Outside of Succession, IRGC Unlikely to Attempt Wagner-Like Coup

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 20

IRGC troops during a parade. (Source: The Caravel)

Following the brief June rebellion staged by now-deceased Russian Wagner Group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin (see EDM, August 16), Iranian-state media quickly denied the feasibility of a similar rebellion by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran (Tehran Times, June 29). The publication referenced a piece by the Atlantic Council discussing such a possibility, prominently featuring former Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, who has been calling for the IRGC to overthrow the regime since well before Wagner’s mutiny (Atlantic Council, June 29; YouTube/Iran International, February 18). While the article was correct to underscore that the conditions that led to the Wagner group’s rebellion and the nature of Wagner itself are distinct, there are events that could lead the IRGC to launch its own coup.

Contrasting Wagner and the IRGC

The IRGC, unlike Wagner, is not a private military group. It is an official branch of the Iranian armed forces, consisting of some of the individuals most committed to the principles of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution. Whereas the dispute between the Russian government and Wagner largely stemmed from a real or perceived lack of supplies, funding, support, and recognition for Wagner’s role in the Ukrainian, Syrian, and Libyan conflicts (as part and parcel of its near-unbroken conflict with the Russian Ministry of Defense; see EDM, July 11), the IRGC is better funded than the Iranian military. The IRGC is also regularly praised and celebrated by the state, and the group’s senior leaders have occupied some of the most privileged positions in Iran, both economically and politically.

Ayatollah Khomeini established the IRGC to form an armed force entirely loyal to him and his vision of political rule by a Supreme Shia clerical leader. Khomenei’s successor, Ali Khamenei, further developed the group into the multifaceted military organization that it is today, with significant influence on Iranian politics and the economy. Currently, the IRGC numbers up to 190,000 personnel and has its own army, navy, and air force, in addition to its own intelligence service, special forces teams, and cyberwarfare department (National Counterterrorism Center, March 2022). According to a 2022 budget bill, the IRGC has a budget nearly three times the size of the Iranian army: around $3 billion (Iran International, January 13). Khamenei has used the IRGC to suppress anti-government protests, monitor dissent among the Shia clergy, help rig elections, and export Islamic revolution abroad (Iran Wire, June 12, 2019). Unlike Wagner, there have been no incidents of significant IRGC insubordination or public IRGC criticism of Khamenei.

Loyalty to the State

Iranian media claims that the principal reason why the IRGC would not move against the Islamic Republic is its ideological commitment to the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolution. Volunteers are estimated to compose less than 50 percent of the IRGC’s ranks (UK Home Office, November 2022). Regarding conscripts, over 70 percent since 2010 have previously been members of the IRGC-controlled Basij volunteer militia. [1] 50 percent of training time for all recruits, whether volunteer or conscript, is dedicated to “ideological-political-training” to ensure commitment to the principles of the Islamic Revolution. [2] Advancement to the highest positions within the IRGC is impossible without the Supreme Leader’s direct consent. [3] Ideological commitment aside, the IRGC also receives significant economic and political benefits from the Islamic Republic as currently constituted. The Iranian government gives lucrative no-contest contracts to the IRGC, and has allowed the group to build significant economic assets in multiple fields, from construction to engineering and the energy sector. [4] Ex-IRGC members have risen to significant positions of political power, with individuals linked to the IRGC appointed to the cabinet.

Considering IRGC’s ideological alignment and economic and political incentives, it is improbable that the IRGC would ever seek to bring down the Islamic Republic—without the Islamic Republic, there would be no IRGC. Rather, the IRGC would likely only use force to protect its privileged position.

Scenarios of Sedition

Ali Khamenei’s passing away is the most likely scenario in which senior members of the IRGC could see their status threatened. Following the Supreme Leader’s death, senior IRGC officials will be keen to maintain the same power and influence. While the IRGC has been vital in maintaining the stability of Khamenei’s rule, this has come at a cost. The IRGC has become the most powerful institution in the country, promoting an inner circle of individuals highly loyal to Khamenei. A future Supreme Leader may view the current IRGC elite with suspicion and seek to replace them with individuals deemed more loyal to the new leader. It is within the realm of possibility that IRGC leaders could move to displace a new Supreme Leader if they felt him to be less amenable to their interests—particularly in the immediate post-succession period.

Additionally, pressure from the street could also motivate the IRGC to oust a future Supreme Leader. Khamenei, once a relatively junior Shia cleric, overcame the threat of competition and dissent from more senior Shia clergy through force. Since 1989, dissenting clerics have been imprisoned, exiled, and under increasing surveillance by the IRGC’s intelligence apparatus. The clear loss of clerical independence has undermined the legitimacy of the clergy in the eyes of the general public, with many viewing the clergy less as a genuine representative of the Shia religious authority and more as a tool to serve the system of power imposed by an elite that emerged after 1979. This was seen most clearly in the protest movement that emerged in September 2022, where there were numerous examples of protesters targeting Shia clerics in the streets (RFE/RL, November 11, 2022). If there were to be a sustained and large-scale anti-government protest movement in which Iranian authorities could not guarantee the safety of clergy members, then some clerics might seek to dissociate themselves from a new Supreme Leader. A future Islamic Republic with diminishing clerical support would significantly threaten the system’s legitimacy and stability and, as such, the IRGC could impose a new Supreme Leader of its choosing to quell the protests and maintain clerical support.


The IRGC has been molded into an organization that is existentially invested in the continuation of the Islamic Republic; even so, a trapped animal may bite off a limb to survive. If the Islamic Republic’s existence comes under threat in the period after Khamenei’s eventual death, the IRGC could trade the newly appointed Supreme Leader for one of their own.



[1] See Saeid Golkar, “The Supreme Leader and the Guard” (The Washington Institute, January 2019).

[2] See Saeid Golkar, Kasra Aarabi, “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Rising Cult of Mahdism,” (The Middle East Institute, May 2022).

[3] See Carnegie Middle East Centre, “Might the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Use the Iranian Protests to Supplant the Ruling Clerical Establishment,” (Carnegie Middle East Centre, January 19).

[4] See RAND Corporation, “The Rise of the Pasdaran: Assessing the Domestic Roles of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Chapter Five: Economic Expansion, (RAND Corporation, 2009).