For Tehran, the Revolutionary Guards are more important than the nuclear deal
On this issue, Washington was turning a blind eye to the flouting of UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit Iran from exporting men and material outside its borders and using and backing proxy militias. The Obama administration had voluntarily agreed to ignore these resolutions otherwise necessary to rein in the IRGC, albeit it used as a pretext the need to conclude and safeguard the nuclear deal for the sake of US national interests at any cost in the region. As the sanctions on Iran were lifted, the IRGC benefits from the influx of billions of dollars unfrozen by Washington as part of the nuclear deal. For this reason, claiming that Iran’s incursions in Iraq and Syria had nothing to do with the nuclear deal is a lie, because the Obama administration knew full well what it was doing. The former president not only became willfully blind to the massacres enabled by the IRGC to keep Bashar Assad in power, the same Assad that Obama had said must step down, but his administration also financed in a de-facto manner the activities of the cash-strapped Iranians in the Arab region.
Today, it is important to remind those who mourn Obama’s wisdom compared to Trump’s recklessness of this history with regard to the fate of the nuclear deal. The rise of the IRGC and its expansion in the Arab region, as well as its growing influence within Iran at the expense of moderates, all happened because the Obama administration allowed it to happen. And let no one claim this was accidental or a byproduct of policy; rather, it was a historic shift in the Middle East engineered by a calculated American decision. So what is happening now as the Trump administration is about to de-certify the nuclear deal, amid reports the administration and the Congress could designate the IRGC a terrorist organization?
Iranian reactions sought to preempt any serious move by the US president and Congress to designate the IRGC quickly and firmly, issuing threats and warnings. The so-called moderate camp, to out-bid its opponents, rushed to the defense of the IRGC, with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declaring following his meeting with the IRGC head General Mohammad Ali Jafari: “We have repeatedly declared that the IRGC is an honor for our country and a guarantor of the defense of our homeland and the continuation of the revolution that defends the borders of our country. If US officials commit this strategic mistake, the Islamic Republic of Iran will surely reciprocate. We have designed a number of actions that will be announced at the right time.”
Jafari said: “Diplomatic expression is different from defense forces’ expression, but its content and orientation are the same. Trump must be sure that we [the IRGC] are united with the Foreign Ministry and our government.”
“The Guards are the defender of the nation,” government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said. “If the US wants to put the Guards on the terrorist list, it puts itself in the camp of terrorists. Any country that wants to have such a position about the Guards will share this view with the Daesh terrorists.”
The wrath in Iran’s official corridors indicates that Tehran is deeply concerned by Washington’s moves against the IRGC, whether to slap additional sanctions or designate it a terror group, as this could lead to a serious destabilization of the regime’s structure in Tehran and the regimes that collaborate with the IRGC on their territories.
The Iranian establishment is hoping that the threats issued by the Trump administration will not be serious, and would be thwarted by Tehran’s co-signatories in the nuclear deal led by the EU’s Federica Mogherini and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in addition to Russia and China naturally. However, the Iranians are deeply concerned especially that Trump intends to rely in his new Iran strategy on Congress, which has always looked for ways to trim the wings of the Islamic Republic, especially with regard to its sponsorship of terrorism as well as regional expansionism.
The IRGC is the backbone of the regime and the revolution, and Iran may even be prepared to sacrifice its ballistic missile program to protect the Guards from Donald Trump and the US Congress.
In truth, the IRGC is much more valuable for Tehran than the nuclear deal. It is the backbone of the regime and the revolution, and any measures against it will deeply impact Iran’s foreign and domestic policies. For this reason, Tehran wants to link its stringent defense of the IRGC against America’s measures and the nuclear deal, to protect both.
Tehran may agree to including its ballistic missile program in the nuclear deal in return for guarantees regarding the IRGC and protecting it from any real measures or designations. It understands the seriousness of the US president’s de-certification of its compliance with the nuclear deal, not because it believes this will lead to the undoing of the deal – which is not on the table at present – but because de-certification means that Trump is throwing the ball into Congress’s court, which carries dangerous implications for the Islamic Republic.
Trump’s de-certification of the nuclear deal means that he does not want to confirm Iran’s compliance, as he is required to do every 90 days, in view of his criticisms of the substance of the deal which believes is the “worst possible.” Yet he is not about to walk away from it, although as president, it is his right to declare the deal is not in the US national interest regardless of Tehran’s compliance.
Rather, Trump wants to re-open negotiations on Tehran’s missile program, although he has not yet proposed expanding them to include Iran’s regional expansionism. Perhaps that was implicitly included in his tackling of the IRGC.
Both the action against the IRGC and the de-certification of the deal carry complex questions, and declaring them without actual and serious measures could discredit both Trump and Congress.
Meanwhile, the media’s keenness to defend the nuclear deal is interesting, because in one layer of it, it reflects the media’s preparedness to overlook Iran’s expansionism in the Arab region via the IRGC and even defend the latter against terror designation. There is a kind of fatalist narrative in the US liberal media that there is no other option but to cave in to Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, with the claim that standing up to the former would reinforce the latter’s intransigence and distrust of the US. In reality, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un must remember what the US does to those who surrender their nuclear arms, such as Col. Qaddafi, and to those who surrender their programs to weapons inspectors, such as Saddam Hussein.
The liberal media in the US has decided that North Korea and Iran’s nuclear capabilities are irreversible, and effectively dismiss the non-proliferation principle, with dangerous implications.
The US media has a right to battle Trump and warn against his “recklessness,” “ignorance” and “irrationality,” as they accuse him. However, it has no right to ignore the terrifying consequences of policies that it had once consented to before waking up to criticize now, from George W. Bush’s Iraq war, to his and Obama’s enablement of Iran in Iraq, and then in Syria, where the Obama administration once claimed to support the moderate rebellion.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham
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