In Iran the commander of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) recently made public the fact that the IRGC was responsible for training (and often recruiting, arming and paying) 200,000 pro-Iran fighters in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This, in general, is no secret. It was long believed that as many as 50,000 Iranian created militiamen are fighting in Syria. There are somewhat smaller forces in Lebanon (about 25,000), Iraq (over 20,000) and Yemen (more than 15,000). Pakistan and Afghanistan were not happy with the IRGC publicly admitting that Iran has sponsored local (and often illegal) Shia militias.
This is not something new for the IRGC, which since the 1980s has had an elite organization whose main job was forming pro-Iran militias in foreign countries. This is the al Quds Force, which is a component of the IRGC. 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.
The Quds Force is a full time operation for carefully selected men trained to spread the Islamic revolution outside Iran. The Quds force has to also deal with a major obstacle in that they are spreading a Shia Islamic revolution in a world where only 10-15 percent of Moslems are Shia. Most of the rest are Sunni, and many of those Sunni consider Shia heretics. In several countries, there is constant violence between Shia and Sunni conservatives. This has been going on long before the clerics took control of Iran in 1979 or al Qaeda (a major killed of Shia) showed up in the 1990s.
The core operatives of the Quds force comprises only a few thousand highly skilled and very dedicated specialists. There are another 10,000 or so support staff. The core personnel tend to be 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 mighty 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 over three decades and that persistence is paying off. 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. These Shia are have also been very active in aiding Iranian efforts to embargoes on obtaining military equipment and technology.
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 U.S. led 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 because Quds trained Iraqi Shia leaders are openly calling for a Shia religious dictatorship to rule Iraq.
The South Asia Department (Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) was active in aiding Afghan Shia who were being persecuted by the Taliban (a Sunni operation) and al Qaeda (a very Sunni operation). 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. This has not been too successful as the Turks have been major enemies of Shia Iran for centuries and dedicate a lot of resources to monitoring what local, and foreign, Shia are doing in Turkey.
The North Africa Department has an operation in Sudan that long functioned 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. In early 2016 Sudan broke diplomatic relations with Iran and shut down all the Quds activities it could find.
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 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 in late 2015 Iran admitted its long support for Yemeni Shia. Soon after a Sunni Arab coalition entered Yemen and defeated the Shia rebels.
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 in line with ancient Iranian custom. Most of the Hezbollah violence in Lebanon was at the behest of Lebanese Hezbollah leaders. 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 appears a little premature.