The IRGC is now entrenched on Israel’s northern border, where it supports the Lebanese Hezbollah and seeks to cement Tehran’s foothold in Syria.
When the world’s only superpower decides something is in its strategic interest it enjoys the liberty of going ahead and doing that irrespective of international opinion or any potential fallout elsewhere. The context here is the labelling of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist entity last week by the US state department. It’s the first time a sub-entity of an established foreign government has been labelled thus. The United States has declared other organisations with that label in the past too; the Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas being three examples, but none except for the Taliban had a government connection (at that time). The current US action could have been anticipated on the basis of both legacy and recent events. The moment the US revoked its support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) of July 2015, also known as the Iranian nuclear deal, such an action could have been predicted. The fact that the announcement came just a day before Israel went to the polls was too much of a coincidence. It was conjectured by most to obviously have a positive impact in favour of sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What is the IRGC, and what threat does it pose to the United States? The answers to this may provide clues to the US decision. According to US officials, Iran’s IRGC poses a serious threat to Israel, other US allies and global security. It was created in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and is alleged to wield vast military, economic and political influence in Iran and across the region. The US believes that it was founded for the prime purpose of perpetuating the rule of the ayatollahs and uses illegitimate methods to enhance its position and that of Iran across the Middle East. It allegedly funds terrorist proxies and frequently targets US interests. What the US probably fears most is that the IRGC is sworn to Israel’s destruction and in many ways to an American defeat in the Middle East. The backdrop to this enmity is mired first in the ongoing Shia-Sunni conflict for domination of the Middle East, with Iran being the Shia core centre and Saudi Arabia the Sunni citadel. Despite its complex legacy of the past, the conflict today fits more neatly into the Middle East security matrix than ever before. It is almost like the days of the Cold War, with the US, Israel and in recent years Saudi Arabia all aligned on one side. In the other corner of the ring is Iran, increasingly with the support of Russia, especially after 2015 when Russia decided to enter the Middle East physically in order to safeguard strategic space for itself. Russia’s interest revolved around the crucial East Mediterranean port of Latakia, the only facility it has in those waters. The port was then under threat from the Islamic State, as was the Hmeimim airbase in the proximity of Latakia. That effectively made Russia Iran’s ally in the then emerging and now far from concluded tussle in the Levant. With the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad in Syria firmly in the Iranian camp, which translates to them being with the Russians as well, the Iran-Russia combine has a dominant presence through the Levant, which is the crucial territory between the Mediterranean and northwest Iran; the bridge to Europe from the Middle East. The recent US decision to withdraw all 2,000 of its advisers and Special Forces from Syria left the Levant free for Iran-Russian domination and the strategic advantage, triggering greater threat to Israel. The legacy of US alienation against Iran was the result of the 180-degree turn that events in Iran took in 1979-80. The US-backed Shah of Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was deposed in a popular revolution that led to the holding hostage of 52 American diplomats and other citizens at the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days, through 1979-81. Although US analysts and authors such as Stephen Schwartz, who supported the Iraq war, have expressed deep distress at the US decision to sail with the Saudi boat and oppose Iran at every juncture, it is unlikely that the US can forget in a hurry the deep humiliation suffered by its diplomats and citizens at the hands of Iran’s revolutionaries. The worst aspect of legacy was the electoral defeat suffered by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and the botched US Delta Force rescue effort, which led to casualties among US servicemen.
The IRGC is now entrenched on Israel’s northern border, where it supports the Lebanese Hezbollah and seeks to cement Tehran’s foothold in Syria. Israel fears that the Iranian support to Hezbollah has led to the concentration and storage of as many as 130,000 surface-to-surface missiles across its northern border, creating an imminent threat to Israel’s security.
The top US state department policy adviser on Iran, Brian Hook, went on record to state: “We know that so many of our allies around the world are frustrated by the instability and the violence in the Middle East. And if we wanted to promote peace and stability in the Middle East, that can’t be done without weakening the IRGC.” The focus appears to be on the IRGC’s ability to employ its Quds Force with impunity — the force is the X-factor under high-profile Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The Yemen saga too is the other area where the IRGC’s ability has been frustrating the Sunni combine and worries Saudi Arabia. However, as much as the US wishes to project the IRGC and its cohorts as “terrorists”, there don’t appear to be any identified and engineered terrorist actions by it which the world at large recognises. In fact, the IRGC’s actions have helped quell the Islamic State from the territories under its control in the Levant, to a great extent and stands between any potential resurgence. There is no doubt that the ability of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to dominate the civil war is also dependent on the support of Iran, and on the ground of the IRGC. Since the IRGC is alleged to have extensive control over banking, finance, energy, gas, telecommunications and real estate, the US hopes to emasculate it and limit its revenues financially via sanctions. How effective can this be beyond what’s already being achieved against Iran as a whole is questionable.
In a largely symbolic act, Iran has retaliated and declared the US Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East, as a terrorist organisation. This does not necessarily mean a sudden increase in threats to US resources in the Middle East. Iran will wish to project itself as a responsible state to the international community, and the act of labelling is essentially for internal consumption. At best the US designation of the IRGC and by Iran of the US Central Command as terror entities are essentially efforts at psychological gamesmanship in the proxy games that will continue to be played through the Middle East in the future.