When Iranian parliamentarians wore the uniform of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Parliament on Tuesday, the message went beyond showing solidarity with an outfit designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States. It signalled the importance of the Revolutionary Guard to the Iranian regime and the influence it wields in the country.
The crackdown by US President Donald Trump, in essence, also means that the chasm between Tehran and Washington will grow wider and deeper. The Iranians have hit back calling U.S. “a sponsor of world terror” and said they will declare the US Centcom (Central Command) a terrorist organisation.
This is for the first time that the U.S. has designated a branch of the armed force of a foreign government a terrorist group but in real terms the move means little. Both the Iranian government and the elite Quds Force—it is a part of IRGC and said to operate outside Iran, providing training and weapons to extremist groups among other things—have been under sanctions for a long time.
The announcement—just two days before Israel’s parliamentary elections—led many, including Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif to ask if it was meant to help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was facing a tough electoral battle to win a fifth term in office. Zarif said the move was a “misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu”.
A day after Trump’s decision, Netanyahu thanked Trump “for responding to another of my important requests”. The two leaders enjoy close ties and the Trump presidency has seen the U.S. recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving its embassy there. More recently, the Trump administration recognised Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, annexed from Syria in 1967.
“The Iranian government and the Quds Force have been under sanctions for their support to the Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran was declared a state sponsor of terror in 1984. And the Quds Force too has been under sanctions. So the situation on the ground doesn’t change significantly,” former Indian diplomat and West Asia expert Talmiz Ahmad told SNI.
Prof. AK Pasha who is with the Centre for West Asian Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said that the Revolutionary Guard forms the “backbone of the Islamic regime” and is a “highly motivated force which has not been affected by any sanctions imposed on them so far.”
While Iran has a separate military, the IRGC members “are the ruling elite in Iran along with the clergy,” said Prof Pasha. The Revolutionary Guard chief reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Describing the all-powerful Revolutionary Guard as the “eyes and ears of the Iranian regime”, Prof Pasha said its members are spread in all provinces of Iran and guard key Iranian leaders and strategic installations. He further said that the Revolutionary Guard controls around 40 per cent of the Iranian economy by owning factories, highways, hotels, restaurants, etc and is a self-sustaining outfit that may not be affected by U.S. sanctions.
According to Ahmad, “The pattern is one of building incremental pressure.” He said the U.S. wants Iran to withdraw from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) which was signed between it and the P5+1 group in 2015 and announce its return to its nuclear programme. “It’s been a cherished U.S. game plan from the beginning,” said Ahmad adding, “But I don’t think they take Trump very seriously in Iran.”
Ahmad also noted that the move was “an intervention to support hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu in his bid for re-election as the Israeli PM”. Describing both Trump and Netanyahu as populist leaders, Ahmad said “both constantly create a crisis, adopt an aggressive stance and the posturing becomes sharper when it’s election time.”
While the U.S. move may not affect a country that’s lived with economic sanctions for decades, it is expected to aggravate tensions in the region. Apart from Israel, another close U.S. ally in the region, Saudi Arabia which is a bitter rival of Iran and Bahrain too have welcomed the blacklisting of Iran while Qatar and Turkey have opposed it.
Founded four decades ago after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 saw the Shah of Iran being overthrown, the Revolutionary Guards has an overarching influence on the country’s politics, economy and military. Its recruits comprise many related to revolutionaries who participated in the 1979 revolution.
The IRGC’s influence extends beyond Iran’s borders. In Syria, for instance, its men assisted President Bashar al-Assad’s forces while in Iraq it helped provide leadership and training to Shia-dominated forces to defeat the ISIS. They have fought in the Iran-Iraq war, they have trained the Hezbollah and trained the Kurds, said Prof Pasha. The IRGC also controls ordnance factories in Iran apart from helping the regime import weapons from major suppliers like Russia and China, he added.
While India has not commented on the IRGC’s terror tag, it has had a brush with the Revolutionary Guard’s relentless ways despite the close and warm ties it enjoys with Iran. In August 2013, an Indian oil tanker, MV Desh Shanti, was seized by the IRGC in the international waters off the Persian Gulf, ostensibly for causing environmental pollution.
The tanker, belonging to the Shipping Corporation of India, was en route to India from Iran and remained detained at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port for 24 days. While Tehran maintained the pollution it was causing was the reason, New Delhi believed the fact that its oil imports from Iran had dropped and increased from Iraq had led to the IRGC action. It had promoted New Delhi to even accuse Tehran of violating the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas(UNCLOS).