STRANGE things have been happening with regard to Iran ever since the mullahs seized power in 1979. But what is happening now may merit closer attention because it represents an unprecedented convergence between the thinking of the Trump administration and one of the factions involved in the power struggle in Tehran.
Last month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration is putting the final touches to a new policy on Iran with the ultimate aim of regime-change. While details remain vague, one thing may be clear: One of its aims would be to dismantle the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which US experts identify as the regime’s mainstay.
National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster has more than hinted at this, while a number of Republican policymakers, among them Sen. Tom Cotton, have evoked the designation of the IRGC as a “terrorist organization.” In parallel, Iran’s own President Hassan Rouhani has launched a campaign of vilification against the IRGC.
Some analysts dismiss Rouhani’s attacks as mere posturing, arguing that he is a product of the military-security complex based on the IRGC. So, they say, his attacks on the IRGC — labeling it “a state with guns within the state” — may be a trick to hoodwink the gullible Americans into continuing former President Barack Obama’s policy of propping up “the moderate faction” in Tehran.
This may well be the case, but the IRGC sees Rouhani’s attacks as the domestic angle of a “plot” being hatched in Washington. In an editorial in the daily Javan, a principal organ of the IRGC, Gen. Yadallah Javani says so with surprising clarity. “What the president is saying (against the IRGC) is exactly copied from what the Western media have been saying for years,” he wrote.
Another commander, Hamid-Reza Muqaddam-Far, goes even further, accusing Rouhani and his clan of “unsheathing their swords” against the IRGC by “lying across the board.” The IRGC’s commander in chief, Gen. Aziz Jaafari, has linked Rouhani’s statements to efforts by the US to limit or even halt Iran’s project to build long-range missiles.
“Yes, we own missiles that smash the enemy,” Jaafari said a day before Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reappointed him as IRGC commander in chief for a further three years. Never missing an opportunity to attract publicity, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, has also entered the debate, claiming that “without the IRGC there will be no country.”
The so-called “moderate faction” led by the late Hashemi Rafsanjani and former President Mohammed Khatami has always told Western powers, notably the US, that the IRGC is the principal hurdle to Iran’s change of behavior and “normalization.”
This was the theme Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif used with some success in numerous appearances in US policy circles and think-tanks. He claimed that Iran’s foreign interventions were due to the IRGC’s ambition to make the country a regional superpower, while “the moderates” wanted nothing but “win-win relations” with the West. Last week, that theme was taken up by Rouhani in a speech in Tehran. “Our aim shouldn’t be to become the strongest power in the region,” he said. “What we want is a stronger region.” But becoming the regional “first power” is clearly stated as the principal goal of Iran’s 20-year strategy, approved by Khamenei in 2014.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump administration is putting the final touches to a new policy on Iran with the ultimate aim of regime-change. While details remain vague, one thing may be clear: One of its aims would be to dismantle the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
In an editorial last Tuesday, the daily Kayhan, reflecting Khamenei’s views, insisted that becoming “the regional superpower” was not a matter of choice but of necessity for Iran. The principal means of attaining that goal is the IRGC and its growing military power. The current campaign to clip its wings is a reminder of the brief attempt by Khatami to disband the force by merging it with the regular armed forces.
It also echoes the campaign launched in the 1970s by the shah’s many enemies to break Iran’s armed forces. At the time, Khomeinists, pro-Soviet communists, the People’s Mujahedin, Libya under Muammar Qaddafi, the Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat, leftist parties in Western Europe and certain circles in the US worked together, albeit informally, to vilify Iran’s army and mobilize Iranian and world opinion against it.
Days after he seized power in 1979, Khomeini declared the destruction of the army as one of the top aims of his regime. The process of dismantling it stopped only when the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980.
Clipping the IRGC’s wings may be in the short-term interest of the “moderate” faction, which has held the presidency for 20 out of the past 38 years but, because of implicit or explicit opposition from the IRGC, has failed to impose its full agenda. Thus by helping destroy the IRGC, US President Trump would be helping the “moderates,” often known as the “New York Boys.”
The question is whether the “New York Boys,” who lack a popular base, would be able to keep Iran together, let alone implement policies that might please Trump or any other US president. And what if, at some point and under certain conditions, one might need the IRGC to push the mullahs back to the mosques and seminaries?
The IRGC is not the shah’s army in the sense that it consists of more than a dozen bits and pieces with little esprit de corps, and is held together by expediency. But one should not forget that Khomeini’s campaign to destroy the army amounted to a direct invitation to Saddam to invade Iran, and to the USSR to occupy Afghanistan.
The dismantling of the IRGC may help the “moderates” for a while, but it could also open the way for ethnic revolts, civil war and larger-scale terrorism in and around Iran. As Trump ponders his Iran policy, he should remember that nothing about the country is as simple as the “New York Boys” claim. They sold Obama a bill of goods. Trump, the “dealmaker,” should not buy the same thing.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat