American sanctions have historically failed and may even strengthen the IRGC's standing domestically.
On 15 April, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was listed on the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, marking the first time the US has classified a military entity of a foreign government as such.
Even though the sanctions might be a symbolic act on the part of the Trump administration, they will backfire, strengthening the status of the IRGC domestically within the structures of the state, as well as with the Iranian public.
When George W Bush included Iran in the infamous "Axis of Evil" in 2002, it was a symbolic act, yet it still rallied the Iranian public behind its government.
The new designation, like past sanctions, will have little impact on the IRGC’s domestic and international operations, while only potentially furthering escalation tensions in the region.
Functions of the IRGC
The IRGC, a force of 120,000, fulfils multiple security functions in the Islamic republic.
First, it evolved as a militia to guard the Islamic revolutionary government in 1979 against a counter-revolution to becoming its own government ministry, with another paramilitary force, the Basij, under its command, as well as its intelligence branch. Thus, the new sanctions are not targeting a military force per se, but an entire executive institution of the Iranian state, one of its most powerful.
Second, the IRGC emerged as a frontline conventional combat force, as a result of repelling the Iraqi invasion of 1980.
Third, it serves as a counter-insurgency force, suppressing internal ethnic rebellions, ranging from a Kurdish revolt in the northwest that began in the 1980s to a Baloch insurgency in the southeast.
Fourth, it commands a ballistic missile force. Past trends show that sanctions have little effect on this aspect of the IRGC’s activities. The US had sanctioned the ballistic missile program in January 2016, but Iran continues to advance the capabilities of its missile arsenal and deployed them in retaliation against Daesh after it attacked Iran’s parliament in 2017.
Fifth, the IRGC's Quds Force unit serves as a foreign expeditionary force, having supported the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982. The Quds Force was sanctioned by the US in 2007 for supporting Iraqi militias targeting the US military deployed there. Sanctions did not prevent the Quds Force from propping up the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria after 2011 or from supporting a network of Iraqi Shia militias to combat Daesh after 2014.
Sixth, the IRGC is also an elite cyber-military force that is allegedly responsible for hacking into American financial institutions. Sanctions will most likely lead to an increase in hacking offensives rather than a decrease.
Seventh, the IRGC operates as a business corporation, with holdings in the service sector ranging from media to construction, controlling about 20 percent of the economy. Sanctions actually help the IRGC’s economic activities, preventing foreign corporations from competing with it.
The new round of sanctions will not affect the roles the IRGC performs in Iran. While the sanctions might be a mere symbolic gesture by Trump, paradoxically, this symbolism might strengthen the IRGC’s position at home and exacerbate regional tensions.
Potential domestic and international impact
When sanctions were imposed on Iran’s nuclear program in the past, these actions only gave the program broader domestic support, even among Iranians who might have been critical or ambivalent about their government.
“Nuclear nationalism” was a unifying rallying point within the country the same way “missile nationalism” became a phenomenon in Iran. The fact that Iran had overcome the technological hurdles in developing such programs was a source of pride for Iranians and a source of national dignity. Sanctions on the IRGC have created the same backlash in the Iranian public, even amongst Iranian political figures who had been arrested by this very military unit.
Second, the sanctions will complicate Iranian-American tensions in Iraq. At one point, the IRGC and the US were combatting the same enemy – Daesh. As a result of this effort, residual American and Iranian forces remain in Iraq. When the US invaded Iraq after 2003, a low-intensity war emerged with Iran using proxy-militias against the American military.
By 2019, the Iraqi proxies that Iran used to target the US are now members of Iraq’s parliament. Both the IRGC and these Iraqi politicians do not need to resort to armed violence to thwart American influence in Iraq but rather can achieve these ends through legislation.
The IRGC view of the world
A good number of the present IRGC commanders were young soldiers or officers during the Iran-Iraq war and experienced firsthand how Iraq deployed chemical weapons against them while the West remained silent.
These officers will also remember the role they played in defeating Daesh after 2014, the men they lost in this campaign, in addition to the terrorist strikes against their bases in early February 2019. From the IRGC’s perspective, these terrorist attacks were the result of covert actions, which they blame on the US and Israel.
In the IRGC’s narrative, the recent sanctions are not just the actions of the Trump administration, but part of what they see as a systemic American effort since the 1980s to attack the IRGC through proxies or economic warfare, in order to weaken the Islamic Republic, a conflict that has endured for forty years since the Iranian Revolution.
Those who advocated that the IRGC be listed a terrorist group argue it will rein in its influence in the region. In reality, it only incentivises the IRGC to demonstrate that they will not be cowed by the Trump administration.
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