The international media, for the most part, agrees on the brutal nature of IRGC’s domestic action, condemning the Basij’s practice of silencing dissidents and acting as a morality police. But there is disagreement – largely in non-Western media and media from countries with stronger relations with Iran – over whether the IRGC’s role in international terrorism has been exaggerated in order to tarnish Iran’s reputation and bolster the U.S. argument that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Given the adversarial relationship between Iran and the West over the Iranian nuclear issue, Western media has prominently covered the activities of the IRGC and its branches in recent years. Global Western media outlets such as the Associated Press and Reuters have widely reported on the presence of IRGC forces in Syria and the role of the IRGC in fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime. The 2009 protests in the aftermath of Iran’s disputed presidential elections were also widely covered, and many outlets reported violent crackdowns by IRGC forces, particularly the Basij militia.
Western media typically acknowledges the IRGC’s involvement in anti-U.S. activities, extremism in Iran, and support of terrorism. A 2007 NPR report on the Guards describes the organization’s evolution from a “people’s army” meant to mobilize the Iranian population against foreign threats to actively creating Hezbollah and other terror networks abroad.
Globally, however, the media – just like members of the international community – do not always agree with Western claims that the IRGC supports terrorism and will ignore or justify IRGC actions. Just as the international community has been unable to agree on a singular definition of terrorism, the global community appears split between the hemispheres on the IRGC, with media in non-Western countries portraying Iran in a positive light, as standing up to the American hegemon.
A 2007 piece in the Asia Times, for example, argues against the U.S. designation of the IRGC, claiming that the “case for the designation of the IRGC as terrorists has been built on thin empirical grounds and even thinner legal grounds.” Ahead of Iran’s 2013 elections, Zimbabwe’s Herald reported on the IRGC encouraging high voter turnout and interviewed a senior IRGC commander, but did not mention any of the IRGC’s terrorist ties or even its involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Columnists in Canadian media, on the other hand, appeared largely to support the country’s 2012 designation of the Quds Force as a terrorist entity. Former Canadian justice minister and international commentator Irwin Cotler praised the Canadian government for adding the Quds Force to the terror list, but accused the government of a “piecemeal” strategy and said it needed to add the entire IRGC organization. Cotler goes on in a Jerusalem Post column to declare that the IRGC “has been at the forefront of a long-standing global campaign of terror against perceived opponents of Iran.”
In European media, particularly in countries that have better relations with Iran than the United States, the role the IRGC plays is considered more open to interpretation. The Guardian’s Henry Newman questioned in a 2009 column how much power the IRGC actually has, noting that despite Khomeini’s directive that the IRGC remains apolitical, the IRGC has “an increasingly significant role in Iranian politics.” Newman points out the IRGC’s economic power, citing its forced closure of the Imam Khomeini Airport in 2004 because it lost its bid to control the airport to a Turkish firm – and that the IRGC has been in “temporary” control of the airport since 2008. He further points out that the Iranian regime has to increasingly rely on “repression and a culture of fear” and as such the role of the IRGC is growing.
The Guardian’s Ian Black and Saeed Kamali Dehghan wrote in a 2014 article about the IRGC’s increased role in battling ISIS in Iraq. The article obliquely acknowledged the IRGC’s ties to terrorism by placing the group in an offensive role, describing the Quds Force’s mission as carrying out “a range of highly sensitive functions: intelligence, special operations, arms smuggling and political action – anything that constitutes protecting the revolution or attacking its enemies, Israel foremost among them.”
Even in the United States, some pundits take a more sympathetic position on the IRGC, making supportive and apologist arguments. In September 2009, for example, author and analyst Juan Cole cited an IRGC commander in charge of Iran’s missile program who said Iran would act militarily only in response to external military threats. Pointing to Western media reports that Iran’s missile tests coincided with Iranian threats to wipe out Israel, Cole contended that the IRGC had made a “no first strike” pledge and “no current high official in the Iranian executive has threatened war against Israel….” In 2012, after the IRGC’s Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh said Iran would destroy Israel if “the Jewish state” attacked, Cole argued that “this is not a threat to commit an act of aggression” as “Iran has a ‘no first strike’ policy” reaffirmed by Khamenei, and Iran is only “threatening to retaliate with everything he has if Iran is itself the victim of a naked act of aggression.”
Even in the Arab media, the role of the IRGC is not so clearly presented. Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji describes the IRGC’s economic power in Al Jazeera, but ignores the organization’s terrorist ties, even whitewashing them by laying the blame for a “securitised” Iranian society and political process on “nearly 35 years of military threats, by Iraq, the US, Israel, and others….”
Iran’s English media, of course, shed a sympathetic light on the IRGC, often taking IRGC statements at face value. An April 2014 article by the Fars News Agency (FNA) cited Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari defending the group’s role in Syria, claiming that the IRGC provided only Iran’s intelligence support and not physical support. FNA provided no balance in the article, providing only a quote from another IRGC commander who agreed with Jafari.
Sympathetic journalists who view the United States as unfairly targeting the Islamic Republic are more skeptical of reports on the IRGC’s involvement in global terrorism, viewing these reports as propaganda to further cast the Iranian regime as an enemy of freedom. Just as some pundits denounce Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s deadly attacks against Israel while upholding the “legitimacy” of their causes, the IRGC’s involvement with these and other terrorist organizations is viewed as noble Iranian aid. In a 2012 article on the IRGC’s transfer of missile technology to Hamas, the Tehran Times did not comment on the IRGC chief’s statement that, “Iran provides technological assistance to help the world’s Muslims and the oppressed so that they can stand up to tyrants and the hegemonistic system….” While Iranian media is subject to extreme censorship by the government, sympathetic coverage of the IRGC is not limited just to Iranian sources. On the whole, global media acknowledges the IRGC’s role as a harsh enforcer of the Iranian revolution’s ideals domestically and abroad, but there remains dissention on whether the IRGC is a politically powerful domestic militia or a global terrorist organization.