In what perhaps turned out to be a signal of where the Iran nuclear deal would lead us today, as it immediately released billions of dollars into the hands of Tehran and gradually ended crippling economic sanctions, President Barack Obama pledged in 2015: “There’s no scenario where sanctions relief turns Iran into the region’s dominant power.”
He went on: “This is not to say that sanctions relief will provide no benefit to Iran’s military…. We have no illusions about the Iranian government, or the significance of the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force.”
The message that Obama was attempting to send, both to a domestic audience and internationally, was that his administration would still take seriously the destabilizing activity of the IRGC and that the nuclear deal would not in any way deter US resolve to confront IRGC terror activity that threatened US and its allies’ interests.
When Obama said: “If we’re serious about confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities, it is hard to imagine a worse approach than blocking this deal,” he was attempting to outmaneuver opponents of the deal by arguing that not only would the deal prevent — at least in the short term — Iran from achieving nuclear break-out capability, but that effectively confronting Iran’s covert activities in the Middle East necessitated such a deal.
Critics, of course, have pointed to what seem to be contradictory facts on the ground. For instance, IRGC activity has significantly increased since 2015. The commander of the IRGC, Qassem Soleimani, took a direct and much more visible role in expanding IRGC bases of operation throughout Syria and lines of supply to its proxies throughout the Arabian Gulf.
By making the entire IRGC — not just the Quds Force — subject to a total freeze of its assets abroad, Trump will have more than just sent a warning show across the bow. It means that IRGC front companies, or even companies suspected of being IRGC fronts, from Asia to the Gulf states to Europe, will be shut down. The US National Security Council has said Trump’s Iran strategy has four strands: Neutralizing IRGC and destabilizing operations; targeting IRGC financial lifeblood; countering Iran’s ballistic missile threat, in which the IRGC and its front companies play an important role; and ending all pathways to nuclear weaponization.
The last objective is particularly important as it means not only ensuring Iranian compliance, but also preventing Iran from biding its time and preparing the requisite procurement, production and research facilities that would allow it to move quickly toward a nuclear weapon after the nuclear deal expires.
Rather than breach the nuclear deal himself, Donald Trump could provoke Tehran into doing so by targeting its crown jewel — the Revolutionary Guards.
So it was no wonder that Ali Akbar Velayati, the adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said if the US labeled the IRGC a terrorist organization, then “all options are on the table.” Trump may have outmaneuvered Tehran in this regard. Instead of handing Iran a diplomatic victory by initiating a wholesale pull out from the nuclear deal, the White House has now shifted the pressure and spotlight on the IRGC.
The thinking among Trump’s senior officials seems to be that a much stronger case can be made to European allies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear deal if Tehran decides to initiate massive breaches of the agreement as a retaliatory measure to sanctions against the IRGC. Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes has argued that Iran is much stronger today than it was then, and that direct confrontation would only play into its hands and de-incentivize it from holding its end of the nuclear bargain. But Trump is playing from a wholly different playbook — one that Tehran may not be prepared to deal with.
• Oubai Shahbandar is a Fellow in New America's International Security Program. He is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic consultant specializing in technology, energy and Arabian Gulf security. Twitter: @OS26