The BBC examined this influence in an article also published on Tuesday. It corroborated the view that the number of IRGC deaths in Syria demonstrate that the presence of Iranian nationals on the battlefield is greater than what Tehran has been willing to acknowledge.
Iran News Update previously reported that Tehran has been somewhat more upfront about the extent of its involvement since the start of Russian air strikes, which give the Iranian regime both military and political cover for its foreign actions. But many Iranian officials have still refused to acknowledge the presence of actual Iranian fighting forces, characterizing the IRGC’s role as that of advisors or admitting only that troops have massed on the border in readiness for a direct request of assistance from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The BBC points to clear evidence that such statements are incomplete at best. And some of that evidence comes from other Iranian officials, including members of the IRGC who have sworn revenge on the Syrian rebel forces that killed their colleagues. Such statements are only credible if the IRGC has a fighting force on the ground in the country capable of carrying out combat operations against the rebels.
But regardless of the size of the Iranian deployment, the extent of the Islamic Republic’s influence is also a function of how deeply embedded it is in the primary forces defending Assad. And the BBC notes that one of the recent casualties, Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, had been primarily responsible for the funding of Syria’s National Defense Force. To date, some 100,000 members of that fighting force have been trained and organized under Iranian command.
While the increasing rate of Iranian casualties in the conflict has been widely regarded as a sign of expanding involvement, such casualties are nothing new. An editorial published Tuesday in The Hill pointed out that at least 144 Iranian nationals have been killed in fighting in Syria since the beginning of 2013. Some of these were associated with the Quds Force, which is the official foreign arm of the IRGC, and some were associated with the Basij or the IRGC’s supposedly domestic forces. But all of them were members of the IRGC in some form.
The editorial cites these facts to argue not only that the Iranian presence in the conflict has been strong for the past two years, but also that it has been fairly broad based, extending beyond the wing of the IRGC that has already been designated as a terrorist organization by the US. The editorial thus urges the US government to recognize that the entirety of the IRGC has its hand in foreign terrorism, and should be subject to the same designation and sanctions as the Quds Force.
This apparent non-separation of IRGC functions also serves as further evidence for a familiar claim made by a Tuesday blog post at the Wall Street Journal. That post declared that the Iranian regime cannot be expected to moderate its behavior in the wake of the nuclear deal as the Obama administration believes it might do. Recent activities like the expanded role in Syria, the testing of an advanced ballistic missile, and the conviction of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian all point to the conclusion that the Iran is actually consolidating its “repressive and authoritarian character,” according to the post.
The Wall Street Journal went on to say what has been said repeatedly by a range of opponents of the Iranian regime, including dissidents from the National Council of Resistance of Iran. That is, it said that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accepted the nuclear agreement only to provide some economic relief to the domestic population in order to forestall massive popular protest while also securing sanctions relief that can be utilized for expanded repression and expansion of its power abroad.
Syria represents only one venue for that prospective expansion. Yemen is another, and it has been of particular concern to Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia. AFP reported on Tuesday that the two Middle Eastern powers had traded new statements of mutual condemnation, with the Saudis urging Iran to stop meddling in the affairs of its neighbors and adding that they cannot normalize relations with Iran as long as it continues to actively back Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria.
In response, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, regarded by some in the West as a relative moderate, insisted that Iran would not allow Saudi Arabia to push it out of the broader region. The Yemeni rebellion has served largely as a proxy war between the two major powers, and these latest statements suggest that that conflict is still poised to grow more entrenched, and perhaps more bloody.
The Missile Threat website reported on Tuesday that Iran had developed plans to produce its own domestic missile defense system modeled after the S-300 missiles recently provided by Russia. This is only the latest in a series of Iranian efforts to step up its own military capabilities and to broadcast these developments in a possible gesture of intimidation toward the Saudis.
Meanwhile, the Saudis recently announced the development of a new and more aggressive defense doctrine, which it justified as a response to the withdrawal of US leadership. For critics of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, the decision to not sanction the IRGC as a whole may be an example of this withdrawal.
But general critics of Western policy toward Iran are keen to look beyond Iran’s adventurism in the Middle East and to cite more immediate dangers to the US and Europe. For instance, Breitbart suggested on Tuesday that the European Union has been dangerously lax in allowing persons with Iranian regime affiliations to enter amidst the current wave of refugees. It notes that the London-based Foreign Relations Bureau – Iraq has specifically identified 48 individuals who have shown up in those throngs after having previously posted images on social media depicting themselves fighting in Iraq as part of Shiite militias outfitted and trained by Iran.
Breitbart expands upon the Hill editorial by criticizing the US and EU for not designating these militias as foreign terrorist organizations alongside the IRGC Quds Force. It also intimates that this is a reflection of recent Western policies that have put almost exclusive emphasis on Sunni terrorists and embracing Shiite terrorists as possible allies in that conflict. But this policy, Breitbart suggests, has probably led to more than just the 48 identified individuals entering Europe, where they may now be able to obtain local passports and ultimately reach the US as well.