This article originally appeared on the 25th of February 2020 on the website of Silah Report written by yours truly.
When designing a new flag or representative banner of any given social group, one of the most important pillars of vexillology (the study of flags) one should keep in mind is clarity. Any serious flag should at least be indicative of what it represents, and how the people brandishing it wish to be perceived by the outside world. A clueless spectator means failure in offering a sufficiently suggestive flag for the group’s representation to the public. A flag is an important attribute for any group, presenting a visual introduction and identification through colors, symbols and objects featured on the banner.
The biggest pitfall many nascent nations or groups tend to fall into is underestimating the power the above-mentioned elements are given in the collective perception of the general public. Who can possibly look at the flag of Malaysia and not think of the United States of America, despite the two flags not having any connection to each other? Or what about the flag of the Greek political party Golden Dawn (colored red, white and black) despite the group’s leadership denial of any connection to neo-Nazism? Such obvious mistakes are all too common, and voluntarily or involuntarily ignore the complex influence and legacy of combined symbols, colors and objects.
One group that has managed to avoid this pitfall after its establishment is the Iranian Sepāh, the Persian one-word name colloquially used for the Islamic Republic Guardian Corps (IRGC), officially known as Sepāh-e Pāsdārān-e Enqelāb-e Eslāmī. This unique branch of the Iranian armed forces was created in April 1979 by āyatullāh Rūḥallāh Khomeynī, after he had led a successful and effective revolution against the ruling king Muḥammad Reẕa Pahlavī earlier that same year. He introduced a completely new system, thoroughly uprooting the Persian ancien régime and everything it stood for. Not only would the events of 1979 herald a whole new chapter in the history of Iran and its peoples, it would also play a catalytic role in the solidification and emancipation of modern Muslim revolutionary thought.
Despite post-revolutionary Iran, or the Islamic Republic of Iran as it was then called, having the control over a substantial army protecting its borders and (inter)national interests, Khomeynī ordered the establishment of the IRGC in accordance with the post-1979 Iranian constitution. This branch of the Iranian army was to be entrusted the protection of the revolution, upholding its religious ideals and preventing any deviant counter-movement to interfere in its affairs.
The IRGC’s emblem design was entrusted to Moḥsen Kohalduz, an original member of the Guard Corps Command Council. Since visibility was critical to transmit the organization’s message of safeguarding the revolution and to promote joining its ranks, Kohalduz was tasked with developing a highly-recognizable logo. In an attempt to counter increasing Marxist sentiments after the fall of the Shah, he decided to challenge the emblem of the Mojāhedīn-e Khalq (MKO) communist militia by altering its main attributes into religiously justifiable ones.
Since many high-ranking members of the IRGC were formerly affiliated with the MKO, before becoming disgruntled with its anti-clerical position, a propagandist redesign of its emblem would serve not only continuity, but also an anti-Communist statement and an antagonistic stance versus the Iranian Left. As a result, the MKO emblem’s outline of Iran turned into a globe, the five-pointed star became a Quranic verse and the center of the new design featured a calligraphic representation of the Arabic negative article lā, out of which grows a clenched fist holding a rifle. The lā stands for the Muslim proclamation of faith lā ilāha ilā Alllāh (There is no god but God).
Lastly, the Soviet-style outline of a Mosin-Nagant rifle, fitted with a bayonet, from the MKO’s emblem was removed, its Communist connotation outweighing its revolutionary appeal. Since religious militancy was to be a key element featured on the IRGC’s emblem, another rifle had to be put in place. This decision, however, placed Kohalduz in a tough situation. He couldn’t simply choose any firearm during the Cold War and not be judged as choosing sides amid the far-reaching political duality of that era. Explicitly choosing a specific weapon would most certainly be interpreted as unequivocally inclining towards either the USSR or the USA. Iran couldn’t afford to tread the same path as USSR-oriented countries like Mozambique, Burkina Faso and East Timor – all three explicitly featuring an archetypal AK-patterned self-loading rifle on their coats of arms. The IRGC could neither choose a weapon from the other side of the divide, such as featuring a typical American rifle – like the two crossed Remington Rolling Block rifles on the flag of Guatemala.
One of the policies of post-revolutionary Iran was to remain as unaligned as possible, not being associated with the political influence of the two major world powers of the time. The newly formed state had to publicly uphold a third alternative instead, especially in front of its population and religious revolutionary hardliners now occupying a substantial place in Iranian society. The third way was Shiite Islamic militarism. The solution was to display a stylized depiction of what a stereotypical rifle would look like. However, the general outlook of the rifle is telling. Its straight magazine, its solid buttstock and the outline of its forestock, barrel and muzzle all actually indicate a real rifle. Although the proportions look out of place, one could unmistakably discern a West-German G3 7.62 × 51mm self-loading rifle, produced by Heckler & Koch. A G3A6 to be precise, the assigned model number of rifles locally produced under license by the Iranian Defence Industries Organization.
To outline some context for this assumed choice one has to consider that approximately 150,000 G3A6 rifles were produced each year by the end of the 1970s. Additionally, the former king Muḥammad Reẕa Pahlavī had imported several thousands of G3A4 battle rifles with collapsible stocks from West-Germany around 1974. By the time of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, the availability and local reputation of the G3A6 earned it the place of becoming the main service rifle of the Iranian armed forces. Here again we must consider that recognisable icons in flags and emblems is a desirable feature – the G3 rifle certainly achieved this during the period.
Only a few years after the establishment of the IRGC, the group started its project of exporting the Iranian revolution through cultural activism, financial and military support and the propagation of religious and ideological thought throughout the region. Training and supporting local Shiite militias in a general resistance (muqāwama) and deterrence (mumānaʿa) movement against Israel was to become a priority. This culminated in the establishment of the Lebanese Ḥizb Allāh between 1982 and 1985 by local followers of Khomeynī. The decision to create a distinct pro-Iranian entity on Lebanese soil and its training by a contingent of 1500 IRGC instructors were a direct consequence of the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. In a 1985 interview with Ḥoseyn Moṣleḥ, IRGC commander in Lebanon, the group’s monthly magazine Payām-e Enqelāb, quoted him stating: “The Muslims of Lebanon, especially the Shiites of the Lebanese Ḥizb Allāh, consider themselves the offspring of the Islamic Revolution and therefore know that they have a duty to imitate the Islamic Revolution.”
And so they did, in ideology and in visual propaganda. The emblem of Ḥizb Allāh was to become a direct copy of the IRGC’s flag, with the exception of a slightly curved magazine replacing the straight magazine of their Iranian brothers-in-arms. This could represent a Swiss SIG SG 540 assault rifle manufactured by France’s MANURHIN, not too uncommon during the Lebanese Civil War. It could also be a hybrid version of a G3A6 combined with an AK-74 as well.
Today, the amount of groups affiliated with the IRGC and the ideals of the Iranian Revolution has never been more numerous. Due to the intense support and diplomatic maneuvering of the IRGC in neighboring countries, new Iranian proxies can currently be found all over Iraq as part of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Ḥashd al-Shaʿbī), in Syria as part of the pro-regime armed forces and in Yemen as part of the Ḥūthī tribal confederation collectively known as the Anṣār Allāh. All of these groups brandish a flag copied exactly from either the IRGC’s or Ḥizb Allāh’s emblem, a statement of alignment and coalition under the watchful eye of the Iranian Sepāh.
It’s interesting to note that some of these groups dropped the neutral rifle in their emblem and instead went for some emblematic Soviet weapons instead. The military wing of the Iraqi Badr Organization (Munaẓẓama Badr) and the Iraqi Anger Battalions (Katāʾib al-Ghaḍab) for example both feature an AK-pattern self-loading rifle in their emblems. The emblem of the Iranian paramilitary NAKHSA Forces (al-Nakhsā) features a Dragunov SVD-63. This of course represents the shifting political reality of current events, Russia increasingly playing a supportive role for the Iranian revolutionary project in the region and fulfilling a critical part in the sustenance of the Syrian regime and its allies. Since violent Communist activism inside of Iran decreased substantively and the West still accounts for the main ideological enemy of pro-Iranian militant groups, the choice for distinct Russian rifles is no longer as conflicted. After the assassination of IRGC general Qāsem Soleymānī in January 2020, however, it remains to be seen which local militia will keep its distinct visual pro-Iranian imagery as a public flag and which one will change theirs in a bid to hide in neutrality and the new third alternative between the West and Iran.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.