In a twist, Iran deal boosts Revolutionary Guards
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.