IRGC is at the heart of protesters’ anger

An Iranian raises his fist during the Friday prayer in Tehran.
Updated 05 January 2018
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IRGC is at the heart of protesters’ anger

DUBAI: Since Dec. 28, tens of thousands of Iranians have protested in what is already the most serious domestic crisis the country has faced since the 2009 Green Movement. 
A small anti-government protest organized in Mashhad — to capitalize on growing frustration, and denounce the recent 40 percent increase in the price of eggs and chicken — quickly spiraled out of control when it found an echo chamber among young and disheartened Iranians. Though the government was the initial target of many long-standing grievances, protesters soon focused their anger on Iran’s foreign policy.
Slogans such as “not Gaza, not Lebanon, I give my life for Iran,” “forget Palestine,” and “forget Syria and think about us” were often heard throughout the country. But contrary to what they suggest, these slogans do not target the government, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which is solely responsible for the country’s foreign policy in its immediate periphery. 
As Iranians all know, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif does not decide Tehran’s policy toward Syria and President Bashar Assad; it is the domain of Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC.
The IRGC was created in 1979 to protect the new Islamic Republic from a counter-revolution. While the then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini appeared to have his eyes on the US and the UK, his primary concern was the Artesh — the regular army — that for decades received training and support from those same countries. The IRGC, set up as a counterweight against the less ideological Artesh, has been favored since then. It rapidly became Iran’s most crucial military actor as it runs the country’s ballistic missile program, and also progressively gained a prominent role in the economy.
The IRGC has often been accused of preventing the development of the Iranian private sector. Its omnipresence hampered the emergence of medium-size companies and the influx of foreign direct investments. Even President Hassan Rouhani criticized what he called the “government with a gun” and tried to limit its influence by diminishing the budget of the organization. But the supreme leader’s support and its other revenues drawn from the Iranian economy have thwarted Rouhani’s repeated attempts.
On numerous occasions, Iranians have voiced their frustration toward the IRGC’s foreign policy. While the organization considers Syria and Lebanon of paramount importance to the country’s strategic interests, it realized long ago it will not gain the support of the Iranian population for these distant causes. 
The IRGC tried to win Iran’s hearts and minds. With relative success, it created the charismatic and romantic figure of the commander of Al-Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani to attract young Iranians. The force is responsible for operations outside of Iran and is designated as a supporter of terrorist organizations by the US.
The IRGC also used its network of military bases to provide support after natural catastrophes, such as the recent earthquake which struck the western part of the country.
However, it did not prevent a growing frustration: The benefits of the nuclear deal that Iranians massively supported are not trickling down to the most impoverished fringe of the population. Despite hard-liners’ attempts to blame foreign powers, Iranians believe a corrupted minority is confiscating these benefits.
Beyond the IRGC, it is the regime it supports that is being criticized. The protests are revealing once again the fracture between the theocracy and a significant portion of Iranians. Slogans such as “you made Islam alive, but you made people poor” and “we don’t want the Islamic Republic, we don’t want it, we don’t want it” are a blow to the religious establishment. However, the Iranian institutions are resilient and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, is impervious to criticism. More importantly, a majority of Iranians do not want the country to disintegrate into anarchy and follow the path of Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
The future of the protests is uncertain. Leaderless and disorganized, it does not yet represent a severe risk to the theocratic regime. The protests could, however, weaken president Rouhani’s position and his ability to deliver on the promises he made during his re-election campaign to revive the economy and decrease the unemployment rate.
The protests already have severe consequences for the Iranian government, and Rouhani’s embarrassment is palpable. While he attempts to manage popular expectations and conservatives’ red lines, the recent events might endanger the only thing Iranians expect from him: The revival of the economy. 
France’s decision to postpone the upcoming trip to Tehran of its Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is, therefore, a massive blow to the Iranian government as it was scheduled to organize the visit of the President Emmanuel Macron and the signing of many contracts with French companies. The protests will shake the resolve of other foreign investors; it might even succeed where Donald Trump has so far failed, in killing the nuclear agreement.
— Marc Martinez is an independent country risk analyst based in Dubai


Kurd forces welcome US decision to keep 200 troops

“We evaluate the White House decision ... positively,” Abdulkarim Omar. (AP)
Updated 8 min 13 sec ago
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Kurd forces welcome US decision to keep 200 troops

  • White House unveils plan to maintain ‘a small peacekeeping force’ in Syria

BEIRUT, WASHINGTON: The Kurdish-led administration that runs much of northern Syria welcomed a US decision to keep 200 American troops in the country after a pullout, saying it would protect their region and may encourage European states to keep forces there too.

“We evaluate the White House decision ... positively,” Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of foreign relations in the region held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Reuters.

The White House announced the plans on Thursday to keep “a small peacekeeping force” in Syria, partly reversing a decision by President Donald Trump in December to pull out the entire 2,000-strong force.

Trump’s abrupt announcement of the pullout had been opposed by senior aides including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in response, and stunned allies including the Kurdish-led SDF, which fought against Daesh with US backing for years.

“This decision may encourage other European states, particularly our partners in the international coalition against terrorism, to keep forces in the region,” Omar added.

“I believe that keeping a number of American troops and a larger number of (other) coalition troops, with air protection, will play a role in securing stability and protecting the region too,” he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who had harshly criticized Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria, applauded the president’s decision to leave a few hundred as part of an “international stabilizing force.” Graham said it will ensure that Turkey will not get into a conflict with SDF forces, which helped the US fight Daesh militants. 

Moreover, Graham said leaving a small force in Syria will serve as a check on Iranian ambitions and help ensure that Daesh militants do not try to return.

“A safe zone in Syria made up of international forces is the best way to achieve our national security objectives of continuing to contain Iran, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS (Daesh), protecting our Turkish allies, and securing the Turkish border with Syria,” Graham said.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called the decision a “betrayal of our Kurdish partners.”

The SDF is led by a Kurdish militia, which Turkey considers an enemy. Kurdish officials had feared that a total US withdrawal would create a security vacuum and allow Turkey to launch a long-promised offensive against them.

The Kurds, who seek autonomy within Syria, have made overtures to the government of Bashar Assad, seeking security guarantees as Washington withdraws.

“I believe that these forces in this region ... will be a motivation, an incentive and also a means of pressure on Damascus to try seriously to have a dialogue to resolve the Syrian crisis,” Omar said. 

The SDF is currently involved in a standoff over the final sliver of land held by Daesh in eastern Syria, close to the Iraq border.

Many believe the Daesh threat will not end with the pocket’s recapture and an insurgency is underway. 

In a foreboding sign on Thursday, Daesh claimed responsibility for back-to-back suicide attacks that hit a village miles away, leaving more than a dozen people dead in a rare targeting of civilians.

It is unclear where the 200 remaining US troops will be stationed.

The U.S. military has a limited network of bases inside Syria. Troops work mostly out of small camps in remote parts of the country’s northeast.

Also, U.S. troops are among 200 to 300 coalition troops at a garrison in southern Syria known as al-Tanf, where they train and accompany local Syrian opposition forces on patrols to counter the IS group. Al-Tanf is on a vital road linking Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon — and Israel’s doorstep.

Trump spoke Thursday with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“On Syria, the two presidents agreed to continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone,” the White House said in a statement about the call.

The White House also said acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford will be hosting their Turkish counterparts in Washington this week for further talks.