I did not comment earlier about the reported designation of Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami (translated as the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps or sometimes even more carelessly as Revolutionary Guard Corps while the word sepah means army and the correct translation is the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) mostly because over the past five years of closely monitoring the fate of Iran’s nuclear dossier, I have become skeptical of newspaper leaks, plants or commentary that hint at the possibility of eventual military action (either by the United States or Israel) against Iran right around the time or in the midst of negotiations among permanent Security Council members and Germany (P5+1) about the extension of sanctions against Iran.
This time around the story made headlines in both the New York Times and Washington Post as Iran was about to begin the third round of negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over an “action plan” and timetable for Iran to address the remaining “unresolved questions” over its nuclear program (that agreement, the text of which was revealed today and can be found here, has already been announced as inadequate by the US even before its content was known).
The United States is also pushing for a third set of economic sanctions through the UN Security Council and as far as I can tell even the smallest hint of US military action (and the potential terrorist designation of the national army of another country is certainly a hint) has become a very useful tool not only in the process of persuading countries freaked out about yet another Middle East war that sanctions are the way to go but also in framing the Iran policy discussions domestically in the US.
Once military action becomes a possibility, then most of the energy is spent discussing why this is a terrible option while the issue at hand, which is really whether or not sanctions are good policy options, are not adequately reflected upon. In an either/or frame, sanctions or what is sometimes, I guess, euphemistically called “coercive diplomacy” in fact become the “good option” upon which a consensus can be reached. Ultimately the fundamental premise of the Bush Administration that Tehran needs to be dealt with through coercion, unless Iran agrees to US pre-conditions, and the implications of the sanctions policy for Iranian politics and Iranian people and whether sanctions will fulfill the stated objectives are rarely discussed.
The US has been sanctioning Iran in significant ways since the first term of the Clinton Administration and hopefully in a later post I will talk about how sanctions have strengthened non-transparent networks of economic middlemen in Iran whose lucrative activities during the Saddam era sanctions against Iraq (yes Iraq) as well as close ties to various state institutions have enriched them enough to influence Iranian politics in significant ways, particularly since Iran’s borders with neighboring countries (now all American allies) are so porous.
But here I want to talk specifically about the impact of the recent news about the placing of Sepah on the terrorist list on Iranian politics. In the words of David Ignatius of Washington Post, through this designation, which he suggests is part of a new post-Iraq strategy, the Bush administration hopes to “squeeze the guard and all of the businesses it owns -- banks, trading companies, tech companies that are part of the nuclear program -- and seek to divide President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself a product of the guard, from Iran's less fanatical majority."
A close look at the reaction from Tehran, however, clearly encapsulates how such moves push the whole array of political forces to the right of the political spectrum and in fact strengthen precisely the same forces that the publicized policy presumably intends to weaken. This, I think, is the story of American foreign policy vis-à-vis Tehran; a story that very few people in the Bush Administration or the US Congress (which since 1990s has done everything possible to outdo the executive branch in this sanctions game) are willing to confront.
Now let’s see what happened in Tehran once the news hit the headlines. The government did not respond officially. In fact, only a Foreign Ministry official who wished to remain anonymous (yes the Iran has them too!), characterized the publicity as part and parcel of the “psychological war” in which the US has engaged in the past couple of years in order to intimidate Iran.
The conservative organizations and newspapers did respond but they did so with either a yawn or their usual bombast and ridicule about American failures in Iraq and how these failures leave the US no other options but to find scapegoats. In an August 23rd editorial entitled “Paper Presence,” this is how Kayhan, Tehran’s most important hard-line daily reacted to the news:
If the news is correct, it is another sign that the Americans neither have sufficient intelligence for the correct understanding of their problems in the Middle East nor do they have much wisdom for addressing them. The excuse, they say, is that Sepah is helping Hezbollah, Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad and other similar groups…. The US imagines that these groups have modeled their fighting after Sepah and further claims that Sepah trains or arms them; claims that are repeated for years without an ounce of evidence ever presented to support them…. It is understandable that it is difficult for Israel and the United States – and the shame associate with it even harder – to accept and for the world to believe that with all their claims and pride they have been humiliated in front a few hundred Kalashnikov carrying youth. This is why in their own minds they have found a solution … by enlarging their adversary they want to belittle their own defeat or at least find an excuse for it. But let us say that the Jihadi groups in the Middle East region were created by Sepah and are now under its protection – which they are not and America knows this truth better than anyone else, is the solution to take a torn piece of paper and write on it that Sepah is terrorist? Will this solve the American problem?... The Americans imagine that the solution to the strategic defeat that has beleaguered them in the Middle East is paper play and issuing of declarations and resolutions. Sepah, if we accept America’s ridiculous claims, has taken America to the point of desperation on the boiling sands of Iraq, expansive plains of Lebanon, and swarming cities of Palestine. If there is a response to Sepah, then it must be given there. Apparently, however, there is no response and members of Sepah, by traversing time and place, are in a position that the US must await a new wonder from them at any given moment…
But ridiculing the significance of the US decision, if it happens, does not prevent hard-line or conservative forces from using the proposed terrorist designation in their attacks against domestic opponents. Suggesting that the idea of placing Sepah on the terrorist list can be associated with a few members of the Iranian exile community in the United States with past links to the reformists, Baztab, a website associated with Mohsen Rezaie, the former commander of Sepah, in an August 21st piece subtitled “A Test for the Patriotism of the Reformists” demands:
Now that the hard-line American circles are pretending that in confronting Sepah-e Pasdaran they have the reformists on their side, time has arrived for well-known leaders of that array of groups to defeat this plan through a clear statement of their position… Time has arrived for organizations such as Association of Combatant Clerics, The National Confidence Party, Servants of Construction, Mojahedin of Islamic Revolution and Participation Front and figures such as Khatami, Karrubi, Mir Hossein Mussavi, Mohtashamipour, Karbashchi and others, who despite critical positions regarding certain issues have also shown their support for their territorial integrity of the country to enter the fray and prevent any kind of western pretensions on behalf of the reformists.
And the call has not gone unheeded. Almost every reformist organization has since come out with a written statement in support of Sepah, echoing what Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former reformist president, said in an interview with ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency) against the potential move:
If the hard-line war mongers in the United States do not know, I am sure the wise and just of that country know that Sepah has risen from the main beliefs and longings of a nation, is one of the main pillars of national authority and security, is the protector of the nation’s rights, values of the revolution, and territorial integrity, and form the spiritual point of view has a special place among the people of Iran. No nation can accept being subjected to aggression or even insult against the backbone of its authority and security and guardian of its territorial integrity, honor, and independence.
Khatami goes to hope that “illogical extremists” will be prevented from steering American foreign policy and calls on the “wise” in both countries to prevent another crisis, while posing a question about which people will benefit from the leakage of such a news in the midst of US-Iran discussions of and Iran’s attempts to respond to the unresolved technical questions regarding its nuclear program.
To be sure, Khatami’s interview along with written statements issued by political groups such as the National Confidence Party, Mojahedin of Islamic Revolution and Participation Front all include an implicit and at times even explicit criticism of hard-line posturing against the United States and lack of prudence on the part of the Iranian government in its dealings with the United States. But make no mistake, the mere reporting on the possibility of terrorism designation of Sepah has had a rallying effect on the significant players of the Islamic republic and once again has made it easier for had-line forces in Iran to make the case that conciliatory moves towards the United States (either in relation to Iraq or more significantly in relation to Iran’s nuclear file) are of no use since US policy objectives in Iran are not behavior change but regime change.