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Beware of classing Iran's Guards as terrorists

Author: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
August 28, 2007
Financial Times


President George W. Bush’s plan to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation is yet another example of Washington’s incoherent Iran policy. On the surface, the Revolutionary Guards are ideal candidates for sanctions, as they are in control of Iran’s expanding nuclear infrastructure and are busy training Shia militias in Iraq. However, at a time when the administration professes a desire for a negotiated settlement with Tehran, coercing a pillar of the theocratic regime erodes the possibility of a diplomatic resolution.

The 125,000-strong Revolutionary Guards were created in the early 1980s and continue to be commanded by reactionary ideologues who are committed to the values and outlook of the clerical hardliners. Throughout the 1990s, the Guards pressed for suppression of the reform movement.

In recent years, the Guards have steadily intruded into economic activities, establishing their own companies with privileged access to contracts in industries such as telecommunications and imported consumer goods. Through this network, the Guards have enhanced their patronage power, allowing them to cultivate their constituents. More ominously, under the auspices of the Revolutionary Guards an entire array of organisations such as the Defence Industries Organisation, university laboratories and a plethora of companies have provided an impetus for Iran ’s expanding nuclear efforts.

In recent years, many members of the Revolutionary Guards have entered the political sphere. President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and hardline elements within the parliament are among the most prominent guardsmen-turned-politicians. However, it is too facile to suggest that all the guardsmen entering politics have been dogmatic and intransigent. In one of the many paradoxes of Iran, many members of the reform movement and the democratic opposition are also former members of the Revolutionary Guards, making their terrorist label even more problematic.

Beyond the intricacies of Iran’s internal politics, the practical impact of such a terrorist designation on the Revolutionary Guards’ commercial activities will be limited.

To begin with, the US has no trade linkages to Iran that it can sever, and European companies are unlikely to adhere to yet another set of American sanctions. Moreover, given the murky and ambiguous nature of the Revolutionary Guards’ business enterprises, it is difficult to suggest in a conclusive manner whether a company is really operating on their behalf. As such, the type of information and intelligence that is needed for targeted sanctions is unlikely to be available.

While the economic ramifications of the new policy will probably be inadequate, its political impact is likely to be considerable. Past and present Guardsmen permeate Iran’s security network. The staff of Ali Larijani, Iran’s national security adviser and chief nuclear negotiator, is composed mostly of Revolutionary Guards. Iran’s policy toward Iraq and Afghanistan is also under the purview of the Guards.

Despite their attempts to arm and train Iraqi Shia militias and advance Iran’s nuclear programme, the Guards have not opposed negotiations with the US. Indeed, it would be inconceivable for talks on the nuclear issue or Iraq to have proceeded without the Guards’ approbation. The administration’s attempt to coerce and put pressure on this organisation is likely to trigger its antagonism towards further dealings with the US.

The Bush administration has embraced a dual-track approach of coercion and negotiations at the same time, without an appreciation of how one track undermines the other. The offer by Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear programme and Iraqi security will be subverted when the administration restricts Iran’s access to global financial institutions or designates the entire Revolutionary Guard corps as a terrorist entity.

The tensions and problems between the US and Iran cannot be resolved by episodic diplomacy or sanctions and threats. In the end, the best means of resolving the difficulties between the two states is through comprehensive dialogue encompassing the totality of differences between them. Only through such a framework can the US and Iran arrive at a common perspective on Iraq, the nuclear issue and terrorism.

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