Part VI: The Power of the Revolutionary Guard - this is the sixth in a series of articles that looks at how the Iranian Revolution came to be in 1979, and where it has led Iran over the course of four decades.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) faces its most challenging days as it celebrates its 40th anniversary this weekend (May 5). Not only has the United States Administration designated it a terrorist organisation, it has imposed new layers of sanctions cutting its main source of funding and even removing the waivers on the sale of Iranian oil to its main importers.
Oil exports, central to Iran’s revenue, have dropped from around 2.5 million barrels a day before US sanctions to just over 1 million per day. Iranians are having to spend almost fifty percent more each month on their household goods.
These measures amount to an unauthorised economic war against Iran with the aim of cutting off Iran’s oil exports entirely. They are no longer smart sanctions to correct behaviour. Instead they compile, rather than remove or replace, the previous sanctions.
IRGC is the main protectorate of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The ruling clique in Iran would never allow it to be defeated as its demise would bring the total downfall of the regime.
Originally made up of paramilitary activists devoted to the revolution, over the past forty years the regime has heavily invested in IRGC, which has amassed empire-like powers with its own military, intelligence, economic, political and judicial apparatus with vast communications media channels broadcasting its message in twenty countries and in several languages.
Khamenei, in command of both the military and foreign policy, seems to advocate a two-pronged strategy against US measures.
In his latest speech he has asked for a military formation across the nation in the face of “the enemy’s [US] military formation”. He has reshuffled IRGC leadership placing the more hawkish Hossein Salami as its commander.
But at the same time he has directed the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to drive a wedge between President Donald Trump and his top team and allies.
In an interview with Fox News Zarif accused the American National Security Advisor John Bolton, as well as the Israeli, Saudi and UAE leaders, of “dragging the United States into a conflict”, saying he did not think president Trump wanted war.
To choose the only channel watched by the US president, separating him from his closest allies, Zarif must have had authorisation from Khamenei.
This unprecedented rapprochement proves the vital importance of the IRGC for the supreme leader.
IRGC is more known as a suppressive state apparatus at home through its Basij force, and a military instrument of Iran’s expansion in the region through its Quds force. But its construction wing, Khatam al-Anbia, is also Iran's largest contractor in industrial and development projects across the region.
By trying to bankrupt the IRGC, President Trump is at once dislodging a major competitor in the region with huge potential profits in the additional sale of oil and hundreds of billions of dollars of lucrative reconstruction deals for US firms in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
The measures would not deter the IRGC, which would switch to clandestine methods energising the black market in the sale of oil and arms. It would also work in far closer cooperation with China and Russia setting up a new oil bloc.
China, Turkey and India which buy the bulk of Iran’s oil have already said they would ignore US restrictions. Saudi Arabia has admitted that China has not asked for any more oil. China believes Iran’s discounted oil is too cheap to pass.
The US economic war is taking its toll not on the IRGC but on the livelihoods of the people of Iran with an IMF trajectory of a six percent shrinkage in Iran’s economy and projected price rises of 37.2 percent.
While there is little disagreement over the need to curb the power of IRGC, piling pressure on Iran’s economy and on people’s livelihoods through unilateral action of a foreign power is totally unacceptable.
Any measures for curbing the power of the IRGC should, in the first place, come from inside Iran.
In fact, there has been a concerted effort over the past decade by reformists and moderates led by the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, to reduce the IRGC’s hold over the economy and give more prominence to Iran’s national army. Open criticisms of the corruption in its financial operations and its intelligence organisation have steadily increased.
President Trump’s direct war on the IRGC has in fact thwarted these efforts, silencing many critics who in the face of a foreign onslaught are called to unite in support of the organisation.
Through Zarif’s interview with Fox News, Iran has sent its softest message yet for possible talks with the US and has also offered a prisoner exchange.
President Trump would do well to heed those messages. Any international effort for reprimanding the IRGC should go through the appropriate channels and work in tandem with efforts inside.
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