Failures of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in spotlight even as rhetoric escalates

Cracks are emerging in the wall of silence about the IRGC’s role. Around the edges, criticism is beginning to leak out.
Thursday 15/04/2021
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (R) greets commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC Esmail Qaani (L), Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri (C), and IRGC Chief Commander Hossein Salami, in January 2020. (AFP)
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (R) greets commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC Esmail Qaani (L), Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri (C), and IRGC Chief Commander Hossein Salami, in January 2020. (AFP)

LONDON - The recent sabotage at Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facility has put the spotlight on the successive security failures of the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) but it  has given a boost to hard-line narrative with Iran’s ruling establishment.

The setbacks of the IRGC could not be missed by the public despite the Guards’ huge clout and intimidating power at home.  Just over a year ago they shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner, killing 176 people. Their forces failed to stop both an earlier attack at Iran’s Natanz facility and the assassination of a top scientist who had started a military nuclear programme decades earlier. Meanwhile, their floating base in the Red Sea off Yemen was hit by an explosion.

Then on Sunday, the nuclear facility, of which the Revolutionary Guards are the chief protector, experienced a blackout that damaged some of its centrifuges.

Israel is widely believed to have carried out the sabotage that caused the outage, though it has not claimed it.

In the wake of the attack, Iran announced Tuesday it would begin enriching uranium to 60% purity, the highest level its programme has ever reached. That was a signal that the Guards and their radical alliances’ defence was going to be an escalation of Iran’s positions in the nuclear issue.

The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

Alireza Zakani, the hard-line head of the Iranian parliament’s research centre, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

Despite its threatening retaliation rhetoric, Tehran has not offered much of a response besides suspected limited strikes in its shadow naval skirmishes with Israel. None of its moves has had the spectacular impact of the blows which Iran and its guards have themselves received so far.

— Cracks in the wall —

No criticism of the Guards has been noted in Iran. The IRGC is not known for its tolerance of voices pointing out its shortcomings. The force created after its 1979 Islamic Revolution has an extensive intelligence apparatus rivalling those of Iran’s civilian government — and it is brutal in its clampdown on dissent. Former detainees at Tehran’s Evin prison describe the Guard as running an entire wing of the jail housing politically sensitive prisoners. Local journalists can face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for their work.

But there are cracks emerging in the wall of silence. Around the edges, criticism is beginning to leak out.

Eshaq Jahangiri, President Hassan Rouhani’s top vice-president and a reformist, lamented that “nobody is ready to be responsible” for what happened at Natanz in remarks that appeared aimed at the Guard.

“Which body is responsible to identify and prevent the country’s enemies from doing something in the country? Has anyone ever been held accountable, or been held responsible or reprimanded, for what the biggest enemy of this country is doing here?” Jahangiri asked in a video shared widely on social media.

Separately quoted by the hard-line newspaper Kayhan, Jahangiri added: “People need to know what the resources, credibility and prestige of the country are being spent on.”

That is another apparent dig at the Guards, whose business interests through construction and other industries reach into the billions of dollars. The exact scope of all its holdings remains unclear, though experts’ estimates run from 15% to as much as 40% of Iran’s overall economy.

This new willingness to point the finger — however carefully — in the direction of the Guards may in part be due to the upcoming June presidential election.

Rouhani, whose administration struck a 2015 nuclear deal that brought Iran relief on sanctions, cannot run again due to constitutional term limits. That has created a potential free-for-all filing period for candidates when it opens in May.

Within Iran, candidates exist on a political spectrum that broadly includes hard-liners who want to expand Iran’s nuclear programme and confront the world, relative moderates who hold onto the status quo and so-called reformists who want to change the theocracy from within. Those calling for radical change find themselves blocked from even running for office by Iran’s constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council.

A soldier has yet to serve as Iran’s top civilian leader since the Islamic Revolution, in part because of the initial suspicion that its conventional military forces remained loyal to the toppled shah. However, a line of former Guard leaders have begun raising their profiles ahead of the vote, and many may try to run.

They include Mohsen Rezaei, an outspoken former top commander; Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; Rostam Ghasemi, a former oil minister; and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the speaker of Iran’s parliament known for his support of a bloody crackdown on students in 1999.

Demonstrators in Toronoto, Canada, hold placards with images of the victims of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, which was shot down near Tehran by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in Januray 2021. (REUTERS)
Demonstrators in Toronoto, Canada, hold placards with images of the victims of the downing of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, which was shot down near Tehran by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in Januray 2021. (REUTERS)

A younger generation of Guard leaders is in the mix as well, led by Saeed Mohammad, who once headed the Guard’s powerful Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters that is one of Iran’s biggest business conglomerates.

The debate over how much power the Guards should wield in Iran’s politics is as old as the Islamic Republic itself. Yet the force has been able to portray itself as the country’s defender through mass media on Iranian state television. Private local channels don’t exist.

— Rhetorical escalation —

Not totally unrelated to the forthcoming electoral contest, Iran’s political narrative since the Natanz fiasco is clearly hardening by the day. Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday dismissed initial offers at talks in Vienna to save Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal as “not worth looking at”.

The comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state in the Islamic Republic, came after a day that saw Iran’s president similarly ratchet up pressure over the accord.

European powers meanwhile warned Tehran in a formal round of negotiations that its actions were “particularly regrettable” and “dangerous.”

The talks already have been thrown into disarray by the weekend attack on Iran’s main Natanz nuclear enrichment site suspected to have been carried out by Israel. Tehran retaliated by announcing it would enrich uranium up to 60% — higher than it ever has before but still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90%.

“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating (and) are not worth looking at,” the 81-year-old Khamenei said in an address marking the first day of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Iran.

He also criticized the US and warned that time could be running out.

“The talks shouldn’t become talks of attrition,” Khamenei said. “They shouldn’t be in a way that parties drag on and prolong the talks. This is harmful to the country.”

Speaking to his Cabinet, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the first-generation IR-1 centrifuges that were damaged in Sunday’s attack would be replaced by advanced IR-6 centrifuges that enrich uranium much faster.

Rouhani used harsh words: “60% enrichment is an answer to your evilness. … We cut off both of your hands, one with IR-6 centrifuges and another one with 60%.”

Rouhani also accused Israel of being behind the Natanz attack and threatened to retaliate.

“Apparently this is a crime by the Zionists. If the Zionists take an action against our nation, we will respond,” he said, without elaborating.

Analysts believe waving the finger at Israel is the Iranian leaders’ best bet for rallying support at home. But the leaderships multiple failures in preventing or responding to the successive security setbacks could make the Iranian public’s reaction less predictable.