In 1991, the United States and its coalition allies scored a decisive victory over Iraq, pushing the invading army out of Kuwait after a 40-day air war and 100-hour ground assault. The coalition was almost universally recognized, only Jordan, Algeria, Sudan, Yemen, and Tunisia opposed to action. Also in support was Iran, enemy to both Iraq and the United States. But deep within the most fanatical ranks of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, a plot was hatched to hit U.S. troops.
During the buildup to Desert Storm in the waning days of 1990, the United States was sending thousands of troops, vehicles, ships, and aircraft into the region. They were building a force that could rival Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army, prevent it from moving further than Kuwait (namely, from invading neighboring Saudi Arabia), and have enough troops to push it out of Kuwait.
What a tempting target such a buildup would be to any foe. That’s exactly what a faction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards thought. The United States wouldn’t even expect an attack from Iran. It would have been easy.
The whole purpose of the Revolutionary Guards is to deter foreign threats to the Islamic Republic, whether those threats come from outside Iran or are fomented within its borders. They are a sort of internal security service mixed with a paramilitary organization that can operate both in and outside their home country. They are the Islamic Republic’s most fervent defenders, believers in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s vision of a nation founded on the principles of Shia Islam.
In practice, their ideological zeal has given IRGC units the green light to do whatever it takes to keep Iran and its Islamic government safe from those who would dismantle it. This includes violence, terrorism, and even all-out war alongside Iranian allies. It was the IRGC that helped Iran fight technologically superior Iraq to a draw in the Iran-Iraq War. That war also led to the emergence of the IRGC as a major military and political force in Iran. So, when the United States launched Desert Shield, the IRGC took notice.
As the tens of thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops massed in Saudi Arabia, units of a rebellious faction of the Revolutionary Guards, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, attempted to launch missile attacks from Iran on the troops deploying to Saudi Arabia. The goal, according to a 2008 paper by IRGC expert Ali Alfoneh in Middle East Quarterly, was to start a war between the United States and Iran on the eve of Desert Storm.
Loyalist Guardsmen and regular Iranian Army units under the command of then-IRGC Chief Mohsen Rezai got wind of the plan. It was to be launched from Khorramshahr, an Iranian city on the Iraqi border near Kuwait. Khorramshahr was the site of a particularly bloody battle of the Iran-Iraq War, a fight hard won by Iranian forces. It was also the site of an IRGC-controlled missile battery – which was quickly captured by the loyalist Iranian regime forces.
Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, but his legacy protected his mutinous son. Ahmad Khomeini, considered his father’s right hand man, was relieved of his Revolutionary Guards command and was sent to live in isolation until his death in 1995. The 49-year-old cleric died of a mysterious heart disease while still living an isolated life.
The United States went on to victory over Iran’s former adversary, humiliating Saddam Hussein and forcing the Iraqi regime to accept harsh economic sanctions and military limitations until the U.S. came back to topple it in 2003. Iran’s patience paid off with the recent instability in Iraq allowing the Islamic Republic to project power across the Middle East.