As the Trump administration is expected to decertify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement this week, Iranian leaders are mulling their options on how to respond. While de-certification does not mean Washington is necessarily walking away from the accord and it will be up to Congress to decide whether to keep the deal or re-impose sanctions on Iran, Tehran is preparing for the worst-case scenario. Even if U.S. unilaterally abandons the deal, the Rouhani government appears willing to stay in the deal as long as European powers disregard U.S. sanctions and continue to do business with Iran. However, if the Trump administration presses ahead with a plan to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) as a terrorist entity, it will make it difficult for the Rouhani government to stay in the deal because of pressure from hardliners at home. Such a move is also likely to further heighten tension between Iranian and U.S. military forces in the Middle East. In the past week, top Iranian military leaders have warned that they will target the U.S. military in the Middle East if Washington reinstates the sanctions or designate the I.RG.C.
Warning from Tehran
In recent days, Iranian leaders have warned that they will retaliate forcefully if the Trump administration presses ahead with its plan to blacklist the I.R.G.C. and undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers in July 2015.
Earlier today, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the Iranian parliament that the Rouhani government will not renegotiate the J.C.P.O.A. and will give a “tougher response” if Washington annuls it. According to the Iranian foreign minister, the Trump administration “has not yet reached the point to abandon the J.C.P.O.A.,” but it is throwing the future of the deal in doubt so as to discourage international companies to do business with Iran and “deprive Iran of its benefits.” He emphasized that Iran has devised several courses of action to ensure that U.S. plans will not succeed. While Zarif did not provide the details, Iranian officials have said in the past that Tehran is considering several options proportionate to U.S. actions, including reverting to pre-2015 situation and enriching high-level uranium.
Separately, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tried to assure the Iranian public that any action by the U.S. government to undermine the nuclear deal would only harm and isolate Washington, reasoning that major world powers, including European countries, are on Iran’s side and oppose U.S. unilateral action vis-à-vis the J.C.P.O.A. “If America takes a hostile action against an international agreement that is approved by the United Nations Security Council and is part of the Resolution 2231, it will not just oppose Iran but also the international community and the United Nations,” he added.
Media reports that the Trump administration is also set to designate the I.R.G.C. as a terrorist organization has triggered even harsher reactions in Tehran. Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the I.R.G.C.’s chief commander, cautioned on Sunday that if Washington goes ahead with the “stupid decision,” his forces will treat U.S. soldiers in the Middle East and across the world the same as Islamic State terrorists – adding that U.S. will also have to leave its military bases in the region to avoid Iranian missiles. The I.R.G.C. commander further emphasized that any new U.S. sanctions would end the prospect of further dialogue forever – arguing that such a move would prove that Washington exploits negotiation as a tactic to put pressure on its adversaries rather than resolve disputes diplomatically.
The deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Brigadier General Massoud Jazzayeri issued a similar warning, saying that Iran will confront the Trump administration’s “aggressive policies” by “teaching America new lessons.” Hinting that Iran may take action against U.S. interests in the region, Jazzayeri said “the era of America’s presence and domination in West Asia has come to an end,” adding that the Trump administration “needs some shocks to learn the new concept of power in today’s world.” He further emphasized that Tehran will not succumb to U.S. pressure and will continue to enhance its missile and defensive capabilities.
While the I.R.G.C.’s threat to launch missile attacks against U.S. bases in the region appears to be mere bluster, the elite force has a long history of waging asymmetrical warfare against the U.S. military in the region. Thus, any potential response to harm U.S. interests will most likely come from Iran’s regional proxies, particularly in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Rare Moment of Unity
The Trump administration’s tougher line on Iran has lately united the country’s hardliners and pragmatists. In his speech today, Rouhani strongly defended the I.R.G.C.’s role in keeping Iran safe from external threats as well as its military adventurism in the Middle East. “America has the right to be angry at Sepah [I.R.G.C.] because they wanted to keep Daesh [Islamic State] in the region for 20 years and use it as an instrument. But Sepah has humiliated Daesh by working with and supporting the Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese people,” he claimed. “The Revolutionary Guards is not only a military unit, but it lives in the hearts of the people and has defended our national interests in perilous times.”
The Iranian president emphasized the need for unity inside Iran to counter U.S. pressure. “Today, those who support or oppose the J.C.P.O.A. are united with a single voice,” he noted. In an apparent effort to placate hardliners who had advised against negotiating with the United States on the nuclear issue, Rouhani said the government “has never trusted America” and “have different options” if Washington reneges on its commitment. “We will have no difficulty in advancing our goals.”
In addition, Rouhani’s Spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht reiterated the government’s all-out support for the I.R.G.C. “The government’s positions regarding Sepah are very clear: Sepah is the official, revolutionary and important pillar of the regime and is one component of the nation’s power and defense,” he said. “If America wants to blacklist Sepah, it will place itself on the side of terrorists because Sepah is fighting terrorists.”
Zarif echoed a similar view. The Iranian foreign minister warned that if Washington “commits the strategic mistake” of designating the I.R.G.C., Tehran will “definitely take reciprocal action.” In return, Jafari voiced support for the government. “Mr. Trump should rest assured that that we are on the same page with our foreign ministry and the government,” the I.R.G.C. chief commander said.