“Last night there was a clash between the Guards’ boats and American helicopters south of Farsi Island and the Americans announced that they had sunk three of our boats and taken six prisoners. Then it was announced that two of them have become martyrs …To review how we should respond, commanders of the armed forces came to my home at night. Imam [Khomeini] sent a message through [his son] Ahmad that we must be cautious and we must not take any rash action. The suggestion to hit American battleships or their base in Bahrain with missiles was rejected and it was decided…that we should not do anything to provoke the US to make more mischief.”
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs, September 29, 1987
Three decades after the devastating Tanker War between Iran and the United States during the Iran-Iraq war, tensions in the between the two countries have peaked again. Recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, for which nobody wants to take responsibility, have been repeatedly blamed on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). President Trump’s administration announced that it is “pretty sure” that Iran was behind the attacks, and Britain has declared that it has no reason to doubt the US assertion regarding Iran’s responsibility.
Officially, IRGC is part of the Iranian armed forces but, in the same way that its name lacks the word “Iran,” it does not consider its mission to be limited to Iran. On the contrary, it believes that its political, and sometimes religious, mission covers the whole region.
The Best Defense is…
Major General Hossein Salami was recently appointed as commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards. Salami has said that Iran must now expand its influence beyond the region and to the whole world.
"Our own assessment leads us to conclude that responsibility for the attacks almost certainly lies with Iran," said UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Iran has strongly denied that it was behind the attacks, so why is the Revolutionary Guards Corps being held responsible for the attacks and why is Iran paying the price for actions for which it denies responsibility? When a country accuses another country of doing something, that side must present evidence to support the accusation. So why is this principle being ignored when it comes to Iran? Why is the international community so quick to accept a charge leveled against the Revolutionary Guards?
From the moment that IRGC was created just after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it adopted the language of threats, whether it is dealing with domestic or international matters.
And in his last months in office, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, announced: “Until now the strategy of the Islamic Republic has been defensive. But it seems that from now on we must be ready to take the offensive and go after the enemy.” And Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour, Commander of the IRGC Ground Forces, endorsed the shift in policy, saying on the same day: “the best defense is offense.”
The IRGC believes that its mission is not limited to defending the borders of Iran and its national sovereignty but that it extends to defending all Muslims, and especially Shias. It believes that, unlike the regular army, it has the right to engage in activities outside Iran.
It becomes more complicated when we take into account that the classic armies of the world, the official armed forces of a country, are expected to behave in a certain way to be considered legitimate.
For instance, the IRGC does not hesitate when it comes to recruiting child soldiers, an internationally recognized war crime, and even defends the practice. It not only acts independently of the government of the Islamic Republic, in some cases it even acts in contradiction to the official policies of the government. It issues threats and intentionally behaves in a provocative way. It arbitrarily arrests foreign nationals and Iranian citizens to advance its own foreign political goals or its own financial interests. It uses passenger airliners as a cover to transport arms. On one occasion it hid explosives in the suitcases of Haj pilgrims flying to Saudi Arabia, an act that turned into a scandal when Saudi officials discovered what was happening.
Business and Hostages
The arrest of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British charity worker who has been jailed in Iran since 2016 has now turned into an official quarrel between the two countries, and it is just one example of the Guards’ arbitrary arrests and its use of individuals to advance their political and financial goals. British media have reported that she Zaghari-Ratcliffe will be held hostage until the UK pays Iran the £400 million it owes from a decades-old British tank sale. Another example was the case of Jason Rezaian, the accredited Washington Post reporter who was arrested in Tehran in July 2014 and charged with espionage and a string of other charges related to national security. He was released in January 2016 as part of a prisoner swap and after the US paid the Islamic Republic several billion dollars of its debt to Iran in cash. Iranian security officials declared the arrangement as a victory for the Islamic Republic.
After the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers came into effect in 2016, the expectation was that international pressures on Iran would end and the Islamic Republic was ready to become a normal and responsible player on the international stage. Nevertheless, some critics warned that giving Iran access to its blocked financial assets would give the Islamic Republic the ability to better pursue its undesirable regional policies and that there was no chance that it would adhere to normal, internationally accepted behavior.
Provocations to Undermine the Nuclear Agreement
As it happened, in June 2016, after the nuclear agreement was signed but before it came into effect, the Revolutionary Guards seized two seized two US Navy boats and 10 American sailors whose vessels had strayed into Iranian waters and then published a humiliating video of the captured Americans on their knees.
No country tolerates violation of its territorial waters by foreign military forces even if the violation is not intentional, but the Guards’ humiliating treatment of the captured American soldiers was not proportionate to their accidental infringement of Iranian waters. They forced them to kneel with their hands on their heads, their laptops were searched and the SIM cards in their phones were seized. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even awarded the Fath medal to the head of the Revolutionary Guards' Navy and four commanders involved in the capture of US sailors.
Iran released the American sailors after holding them overnight but the image that the Guards created through its action and behavior was not of a force that should be praised for protecting Iranian borders. Rather it was of a force that was trying to damage the government just when the nuclear agreement was going into effect — an image of violence and unpredictability.
Earlier in 2016, members of the Revolutionary Guards’ paramilitary Basij organization torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran, an event that was condemned by several countries and led to the severance of diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia. Those accused of the attack were later tried but the IRGC was influential enough to prevent any punishment against them.
The nuclear agreement came into effect under such conditions and while the government of President Rouhani was trying to show its critics inside Iran the benefits of the lifting of economic sanctions, the Guards suddenly test-fired two ballistic missiles. The missiles, capable of reaching Israel, were marked with a statement in Hebrew reading "Israel must be wiped off the Earth." This was exactly what the critics of the nuclear agreement had warned against.
Creating an International Point of Contention
The IRGC announced that the tests showed the country's "full readiness to confront all kinds of threats against the Revolution, establishment and territorial integrity.” But there were no potential threats at the time and the tests, especially with the “message” to Israel painted on the side of missiles, was an act of provocation that was done with vast publicity. Before these tests, not too much attention had been paid to the Guard’s missile program but, since then, it has become a point of contention between Iran and world powers.
The issue was referred to the Security Council and there is no indication that it will go away. As recently as December 2018, the Security Council met behind closed doors to discuss Iran's latest missile test, which the United States and other allies said may have been in violation of a three-year-old council resolution. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly called the Iran deal “the worst deal ever,” citing, among other reasons, its silence on Iran’s missile program. And, after the ballistic missiles were test-fired, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he had repeatedly warned that such a day would come.
One of the first actions Donald Trump took when he became president was to announce his intention to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, and the US withdraw officially on May 8, 2018. At the tiime he called it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and that it “failed to deal with the threat of Iran’s missile program.”
Even Ali Motahari, an outspoken member of the Iranian parliament, criticized “those who launched missiles” and said they were responsible for the failure of the nuclear agreement” [Persian link].
The latest example of the IRGC’s aggressive behavior was, of course, the shooting down of a US military surveillance drone that the Guards claimed had entered Iranian airspace. Trump said that Iran had made a “very bad mistake” but called off a retaliatory attack because, he said, it would have likely caused the deaths of 150 Iranians. He added: “I am in no hurry”. Chances of retaliation, of course, still remain high.
Costly Aggressive Language
The threatening tone of Revolutionary Guards' commanders has always proved costly for the people of Iran. After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein, tensions between Iran and the US became so intense that according to Hassan Rouhani, who was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council at the time, it was believed that after Iraq it would be Iran’s turn. But instead of trying to ease tensions, IRGC commanders repeatedly threatened that they would turn the battlefields of Iraq into a “quagmire” for the American military.
Sometime after these threats, attacks against American military, including the planting of roadside bombs, started. The Islamic Republic denied that it had played any role in these attacks but American officials had no doubt that Iran and the Revolutionary Guards were behind them, and that they had carried out their earlier threats.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, members of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force publicly established themselves in Iraq. According to General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, during the days that attacks against Americans by the Iraqi militias was at its height he received a message from General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, that read: “General Petraeus, you should know that I, Ghasem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who's going to replace him is a Quds Force member." The message was clear: Forget about representatives of the Iranian government, he was saying. If you want to talk about the attacks by the Iraqi militia, you have to talk to me.
This message left little doubt for Americans that the Iraqi militiamen were under the control of the Revolutionary Guards and that the denials by Iranian government officials could not be taken seriously.
A Long History of Acting through Proxies
Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the deadliest attack on American citizens outside the United States took place in Beirut on October 23, 1983, when a suicide bomber drove a truck underneath the four-story building housing the U.S. Marine barracks and detonated 12,000 pounds of TNT. The explosion reduced the building to rubble and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers. The United States later concluded that the bombing was the work of Hezbollah militants acting under the direction of the Revolutionary Guards. The establishment of Hezbollah was the Revolutionary Guards' first venture outside the borders of Iran, and extensive and numerous activities in the region followed. Most recently, the Guards establishedd al-Hashd ash-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) in Iraq, which, according to the US, act as proxies for Iran and threaten American military and US interests.
The IRGC continues to use its language of threats. It has extended its reach in the region by creating proxies and whatever these groups do, it is the Revolutionary Guards that is held responsible. Even if the Guards played no role in attacking the tankers, its 40-year record has laid the ground for international public opinion. The world believes that anything drastic or extreme that happens in the Persian Gulf region must be the work of the Revolutionary Guards.
Does Iran Really Want to Negotiate with the US?, June 21, 2019
“The Supreme Leader was Colder and Harsher than Expected”, June 14, 2019
Will Iran Violate the Nuclear Deal on June 27?, June 17, 2019
Decoding Iran’s Politics: Iranians’ Concerns Over War, May 21, 2019
Decoding Iran’s Politics: The JCPOA Ultimatum, May 16, 2019
New Guards Commander: More Missiles and a More Hawkish Approach, April 23, 2019