The July 14 2015 treaty to lift the sanctions on Iran was celebrated inside Iran as a victory. In many ways it was and it brought a lot of unexpected changes. The treaty was negotiated by a UN backed coalition of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. Five of these nations are the permanent members (each with a veto) of the UN Security Council while Germany is there because it has the largest economy in Europe. Russia and China automatically approved the deal but America, Britain, France and Germany had to deal local opposition and they did this in short order. Meanwhile the Iranian government predicted future GDP growth and good times for all. It didn’t work out quite as expected. It never does.
The good times extended to Iranians recently killed in foreign wars. After the July 14th treaty was approved Iran began to acknowledge, and praise, the efforts of its military personnel and special operations forces in foreign wars and to hail, individually, those killed there as heroes. So confident was Iran in this treaty being approved by the West that some Iranian leaders began bragging months before July 2015. For example in early 2015 a senior Iranian general gave a speech in Iran in which he described Iranian military operations in Iraq and Lebanon as going well and that soon Iran would have a presence in Jordan as well. Apparently the general revealed more than he was supposed to because Iranian diplomats began getting angry messages from Jordan about this. In response Iran said the speech never took place. It was too late for that as many details had gotten out (some via pro-government media in Iran) and all Iranian diplomats could do was attempt some damage control.
What this was all about was optimism among Quds (paramilitary) Force leaders and their eagerness to share it. To Jordan this Iranian slip makes sense because pro-Iran Syrian rebels have been trying to take control of some of the border with Jordan and Quds personnel were seen to be active along this border area. Quds is known for coming into an areas and helping organize and arm opponents to the local government.
For years Iran played down the Quds men reported as having died outside Iran. Since late 2015 that has changed and these formerly anonymous dead Iranians were praised as national heroes. These bodies had been coming back from Syria, Iran and other foreign wars for several years and until mid-2015 the government merely reported (quietly, just to the family) that their kin had died defending Shia holy places outside Iran. By early 2015 the number of bodies coming back from Iraq and Syria was increasing and it was more difficult to pass this off as just a few brave Iranians defending holy places overseas. Actually most Iranians knew what was going on but until July 14th the government pretended to portray the dead as something else. With the treaty a reality the government turned the rising number of dead bodies returned for burial as an occasion to praise those who died and do it prominently in the state controlled mass media. This also meant giving more publicity to the Iranian special operations forces who have long fought, in secret, overseas. This was especially true for the Quds Force.
Iran has long had a secretive group of specialists who could go overseas and organize pro-Iran mischief. This is the secretive Quds Force, which belongs to the IRGC (the Iranian Republican Guard Corps.) Also known as the Pasdaran, the IRGC is a paramilitary force of about 100,000 full timers that insures that any anti-government activity inside Iran is quickly eliminated. To assist the Pasdaran, there is a part-time, volunteer force, several hundred thousand Basej, which can provide additional manpower when street muscle is required. The Basej are usually young, Islamic conservative men, who are not afraid to get their hands dirty. If opponents to the government stage a large demonstration, it will often be broken up by Basej, in civilian clubs, using fists and clubs. But outside Iran, the IRGC depends on the Quds Force to look after Iranian interests and create local versions of the Basej.
The Quds Force is a full time operation, of men trained to spread the Islamic revolution outside Iran. The Quds force has a major problem in that they are spreading a Shia Islamic revolution, while only 15 percent of Moslems are Shia. Most of the rest are Sunni, and many of those consider Shia heretics. In several countries, there is constant violence between Shia and Sunni radicals. This has been going on long before the clerics took control of Iran in 1979, which was more than a decade before the Sunni (al Qaeda showed up in the 1990s.
The core operatives of the Quds force comprises only a few thousand people. But many of them are highly educated, most speak foreign languages, and all are Islamic radicals. They are on a mission from God to convert the world to Shia Islam, and the rule of Shia clergy. The Quds Force has been around since the 1980s, and their biggest success has been in Lebanon, where they helped local Shia (who comprise about a third of the population) form the Hezbollah organization.
The Quds Force has eight departments, each assigned to a different part of the world. While the one that works in the Palestine/Lebanon/Jordan area have been the most successful, the other departments have been hard at it for three decades. The Palestine/Lebanon/Jordan department went into high gear in 2012 when a rebellion against the pro-Iran Syrian government made unexpected gains. For the next two years saving pro-Iranian Syria was the main task of Quds.
The Western Directorate has established a recruiting and fund raising network in Western nations. Many recruits are brought back to Iran for training, while Shia migrants are encouraged to donate money, and services, to Quds Force operations. Because many of these operations are considered terrorist operations, Quds Force is banned in many Western nations. Currently Quds operatives in the West are monitoring what ISIL is up to there and recruiting local Shia Moslems to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
The Iraq Department long maintained an army of anti-Saddam fighters in exile (in Iran) as well as running an intelligence operation inside Iraq. After the coalition toppled Saddam in 2003, Quds Force moved people, money and weapons into Iraq, to form pro-Iranian political forces and militias. These forces were withdrawn by 2008 as the newly elected government demonstrated their power by forcibly shutting down any pro-Iran Shia militias that refused to disband peacefully. By 2014 Quds was invited back in as ISIL took Mosul and parts of northwestern and western Iraq. Now Quds considers their work in Iraq more important than the effort in Syria.
The South Asia Department (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) was active in aiding Afghan Shia who were being persecuted by the Taliban (a Sunni operation), al Qaeda (a very Sunni operation) and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an even more extreme Sunni group). Quds has also been caught operating in Pakistan, where Sunni terrorists have been attacking Shia for decades.
The Turkey Department has been active encouraging Shia Kurds to commit terrorist acts but lately has been mainly keeping an eye on the interesting political developments there. .
The North Africa Department has an operation in Sudan that functions in the open, despite the Sunni conservatives who run the country. This department has been caught providing weapons to the Sunni Islamic terrorists in Somalia.
The Arabian Department supports terrorist groups that exist in all the Persian Gulf Arab countries. The Arab Sunni governments in these nations does not appreciate Iran's support for this sort of thing. Quds has quietly supported a Shia rebellion in Yemen, which has been simmering for a decade and got really successful in 2013 and by late 2014 controlled the capital and over a third of the country. But now the Arab neighbors (plus Egypt) are getting involved and an American carrier task force just showed up to prevent Iran from sending in any arms and other supplies by ship.
The Central Asian Department supports Shia and Sunni terrorists in countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. So does al Qaeda, but the Quds operation has been more discreet.
Back in Iran, Quds kept an eye on al Qaeda leaders granted sanctuary after 2001. Even though al Qaeda has taken part in many atrocities against Shia outside Iran the Quds leadership saw this a case of the "enemy of my enemy is my friend." Actually, there is a major dispute in the Iranian government over the al Qaeda issue. But the Iranian leadership is more a federation than a dictatorship, so Quds can keep being nice to al Qaeda as long as not too many factions get mad at Quds.
The Iranian leadership, despite their radical sounding pronouncements, have actually been quite cautious. This is consistent with ancient Iranian custom. Most of the Hezbollah violence in Lebanon was at the behest of Lebanese. The same pattern has occurred elsewhere. The Quds guys usually counsel restraint, although in Iraq there has been more enthusiasm for violence. Iraq is a special case, as several hundred thousand Iranians died fighting Saddam in the 1980s, and Iranians have not forgotten.
Quds is often described as the most radical part of the IRGC while also being the smallest component. Although by their very nature Quds operations must remain discreet and secret, Quds and IRGC find it good for the image of the religious dictatorship running Iran if some Quds accomplishments are boasted about openly. Thus Quds leaders like to say that because of Quds efforts Iran now controls “four Arab capitals” (in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen). Given that all four of those countries are currently embroiled in wars and revolutions (often anti-Shia) the boasting may be a little premature.