By Edward Carney
It was inevitable that the White House’s announcement of terrorist designation for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps would lead immediately to an outpouring of media reports and analysis summarizing the IRGC’s past and present roles and speculating about the impact of the forthcoming sanctions.
Some commentators have characterized the relevant measures as a significant step toward the Trump administration’s stated goal of altering the behavior of Iran’s clerical regime, while others have warned of the potential for complications in America’s international relations. Still others have recognized the wisdom of sanctioning Iran’s most prominent tool of regional imperialism but have suggested that waivers will reveal themselves as a practical necessity to prevent short-term harm in advance of long-term benefits.
The ostensible outcome of an IRGC blacklist will be the end to a stranglehold on Iranian politics and society by a hardline power structure and a fundamentalist ideology that is written into the constitution of the revolutionary state. The Associated Press explained on Tuesday that the IRGC was created in the wake of the Iranian Revolution as a mechanism for consolidating power behind the supreme leader, who is accordingly the only figure in the nation’s government to wield power over the paramilitary organization.
The IRGC operates in parallel with Iran’s regular armed forces, which is tasked with defending the nation’s borders while the IRGC both defends and exports the theocratic system and the principles of the Islamist revolution.
The AP further explained that the organization’s “ideological, economic and security footprint” became more pronounced in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988, thereby allowing it to wield even greater political power and influence over policy in the years since. Today, the IRGC is estimated to be comprised of about 150,000 members, of which perhaps 10 percent operate as part of the foreign special operations branch, the Quds Force.
This sub-division of the paramilitary is primarily responsible for Tehran’s influence over regional conflicts such as the Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars, but experts and critics of the Iranian regime, such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran have emphasized that there is no real separation between the parent organization and its Quds Force.
This is arguably important to the justification for President Trump’s unprecedented move to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group – something that has never been done to a state-controlled body in the past. Individual members of the IRGC have been subject to terror-related sanctions, and the Quds Force has been designated as a foreign sponsor of terrorism, but previous American administrations have stopped short of applying that designation to the IRGC, on the basis of concerns that have been articulated anew in the immediate wake of the White House’s announcement.
The ongoing expansion of the IRGC’s “footprint” and political power only intensifies those concerns, underscoring the potential difficulty of negotiating with the Islamic Republic at all when any engagement one of its most influential state institutions could be construed as supporting terrorism. On the other hand, advocates of democratic reform in Iran are understandably anxious about the potential for the IRGC’s influence to grow even more expansive. In its analysis of the White House’s strategy, the Washington Post observed that that influence is already “unparalleled,” with the IRGC “enmeshed in virtually every major sector of the Iranian economy.”
In the face of those circumstances, the effort to completely isolate the IRGC is presumably intended to disentangle the organization from the rest of Iranian society, thereby giving the Iranian people and opportunity to challenge it. By some accounts, the public has attempted to do just that through the limited democratic features of the Iranian system, but to little or no avail.
In the wake of his first-term election in 2013, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was described by some international policymakers as a potential source of moderation and reform within the theocratic system. But the associated expectations, both among progressive-minded Iranians and within the international community, have been continually frustrated by an administration that posed no real challenge to hardline officials and institutions, least of all the Revolutionary Guards.
As the BBC pointed out in its own summary of the IRGC’s structure and role, its officials have developed a habit of frequently criticizing the government, as by accusing the Rouhani administration of sacrificing national pride by entering into a nuclear agreement with six world powers in 2015. But government officials have rarely returned these sorts of criticisms. The BBC critics Rouhani with once describing the IRGC as “a government with a gun” and a source of anxiety for the private sector, but he has not advanced executive or legislative measures for reining in either its political or military power, or for limiting the extent of its control over various industries.
Following Rouhani’s 2017 re-election, there was some hope that his administration would demonstrate more freedom to challenge hardline critics, but the opposite trend appears to have prevailed. This was evident, for instance, in Rouhani’s response to the terrorist designation. More than just condemning supposed American interference in Iranian affairs, the president made it clear that he stood firmly behind the IRGC, praising it for its declared role in safeguarding the regime.
Newsweek reported on Tuesday that Rouhani had delivered a speech in which he emulated the IRGC’s own talking points regarding the terror designation, turning it back upon the United States, which he said was “at the top of terrorism in the entire world.” The president then went on to eagerly promote the country’s missile program, which is controlled by the aerospace division of the Revolutionary Guards.
“You know that we have developed missiles since last year until this year that are beyond your imagination,” alluding to the IRGC’s routine disregard for a United Nations Security Council resolution that called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid all development and testing of ballistic missiles, which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Since the resolution was passed in 2016, coinciding with the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, the IRGC’s stockpile of such weapons has grown, the weapons themselves have reportedly grown more advanced, and the IRGC has floated the idea of carrying out dozens of tests each year, adding to the nearly two dozen that have taken place to date.
Tuesday’s speech was far from being the only instance of the Rouhani administration boasting about the nation’s military capabilities or expressing unqualified support for the IRGC and its hardline affiliates.
Although a surprising resignation announcement in February by Rouhani’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, suggested the escalation of conflict between two political factions, the quick resolution of that crisis showcased alignment behind hardline foreign policy initiatives. The move was reportedly motivated by Zarif being passed over in favor of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani to accompany Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at an un-announced meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But his resignation was withdrawn in the wake of public statements of support from Suleimani, Khamenei, and Rouhani, which emphasized his loyal service on the “front lines” of an ongoing conflict with the West.
The lack of a genuine reformist challenge to the IRGC was anticipated by some of the harshest critics of the Iranian regime. The leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, sought to organize a boycott of the 2017 presidential election, arguing that no genuine voice of reform were present in the race or would ever be allowed on the ballot under the current system. The PMOI would later help to organize nationwide protests in December 2017 and January 2018 which highlighted the public’s economic hardships and advocated for regime change as the only sure solution to endemic problems.
The anti-government uprising naturally gave rise to a surge of repression at the hands of the IRGC, in keeping with its primary domestic role. In covering the group’s blacklist on Monday, Voice of America News quoted former US army advisor and analyst Brad Patty as saying, “The population of Iran may wish what it will, but they are meant to live in terror of the IRGC.” If not for this, he said, “the Iranian state could eventually reform itself outside the bounds envisioned by [the] revolution.”
In speaking to the Washington Post, historian Abbas Amanat conveyed much the same message, calling the Revolutionary Guards “the single most effective guarantor of the regime’s survival.” Such expert commentary lends credence to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement of strategic purpose regarding the IRGC terror designation. “You can't have peace, you can't have stability, you can't have security in the Middle East without weakening the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News on Monday, after blaming the hardline paramilitary for the deaths of more than 600 American soldiers.
This figure came from revised casualty figures from the US war in Iraq, which were released by the Pentagon just last week. The attribution of 608 deaths to IRGC-provided weapons and training underscored the danger that the group potentially still poses to Western interests in the region, especially in light of the ongoing proliferation of IRGC-backed Shiite militants in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.
Furthermore, an editorial published by UPI on Tuesday linked the IRGC to multiple terror plots on Western soil just last year, as well as to ongoing cybersecurity threats and social media manipulation. The author, Struan Stevenson, a former European Parliament member and coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change, also compared the Revolutionary Guards’ domestic role to that of the Gestapo and the SS in Nazi Germany and declared that its long-overdue terror designation “is a further nail in the coffin for the thuggish clerical dictatorship.”