In a twist, Iran deal boosts Revolutionary Guards

Friday 24/07/2015
Graduation ceremony of Revolutionary
Guard’s officers

WASHINGTON - As a part of the nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1, the Is­lamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), its offshoots and members have been de-designated by the United States as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.

This is bound to have implica­tions, not only for the domestic balance of power between the IRGC and clerical elites in the Islamic Re­public, but also for Tehran’s ability to project power across the Middle East.

The removal of harsh interna­tional sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy in return for Tehran scaling back its nuclear programme enables the IRGC, Iran’s most pow­erful military force that has in re­cent years acquired control of key sectors of the economy such as the oil industry and construction, to benefit from an expected foreign investment boom in the Islamic Re­public.

In other words, the nuclear agree­ment and attendant sanctions relief paradoxically change the domestic balance of power to the benefit of the most ardent opponents of the deal.

Worse, far from moderating Iran’s behaviour abroad, the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions are like­ly to embolden the regime to take greater risks in its drive to become the paramount regional power.

The IRGC already commands a central position in Iran’s economy and the Tehran Stock Exchange. As foreign investors flock to Iran to participate in the post-sanctions bo­nanza, the IRGC-owned companies will be the first to benefit from the cash flow.

This is particularly true of the two main financial arms of the IRGC on the stock market: Mehr Finance and Credit Institution, along with its subsidiaries, and the IRGC Co­operative Foundation. Any invest­ment in companies owned by the corps’ financial arms benefits the 120,000-strong IRGC, the Praeto­rian Guard of the Tehran regime.

Outside the Tehran Stock Ex­change, Khatam al-Anbia Construc­tion Base, the IRGC’s contracting arm and the largest contractor in Iran, looks certain to benefit from the de-designation. This will pro­vide the company with easier ac­cess to cash and operations abroad — Khatam al-Anbia is engaged in major infrastructure activities in Iraq and Venezuela — but also to vi­tal equipment and spare parts only available abroad. The IRGC’s eco­nomic success will soon translate into political gains in the Islamic Republic.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Raf­sanjani, chairman of the powerful Expediency Council, and their tech­nocrat backers have sought energet­ically to roll back the political influ­ence of the IRGC. But more money in the Guards’ coffers will greatly enhance their ability to create jobs through IRGC-owned companies, provide funding for their support base and finance the political cam­paigns of veterans of the corps run­ning for parliament in elections scheduled for February 26, 2016.

This would be a formidable chal­lenge to Rohani and Iran’s techno­cratic elites who do not have access to funding on a similar scale.

The sanctions relief is also likely to have a great impact on the IRGC’s regional power projection capabili­ties. Bashar Assad’s embattled re­gime in Syria, which has begged for significant financial support from its key ally Iran, is likely to find itself flush with cash from Tehran.

The cash flow is also expected to intensify the IRGC’s campaign to expand Iran’s regional influence: A more financially secure IRGC is likely to pursue its goals more ag­gressively.

This will have a major impact in Syria, where the combined forces of pro-Assad fighters, including Leba­non’s Hezbollah, and the IRGC have been largely on the defensive in that country’s civil war in recent months.

But there is the risk now that the supporters of anti-Assad forces, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will seek to counter Iran’s expanded financial capabilities by boosting their own funding of the Damascus regime’s opponents, thereby per­petuating the civil war in Syria, now in its fifth terrible year.

Hezbollah, in particular, is likely to find itself rewarded with an in­creased cash flow from Tehran in return for its support for the Assad regime and what appears to be the Lebanese group’s growing engage­ment in Syria, Lebanon’s eastern neighbour, as Tehran struggles to contain a string of rebel advances.

“Without a deal, we risk even more war in the Middle East,” US President Barack Obama said in an attempt to persuade lawmakers to support the July 14th agreement, although he is likely to achieve the exact opposite.

Republicans and some Democrats are expressing serious concerns about the agreement, and they are right to do so. The perils of a bad nuclear deal empowering the IRGC domestically in the Islamic Republic and in the wider Middle East may outweigh the benefits Obama and his administration hope to achieve.