr. Kori Schake is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and co-author of Warriors and Citizens with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Dr. Schake knows defense policy like few people. So when earlier this summer Schake was asked by Politico to make a recommendation on one book to read this summer, she recommended Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard by Professor Afshon Ostovar, an assistant professor of the national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. It is indeed a remarkable read, and Professor Ostovar joins me now. Professor, welcome, it’s great to have you here.
AO: Thanks for having me.
HH: I just devoured Vanguard of the Imam. And I think it’s an amazing book. I’m going to put it up there with The Looming Tower, because it takes us into the IRGC, and I’m going to call it the IRGC. Can you briefly describe for people the component parts of the IRGC, the Basij, the Quds Force, just how it’s organized?
AO: Yeah, so the IRGC has a parallel military to Iran’s regular military. It has an air force, has a land force, has a naval force. It also has a very large popular militia known as the Basij Popular Militia, which is an all-volunteer force, mostly non-professional in the sense that they’re not paid. There’s a smaller professional component that’s militarized, and then has a special forces division called the Quds Force, or the Jerusalem Force, which is in charge of all of the extra territory, all of the foreign operations that Iran is involved in.
HH: And how active have they been, especially in the last five years, and in what theaters, because they are commanded by a man named Soleimani, who is something of a, I believe you described him as a combination of Che Guevara and MacArthur?
AO: Yeah, yeah. He is Iran’s sort of war general outside of Iran. So all of the foreign operations that they’re involved in, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Qasem Soleimani is sort of the architect of all of those operations.
HH: Now Soleimani has a strategic vision. He said in, and you quote him in your book, Syria is their red line.
HH: It appears to people like General McMaster, who I interviewed last week, they’re attempting to build a highway from Tehran to the Sea, and they’re doing it through Syria and Hezbollah land.
HH: Is that Soleimani’s creation?
AO: No, it preexisted Soleimani. Syria was, had been the only ally for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has been incredibly alienated ever since the 1979 revolution, I think, much to their own sort of behavior, their own cause, kind of a self-inflicted wound. But Syria had been a long-lasting ally with Iran before sort of the 90s when Soleimani really sort of took his tenure with the Quds Force. But since then, Syria has been vital to Iran’s support to Hezbollah and Lebanon, and Iran’s sort of pressure against Israel, which they see as their main enemy in the region.
HH: They’re also active in Iraq, and they have been very successful in sort of replacing the American footprint with an Iranian footprint that happened after our withdrawal in 2011. How deep is Iran now into the Iraqi government?
AO: Well, they’re very strong. I mean, they have allies at the political level, but their main strength is at sort of the military level, the PMU, or the Popular Militia Units, which are the sort of popular component of the Iraqi military now. They’re an official institution now. Many of the militias, 3/5ths of the organization, are militias that were started by, established by, funded by, and in many ways led by Soleimani at the IRGC.
HH: Now last night, President Trump was asked are the Iranians honoring the agreement that President Obama entered into with them. In Vanguard of the Imam, you’d gone to press before that, obviously.
HH: He said they’re not honoring the spirit. General McMaster told me the same thing last week on this show.
HH: Do you think the Iranians are honoring the spirit of that agreement?
AO: Well, I think in some ways, the spirit is the wrong way to look for it. We talk, we talk about the spirit, the Iranians talk about the spirit. What, we both obviously disagree of what the spirit of the agreement was. So to my feeling, there is no spirit to the agreement. It’s an agreement. It has vague language. It has specific language. And it’s in those vagaries that they disagree of what the spirit is. So if you can’t agree what the spirit is, then the spirit, in some ways, doesn’t exist. But they’ve certainly done behave here – ballistic missile launches in particular, and then harassing U.S. Naval forces in the Persian Gulf, also sort of activity off the coast of Yemen which we blamed on Iran’s allies in Yemen and sort of, by extension, Iran itself that correspond with a major sort of not détente, but a major political agreement between the two countries.
HH: Are those naval forces IRGC-controlled, because I asked General McMaster last week.
HH: There are rules of engagement. We’re going to sink them if they come too close.
AO: Right, right.
HH: Are they trying to provoke that?
AO: No, I think they’re trying to harass us. I think they are trying to probe red lines. I think they are trying to show a resolve that they are going to be sort of in our face. They’re going to be a nuisance so long as that we are operating in the Persian Gulf. What the IRGC wants to achieve more than anything is for U.S. forces to leave the Middle East. They want them out of the Persian Gulf, out of Iraq, out of the Arab states.
HH: You know what Vanguard of the Imam does is provide great historical clarity as to where the Shia-Sunni split came from, how enduring it is, how deep it is, and how it’s not going to go anywhere.
HH: And do you think Americans are ready for this sort of, it’s a giant conflict of which we are a small part…
HH: …between the Sunnis, the Israelis and the Iranian Shia…
HH: …axis. Do you think we’re up to speed on this?
AO: I think in some ways, we’re naïve in to thinking that we can affect it too much. I think the competition between Iran and its neighbors, and even Turkey to a lesser extent, is a regional competition that is really below our radar. I think foreign, American foreign policy can only do so much. And I think one of the biggest problems both in American sort of punditry but also policy making, but even in the Middle East and their state sort of decision making is that the United States can do a lot to solve the Middle East problems. I mean, from my perspective, the Middle East problems begin and end with the behavior of Middle East states towards each other and towards their own populations.
HH: Let me close, we’ve got about a minute and a half, Dr., and again, Vanguard of the Imam, everyone should read it. Ayatollah Khamenei is the second supreme leader after Ayatollah Khomeini.
HH: When he dies, you write this is a central quandary, four big problems with the IRGC.
HH: What happens when he dies, or does the IRGC just simply take over the state?
AO: Well, I think that’s a good question. So one of the narratives is does, that’s out there, is does the IRGC already control the Iranian state? And I argue no, they don’t. But where they do have outsized influences is in Iran’s strategic behavior, its military investments, ballistic missile program, that sort of thing, but also its foreign policy in the Middle East. So it’s, what it does in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, towards Israel, what the United States cares about, that’s what the IRGC is very much involved in. If the Supreme Leader dies, the IRGC has a decision to make, and that decision is going to be are they going to get greedy and push for more control over Iranian decision making sort of writ large, both domestic policy…
HH: Supreme Leader Soleimani, perhaps?
AO: No. I am convinced Soleimani would not advance to that position, and the main reason is he certainly has sort of the largesse in Iran. He’s well-liked on both sides by, he’s very much a national character, and this is sort of why I mention MacArthur, right? He has that sort of prestige to him. But he cannot replace [Khamenei], because the replacement of [Khamenei] must be a Shia cleric. It must be a man of religion.
HH: Dr. Ostovar, terrific book, thank you for joining me.
End of interview.