On Monday, April 9th, President Donald Trump officially designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). While this move may create new obstacles for the IRGC outside of Iran, it could well embolden and empower it at home.
The IRGC and politics
The IRGC was originally established in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but its political and economic role in Iran has expanded considerably in recent years. From 2005 to 2013, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it gained a tremendous amount of power with the support of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and has continued to expand its political activities in the years since. In the 2013 presidential elections, four of the six candidates competing with Hassan Rouhani were ex-IRGC members. Rouhani’s win was a setback, and several IRGC members (and ex-members) lost parliamentary and provincial elections as well.
With a conservative stance on military, economic, security, and ideological issues, the IRGC represents the strongest and most influential opposition to President Rouhani. It thrives on insecurity, economic uncertainty, and political chaos, since in a secure, democratic society there is no basis for military rule. While Rouhani works to enhance democracy and the rule of law, the IRGC has aimed to destabilize the country further so it can expand its control.
The position of supreme leader has been a particular point of contention. President Rouhani has aspirations to succeed Khamenei, but there are significant barriers to this. He would, for instance, have to gain the trust and loyalty of the IRGC, which sees itself as “the custodian of the revolution” and has immense influence at every level of Iran’s power structure. But the IRGC ardently opposes Rouhani’s bid, and its Information Department and the judiciary are waging a quiet war against him by limiting his public communications on social media. Radical pro-IRGC MPs are challenging bills put forward by his government and some have even initiated impeachment proceedings against him.
Following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015 Rouhani began the slow process of normalizing relations with the U.S. In a speech, he emphasized the importance of dialogue with the international community. This drew an immediate and sharply negative response from Ayatollah Khamenei, and the IRGC backed up his words by launching mid-range ballistic missiles with “Death to Israel” written on them. Rouhani alleged this was a deliberate effort to derail the deal. He had staked his presidency on it in no small part and its collapse would mean the failure of his social and economic plans, as well as his foreign policy goals.
The Guards confront Rouhani’s government
During his second term, however, Rouhani, fought back, sidelining members of his administration that were ex-IRGC and appointing a general from the Iranian Army to the post of secretary of defense, which is usually held by one from the IRGC. He also took steps to prevent money laundering by banks controlled or backed by the IRGC by introducing legislation to bring Iran into compliance with standards from the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering.
In return, on July 15, 2017 the IRGC arrested Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoon, and the brother of his first vice president, Mehdi Jahangiri, on Oct. 6, 2017 on corruption charges. In addition, hardliners close to the supreme leader and the IRGC worked to foment protests in late 2016 and early 2017. This was followed by a foreign currency crisis that saw the value of the rial fall sharply and the subsequent introduction of a fixed exchange rate in April 2018. All of this put a great deal of pressure on the government.
Furthermore, issues such as regional proxy wars and missile tests, as well as the larger threat that President Trump might pull out of the JCPOA, took a growing toll on Rouhani, and he found himself facing hostility on both fronts, at home and abroad.
In Iran, there are, in effect, two separate governments: The “elected” one of President Rouhani and a second one spearheaded by the supreme leader and operated by the IRGC. The IRGC has been running this “shadow government” for some time now. According to Mostafa Tajzadeh, former vice secretary of state, the balance between the two is growing more fragile by the day. In April 2018, at the beginning of the foreign currency crisis, he tweeted, “We are approaching a no-return point in which one of the two governments will eliminate the other. The Shadow Government will either take complete control of the country and come out of the shadows or has to retreat from economic and foreign policy arenas.”
The IRGC and the JCPOA
The IRGC has long opposed the JCPOA. The agreement threatens its self-interest, as it would ultimately lead to a repeal of sanctions and a reduced risk of conflict, thereby reducing its outsized role in Iran’s economy and politics. In the absence of sanctions, foreign investors could finance large-scale projects in areas like infrastructure, and the government wouldn’t need to hand them over to organizations like Khatam al-Anbia that are fully owned by or linked to the IRGC.
After signing the JCPOA, Rouhani’s government canceled two large contracts, awarded under Ahmadinejad, with Khatam al-Anbia worth a total of $2.6 billion, and the IRGC had another $25 billion worth of contracts in the oil and gas sector that were also at risk. Rouhani defended the move: “We have given the economy to a so-called government that has guns, media, and everything, and no one has the audacity to compete with it.”
The U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the reimposition of sanctions came as a major blow to Rouhani. His loss of influence was most clearly illustrated in late February 2019 when his administration was unaware of a visit by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Tehran. Rouhani was informed only an hour before Assad arrived.
It is too early to predict how President Trump’s decision to designate the IRGC as an FTO will play out since the actual implications are not yet clear. Nonetheless, the move has already emboldened the IRGC domestically. It has used the classification to force reformers, centrists, and even President Rouhani to show their public support. Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, a former government spokesperson who was imprisoned in 2009 for supporting the Green Movement, tweeted, “Despite all differences and disagreements in local and national matters, we are all united against an illogical foreign threat and support our armed forces.”
Iran now faces uncertainties on many fronts. President Trump’s declaration may be the last straw that prompts Iran to pull out of the JCPOA altogether, and it could even lead to further regional conflict or an all-out war. In either case, the likely winners are the radicals, in both Iran and the U.S. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was instrumental in empowering radicals and the IRGC in Iran, and another conflict would further cement the country’s militarization and the suppression of internal opposition.
In early January 2018, demonstrations erupted over economic difficulties and were subsequently heavily suppressed. Those demonstrations and Trump’s recent declaration have helped to redraw Iran’s political landscape, marginalizing pragmatists and centrists in favor of more radical elements inside and outside of Iran. Politicians who had hoped to reform Iranian society now have the difficult decision of either conforming to the new reality or opposing the system altogether. For the time being it seems that Rouhani and the centrist/reformer Parliament have become subservient in implementing the policies of Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC.
Over the last 30 years, the IRGC’s power has steadily increased, and it grows with each crisis – real or fabricated. A continuous cycle of crises may eventually lead the public to acquiesce to handing over power to an IRGC general to end the downward trajectory. As such, the likelihood that an IRGC general will be at the helm of the government in 2021 is increasing.
The day after the U.S. government’s announcement, all of the MPs in the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, wore IRGC uniforms and unanimously passed a bill in support of it and against the U.S. Armed Forces. They even introduced a hashtag #Man Sepahi Hastam (“I am an IRGC member”), and President Rouhani said in a statement, “The designation by the US government has popularized the IRGC more than ever.”
Ratcheting up tensions
In a confrontational move, Iran’s supreme leader replaced the chief commander of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, with a hardliner, Hossein Salami, on April 21. The foreign policy implications of the move are dire, especially since the U.S. is increasing pressure by ending the “exemption” of countries importing Iranian crude. Tensions between the Islamic Republic and the U.S. are reaching a boiling point, and it appears that both countries are making decisions that lead toward confrontation, not reconciliation.
Without compromising its position toward the U.S., Iran (and particularly Ayatollah Khamenei) has three options to ease the tensions internally. The first is to release political prisoners, critics, and opposition figures from prison, provide more political and civil liberties to society, and reduce pressure and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. The second is reduce or eliminate the role of the IRGC in the political and economic arena. And the third is to divert some of the funds from organizations that the supreme leader controls directly, such as Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam and Astan Quds Razavi, to finance development projects and tackle worsening unemployment.
It is difficult to predict how the appointment of the new IRGC head will play out in the long term, but given that Gen. Salami has radical and confrontational views toward the West, the immediate result is likely to be an increase in already-high tensions between Iran and the U.S.
Mohammad Hossein Ziya is a strategic consultant and researcher originally from Iran. He currently serves as chief editor at Saham News and has previously advised many U.S. organizations on their policy and strategy toward Iran. The views he expresses are strictly his own.
Photo by Rouzbeh Fouladi/NurPhoto via Getty Images