For Iran, the IRGC’s regional role is as important as the nuclear deal
As the latest round of talks in Vienna is declared to have failed, what seems a side issue in the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal may in fact be as important as the agreement itself. The role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in exporting the revolution was always at the table, either directly or indirectly, and is fundamental to Iranian policy in the region.
The regional role of the IRGC is included in the preamble of Iran’s constitution of 1979, in which it is given the responsibility for “fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.” This translates into militias wreaking havoc in the region and crushing revolts at home.
From an Iranian perspective, the US has been defeated three times over the past 40 years — twice by military action and the third time by the negotiations over the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
In 2015, it was an Iranian condition to exclude from the deal any mention of “geopolitics,” which is a euphemism for Iran’s regional role. This was equivalent to giving the IRGC a green light for its interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen. President Barack Obama confirmed this in an interview with The Atlantic by saying that Saudi Arabia and Iran must find a way to “share the neighborhood.” This was seen as a tenet of the “Obama Doctrine” and a principal source of tension between the US and its Gulf allies. In fact, what Iran achieved through this far exceeded the benefits of the JCPOA itself and the consequences went beyond the neighborhood, with the negative fallout from Syria alone being felt in Turkey and Europe.
Before pulling out of the Iran deal, President Donald Trump asked for it to be revised and gave his European partners time to pick up on three issues. These were the IRGC’s role in the region, Iran’s ballistic missile program and the agreement’s sunset clauses. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia signaled his rejection of that part of the Obama Doctrine and the IRGC, including the Quds Force commanded by Qassem Soleimani, was classified as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and Soleimani subsequently assassinated.
In the current negotiations, one of the Iranian conditions was to remove the terrorist label from the IRGC. This is for two reasons: On the one hand, recognition of the role of the IRGC is as important to Iran as the revival of the JCPOA, while on the other hand it was to Iran’s advantage to ask for more than it received under the old deal.
Iran understood the importance of the anti-nuclear lobby in the West during the Cold War and is now using the appeal of the nuclear issue as an avenue to have its gradual takeover of the Middle East recognized and accepted. Iranian proxies like the Houthis, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and close to a dozen other militias in Iraq are not only acting locally, but they are also cooperating regionally and threatening US allies in the Gulf, with recent attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The three instances of confrontation between Iran and the US that illustrate the importance of the IRGC are: Military victories in Lebanon in the 1980s and in Iraq both in the aftermath of the US invasion and in 2006; and a victory achieved in Syria through the process of negotiations over the JCPOA.
The current revolts in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are all against the order that the IRGC is imposing on the region.
The first IRGC victory was in the 1980s in Lebanon, when Shiite militias were on their way to expelling the US and a multinational force of its allies through several steps. In 1982 and 1983, the US and French embassies were attacked, and in October 1983 the US Marine barracks bombing killed 241 American personnel and 58 French. By July 1984, all Western forces were out of Lebanon and the country was in the hands of the Syrian army. This culminated in the 1989 Taif Agreement, which gave Syria and its allies a free hand in Lebanon for more than 15 years, until the Cedar Revolution of 2005.
The second IRGC victory was in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq and in the summer of 2006. Iranian-sponsored militias initially flared up the violence in southern Iraq and ethnically cleansed Sunnis from Baghdad and other areas, while the Syrian regime was pushing extremists across the border who went on to attack American soldiers and take over Mosul and other areas. This was followed by a major escalation in the summer of 2006, with violence reaching record highs and eventually driving the US out of Iraq.
The third Iranian victory was in Syria in 2015, but this time there was no fighting, as the US was neutralized through the negotiations over the JCPOA. It is alleged that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told US Secretary of State John Kerry that he did not have a mandate to discuss anything other than the nuclear issue and that, if Iran’s role in the region was raised in the talks, he would have to leave the room. The US complied with this condition and the result was that US-trained rebels in Syria were prevented from fighting the Assad regime for fear that they would clash with the IRGC and damage the negotiations.
This resulted in the US becoming completely blind to any Iranian role in Syria, while abandoning its allies to focus on fighting Daesh in coordination with the Russians, who were also given a free hand to bomb Aleppo. The cost of all this was the devastating destruction of cities, the creation of millions of refugees and displaced people, the destabilization of surrounding countries, and arguably a contribution to the rise of the far right in Europe as a reaction to the inflow of refugees. Syrians paid the price of the Iran deal.
The current revolts in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are all against the order that Iran’s IRGC is imposing on the region. They all have this in common: They want a future radically different from that being forced on them by Iran’s militias and hope that they will not pay the price of the next US-Iran deal.
- Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist. Twitter: @Confusezeus