They are part national army, part police force, part Islamic revolutionary free- lancers with a streak of messianism -- and a lot of guns. Yet Iran's Revolutionary Guard, some 30,000-strong, is also becoming a major focus in President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr's uphill struggle against his fundamentalist rivals.
Islamic hard-liners have managed enough influence within the remnants of the Shah's regular armed forces to limit them sharply as an independent political force.
But the Muslim militant's sway within the Revolutionary Guard, or Pasdaran, seems greater and more threatening to the more secular President.
If the Pasdaran remain less highly trained, less heavily armed, and often less disciplined than even the battered regular Army, their relative "revolutionary" cohesion seems to give them potential political clout the rest of the military cannot rival.
Thus Tehran analysts attach less importance to the president's June 19 reshuffle of top figures in the regular armed forces, than to his escalating efforts to rein in the Pasdaran.
Appointed military commander-in-chief in February by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Mr. Bani-Sadr invoked that title in a June 18 appeal for Pasdaran to stay clear of the country's political rivalry.
But that seemed a tall order. The guards, remarked one diplomat, "remain essentially revolutionaries playing at soldiers."
The Pasdaran trace their roots to the local Islamic "committees" that, with a windfall of small arms from the Shah's armories, directed a final showdown with the old regime.
When the guard was established weeks laters, the committees did most of the groundwork. Leftists had helped battle the Shah, but successive purges of the Pasdaran helped mold a force dominated by Muslim militants.
Still, if the guards were formally accountable to Ayatollah Khomeini -- and, in recent months, to the President -- there has never been a clear, operational chain of command.
Complicating the problem, there are in effect two branches of Pasdaran. The first is nominally under a central government that doesn't fully govern. The second answers to the "committees," and tends to do free-lance work.
A presidential aide recently told reporters in Kurdistan he had "dissolved" some 50 self-styled Pasdaran "who has beaten up people and slandered and imprisoned in ways reminiscent of SAVAK," the Shah's secret police.
He said complaints against "certain individuals" in Tehran also were under study. "In the [central Pasdaran] corps, every bullet is accounted for, but in the committees, things are different."
But there appeared excesses in the "central" corps as well.
President Bani-Sadr complained June 18 that some Pasdaran had on occasion gone so far as to arrest government officials.
Six days earlier, Pasdaran near the occupied United States Embassy had opened fire after a fundamentalist mob attacked leftist militants. At least one man died; scores were injured; the President apparently seized the moment to seek discipline of a force whose heart often lay with his theocratic rivals.
The client newspaper of his political nemesis, Islamic Republican Party leader Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, rapped the leftists and praised the Pasdaran.
But Ayatollah Khomeini was clearly alarmed at the incident.
In a message read to thousands of Revolutionary Guards June 16, the Ayatollah said all military men must now answer to Mr. Bani-Sadr. "The committees will remain as long as they are needed," the message added, but would be purged along with unruly Pasdaran.
Ayatollah Khomeini generally has been stronger in words than action. That, as the President presumably hopes, could change. But Iranian observers suspect the Ayatollah's main "military" concern remains that "imperialists" will try to mount a power grab.
Military experts see the current court martial of a group of seven alleged Army plotters, based near the Iraqi border, as more a reflection of that fear, than an indication it is justified.
"There is absolutely no possibility of a [military] coup," Iran's chief of military police declared after the defeat of the Shah. "If I should want to carry out a coup, if the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] says, 'In the name of God the compassionate and merciful,' my soldiers would about-face."
To hear military authorities tell it, a few junior officers in the western provinces didn't get that message, and were planning to restore the old regime, then hold a referendum on Iran's future.
Still, there has been no indication of credible barracks support for the alleged plot within the fragmented Army.
Second of two articles on Iran's military forces.