The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq have certain similarities in their structure, origins, and roles. Established out of necessity as an ad hoc paramilitary organization during the calamitous rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group, the PMF has since formalized its role within the Iraqi political system. It has deepened its direct involvement in politics and expanded its economic activity, in both cases to the detriment of Iraqi society. However, as with the IRGC in Iran, the PMF has not sought to completely dominate the political system or public life in Iraq; it has maintained its role as a powerful organization that influences the political system and benefits from corrupt economic activity, but has largely avoided overt interference, helping to insulate it from the worst consequences of its actions.
A Chip Off the Old Bloc
Both the PMF and the IRGC were established as paramilitary organizations to defend the political systems in their respective countries. The PMF originated as a loosely organized umbrella organization composed of various Iraqi Shiite militias, created to contain the advance of the Islamic State. Similarly, the IRGC was created in 1979 in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution to protect the newly established Islamic Republic; within a year, it led Iran’s defense in the war with Iraq. Both organizations have similar ideological leanings and objectives. The IRGC is an ideologically driven organization with a strong commitment to the principles of the Iranian Revolution. It promotes the concept of vilayet-e-faqih, which grants total political and religious authority to Iran’s Supreme Leader. On the other hand, the PMF consists predominantly of Shia militias that align with Shia religious and political factions in Iraq; although its ideology is not as monolithic as that of the IRGC, many of these factions have close ties to Iran and share a similar commitment to a Shia Islamist political system.
The two militia groups have both successfully transformed military strength and battlefield victories into political clout. The IRGC was born with the aim of protecting the Islamic system and serving as a custodian of Islamic principles. Since 1979, it has significantly expanded its political involvement, wielding substantial influence in the country’s political landscape. The group’s political influence stems from its institutional strength and its close relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the authority to appoint its highest-ranking members. Moreover, many members of the IRGC went on to hold influential positions in the government, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and current Speaker of the Majlis Mohammad Ghalibaf. In addition, the intelligence and security apparatus of the IRGC plays a critical role in monitoring and suppressing internal dissent—a mission in line with the IRGC’s stated purpose of protecting the theocratic nature of the Islamic Republic.
Similarly, the PMF has expanded its role in the Iraqi political sphere. The Fatah Alliance has served as the political front for the PMF and has achieved success in Iraqi elections; it won 48 out of 325 seats in the 2018 elections, and 17 seats in the 2021 elections. In spite of the alliance’s relatively poor performance in the most recent elections, it emerged as a key partner for the new Iraqi government following the election of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in October 2022. Like their IRGC counterparts, PMF forces are no strangers to suppressing dissent through violence; they are thought to have killed hundreds of demonstrators during the 2019 protests, with the pro-Iran Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Badr Organization militias playing a particularly outsized role in the clashes. The Iraqi security forces—ostensibly the only legitimate armed group in Iraq—failed to prevent attacks against demonstrators, even when there were clear signs that some of the prominent protestors or outspoken critics were at risk of being killed.
The Economic Role
After consolidating their military position, both the IRGC and the PMF encroached on their nations’ economic sphere. The IRGC has significant involvement in nearly all major economic sectors in the country. The Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters, the IRGC’s engineering and construction arm, has undertaken large-scale construction projects, including highways, bridges, dams, airports, and oil and gas facilities. These projects often receive government contracts, and the IRGC’s close ties to (and in some cases the direct loyalty of) officials in Tehran have granted it significant influence and control over key infrastructure assets. The economic role of the IRGC has been strengthened by Iran’s ongoing economic war with the West; it has played the key role in developing the country’s “resistance economy,” all while also filling its coffers through extensive state-supported smuggling.
Although the PMF remains far less financially dexterous than its Iranian cousin, it has used the IRGC as a blueprint for its own future economic development. In late 2022, the Council of Ministers approved the establishment of the “Muhandis General Company,” with initial capital of $67 million. The Muhandis Company—named after Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the PMF commander killed alongside IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020—“seeks to become the Iraqi version of Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters.” In addition to its new construction venture, the PMF already has extensive ties to Iraq’s illicit economy; militias such as the Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Hezbollah Brigade already run smuggling networks and control illegal naval and land crossings. According to former Iraqi Finance Minister Ali Allawi, the Iraqi treasury is losing $8 billion per year because of these activities.
However, despite the striking resemblance between the PMF and the IRGC, there remains one crucial difference that might lead the two organizations down different paths. From its earliest days, the IRGC was formed around one individual—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—and one common purpose, his preservation as Iran’s supreme leader. While the sub-militias within the PMF share obvious ideological similarities, they operate independently of each other and have historically bristled at plans to bring them under a unified political or military command. This fact makes it possible to envision internal differences in terms of the militias’ policy and conduct in the future, and divides within the group could reduce its effectiveness at best and lead to violent conflict at worst. For the time being, the IRGC has served as a mediator between the groups, preventing inter-militia conflicts from expanding and threatening its interests. Whether it will be able to reliably fill this function in the years ahead remains to be seen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.