When US President Donald Trump gave his much-anticipated speech about Iran on Friday October 13, he announced not only that he refused to certify the nuclear agreement with Iran, but also officially declared that the US would be introducing new sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).

“The Revolutionary Guard” said Trump, “is the Iranian Supreme Leader's corrupt personal terror force and militia. It has hijacked large portions of Iran's economy and seized massive religious endowments to fund war and terror abroad…I am authorizing the Treasury Department to further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents and affiliates.”

Trump did not go as far as declaring the Revolutionary Guards a “terrorist organization” — as some had speculated that he would — but he did order sanctions on the Guards earlier than the law required him to do.

The law, known as Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), was passed by US Congress in July 2017 and signed into law by President Trump on August 2. It stipulates that the president’s administration has until November to implement and report on the sanctions.

Almost immediately after Trump’s speech, the US Treasury announced that it has “designated” the Revolutionary Guards “pursuant to the global terrorism Executive Order 13224 and consistent with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.” The treasury also added three Iranian-based entities to its list of sanctions:  Shahid Alamolhoda Industries (SAI), which is “involved in the development and production of cruise missiles and is responsible for naval missiles," Rastafann Ertebat Engineering Company (Rastafann) “for having provided, or attempted to provide, financial, material, technological, or other support for, or goods or services in support of, SAI and the IRGC” and Fanamoj, the parent company of Rastafann.

This is the first time the US has targeted the Revolutionary Guards for sanctions in such a direct way. Such sanctions do not violate the nuclear agreement or, as it is officially called, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But on October 9, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that Iran considers “the implementation of CAATSA equal to America’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA” and added that if the US passed CAATSA, US regional bases should be moved out of reach of Iran’s missiles.

The second point could be interpreted as merely a bluff or bravado. After all, on July 19 Jafari had said that America must remove its bases from a 1,000-kilometer radius around Iran, but on October 9 he increased this range to 2,000 kilometers, suggesting that his announcement was intended to be threatening, but was not necessary based on officially set-out guidelines. 

What was most important about Jafari’s speech, however, was the point about the implementation of CAATSA equating to unilateral American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.

Looking the Other Way

But Iranian government officials have not publicly agreed with General Jafari’s position. Considering that the new sanctions are not a re-imposition of nuclear-related sanctions, officials might just condemn the sanctions as violating the “spirit” of the JCPOA and leave it at that.

Iranian officials have generally followed this line, even when they have been blustery. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy, said that putting the Guards on the list of terrorist groups and imposing sanctions on it “is like declaring war.” Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said that calling the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization and imposing sanctions on the it “is a terrorist act.” On October 10, Alaeddin Broujerdi, Chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Policy and National Security Committee, called sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards an action against Iran’s national security but stopped short of specifying what must be done to counter it. “Any action against the IRGC will be met by the Islamic Republic’s appropriate and firm response,” said Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Bahram Ghasemi.” He did not elaborate as to what the “appropriate and firm” response might be.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a televised speech shortly following Trump’s, made no mention of the sanctions against the Guards. All Rouhani had to say was that “the IRGC has always protected our nation against terrorists. ... It will continue to help oppressed nations in the region.”

His silence on sanction appears to be intentional. He does not want sanctions on the Guards to become a priority in Iranian domestic politics. He prefers to make protecting the JCPOA the priority. “No president can revoke an international deal. ... Iran will continue to honor its commitments under the deal,” Rouhani said, adding that Trump’s speech contained “nothing new” apart from “fake accusations and insults” against Iranians. The political climate in Iran continues to be difficult for Rouhani, and he certainly does not want to add to his problems.

Rouhani’s praise of the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader must be seen as an investment in his future credibility in Iranian domestic politics. By citing Trump’s negative statements about the JCPOA, he intends to impress on his critics that the international community supports the nuclear agreement and to mobilize his supporters to defend the deal.

But, regardless of these attempts, in the coming days, his critics will raise objections to Trump’s measures against the Revolutionary Guards. This will pave the way for new domestic divisions over the JCPOA, an issue that is never far from the Iranian domestic political battlefield. Even if Trump calls the nuclear agreement an “embarrassment” for the United States, President Rouhani’s domestic opponents are not ready to declare it a document of pride or even one that is acceptable. They are looking for an excuse to undermine or kill off the JCPOA, and US sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards will provide them with a good excuse.

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