Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.
Since assuming power in January 2017, the Trump administration has zeroed in on Iran. On Jan. 27, 2017, a week after being sworn in, President Donald Trump issued an executive order "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorists Entry into the United States," temporarily banning Iranian citizens from entering the U.S.
During the presidential election, Trump repeatedly denounced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limited Iran's nuclear program, as "the worst deal ever negotiated" and repeatedly pilloried the Obama administration for failing to stand up to Iran.
Within months, the Trump administration signaled that it wanted to build a coalition of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states to challenge Iran and roll back its influence in the region.
In May 2018, the White House announced that the U.S. would be pulling out of the JCPOA and that it would re-impose economic sanctions on Iran effective Nov. 4, 2018.
Iran responded by threatening to "begin our industrial enrichment (of uranium) without any limitations" and also threatened to close off the Straits of Hormuz.
Tehran also increased its attacks on Saudi Arabia by its Yemenite proxies, the Houthis. In August 2018, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that under no circumstances would Tehran engage in direct talks with Washington.
The escalation of U.S.-Iranian tensions was occurring against a backdrop of widespread intervention by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Quds Force in the Syrian Civil war and continued Iranian tests of its intermediate-range missiles.
Following the renewed imposition of sanctions in November 2018, the Trump administration issued six-month waivers to eight countries, including India, China and Iraq, to continue to import Iranian petroleum and, in the case of Iraq, electrical power.
In April 2019, the U.S. announced that, as of May 2, it was ending all waivers on Iranian oil purchases and that those who continued to import it would also be subject to U.S. sanctions.
At the same time, the U.S. Department of State announced that it was designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) effective April 15.
The announcement spurred Iran's Parliament to designate "all legal and real persons and troops of the U.S. and its allies operating in the West Asian region, terrorists." Subsequently, Iran's Supreme National Security Council designated the United States as a "terrorist government" and "a state sponsor of terrorism" and U.S. Central Command as a "terrorist organization."
A rapid escalation of belligerent threats prompted the U.S. to expedite deployment to the Persian Gulf of the USS Abraham Lincoln Aircraft Carrier Strike Group and a task force of B-52 Stratofortress bombers.
In response, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC's Aerospace Division, dismissed the U.S. buildup, noting, "An aircraft carrier … was a serious threat for us in the past but now it is a target and the threats have switched to opportunities."
A week ago, in an additional escalation, four oil tankers -- two from Saudi Arabia, one from the UAE and one from a private Norwegian shipping company -- were "struck by an unknown object," , according to Saudi officials. The U.S. subsequently called the attacks sabotage and blamed the IRGC as the perpetrator.
By mid-month, both sides were signaling that neither was looking for a war. Iran, in an apparent effort to deescalate the confrontation, publicly announced that it was removing anti-ship missiles from two of its boats on station in the Persian Gulf.
The IRGC: Iran's Power Broker
The IRGC was established in May 1979, following Iran's Islamic Revolution, as an armed militia charged with protecting the regime's clerical leaders and safeguarding the Islamic revolution.
Then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini distrusted the Iranian military, which he saw as being beholden to the Shah, and wanted a separate military force that would be loyal to him and the new Islamic government.
Initially, the IRGC functioned as an elite bodyguard to the Iranian clerics. The outbreak of the Iraq-Iranian war, however, transformed the IRGC into a parallel but separate military force, complete with its own navy and air force and, eventually, a separate missile force.
Today, the IRGC consists of a far-ranging military force that also wields enormous economic clout through direct control of large segments of the Iranian economy. In addition, its de facto political wing, Alliance of Builders of Islamic Iran (Abadgaran), is among the largest voting blocs in the Iranian Parliament. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration, himself a former member, the IRGC expanded its role into virtually every aspect of Iranian society.
The IRGC's main role is national security, internal and border security, law enforcement, control of smuggling, control of the Straits of Hormuz, advancing the Islamic Revolution internationally, and Iran's missile forces. The IRGC has also played a prominent role in the development of Iran's nuclear program. All of these functions operate under the broad umbrella of defending the Islamic Revolution from its opponents, both internal and external.
The IRGC's operations are geared toward a combination of asymmetric warfare against its foreign opponents, principally the U.S. and its Gulf allies, and a comprehensive internal security apparatus.
There are three principal operating arms under the IRGC umbrella.
The IRGC has a total strength of around 125,000 members, spread across its ground forces, navy, aerospace and special forces. The ground forces are organized into 31 provincial corps, one each stationed in Iran's 30 provinces -- except for Tehran Province, which has two. The regional commanders have wide-ranging authority and are tasked with maintaining public order in their provinces.
In addition, the Ansar-u-Mahdi Corps, part of the IRGC's ground forces, are tasked with a range of special functions, from protecting the regime's leaders to counterintelligence and covert operations.
The IRGC's aerospace forces operate a small fleet of antiquated fighters and one attack helicopter. Its main force consists of seven Su-25s that fled Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. In addition, it also possesses an unspecified number of drones.
The aerospace forces are also responsible for Iran's strategic missile force and its missile development program. They operate several thousand short and medium range mobile ballistic missiles, with operating ranges of up to 1,200 miles. The aerospace forces are also tasked with the development of space launch vehicles and medium range ballistic missiles. The IRGC has relied heavily on North Korea in the development of its ballistic missile program.
The IRGC navy relies primarily on swarm tactics, using large numbers of small, fast attack craft. It specializes in asymmetric, hit-and-run tactics. In addition, it maintains large arsenals of mines and anti-ship cruise missiles to attack commercial and military traffic in the Gulf and, in particular, the Straits of Hormuz, and is also responsible for coastal defense.
The second element of the IRGC's forces is the Basij Militia (Mobilization Resistance Force), a volunteer force consisting of 90,000 militiamen and 300,000 reservists. Western intelligence agencies estimate that, if necessary, the Basij could mobilize in excess of a million supporters. The Basij were the template used by the IRGC in organizing the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq following the collapse of Iraqi military forces when the country was invaded by Islamic State jihadists. They have also served as the template for the pro-Assad militias: the National Defense Forces (NDF) and the Popular Defense Committees (PDC).
During the 2009 election, which brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, the Basij were used to mobilize voter turnout. When numerous allegations of election fraud led to widespread protests, the Basij were used to intimidate protesters and crush the demonstrations.
The Basij militias are primarily engaged in internal security. They function as an auxiliary to law enforcement and monitor and suppress dissident groups. They also provide social services, organize public religious ceremonies and function as a morality police.
The final element of the IRGC's military structure is the Quds Force. Under its legendary commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the 5,000-strong force is tasked with conducting unconventional warfare in foreign operations and in training and assisting other Iranian-aligned foreign militant organizations. The Quds Force has worked closely with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza. It is also playing an important role in organizing pro-Maduro militias in Venezuela. Militants from many organizations have undergone training at Quds Force facilities in Iran, and it's believed that the Quds Force now operates at least one training facility for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The IRGC is believed to control between 15% and possibly as much as 33% of Iran's economy. Its economic portfolio began with the confiscation of assets of Iranians who fled the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Over the last 40 years, it has transformed itself into a vast conglomerate that controls over 200 different companies. Western intelligence agencies estimate that the IRGC's annual revenue is upward of $30 billion. In addition, it receives more than $8 billion from the Iranian government to fund military operations, plus undisclosed amounts to fund its foreign operations.
It is particularly entrenched in the construction and infrastructure sector. During the Ahmadinejad administration, IRGC-controlled construction companies received billions in lucrative no-bid contracts for a wide range of government-funded projects. It also controls 51% of Telecommunications Company of Iran, acquired under Ahmadinejad's tenure, which controls fixed-line and cellular communications in the country, as well as internet and satellite services.
The IRGC also controls Bachman Group, the manufacturer of vehicles under license from Mazda and SADRA, the leading shipbuilding and repair company in Iran. And it controls airports and port facilities throughout Iran and has, in the past, been accused of conducting widespread smuggling operations of contraband goods.
The IRGC and the United States
The IRGC is like a Praetorian Guard that was created to protect a nation's rulers but, over time, has come to amass more power than those it was designed to protect. In the process, it has become the backbone of the clerical regime and parlayed its power and influence into economic wealth and, increasingly, a large, ongoing, political role.
The apex of the IRGC's power was under the Ahmadinejad presidency, one of their own, who ensured that the group received lucrative government contracts and was able to take control of key economic sectors. Its relationship with the current Rouhani government, on the other hand, has been strained. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has tried to limit the group's influence in Iranian politics and the economy. He has also tried to crack down on its lucrative smuggling activity.
The purpose of the IRGC today is to ensure the continuation of the clerical regime in Iran. In that role, it will stifle political dissent and curb any social unrest that has the potential to grow into a regime threat. It will also ensure that any reformist elements within Iran will not challenge the position of the clerical regime. However, it also functions to protect its own position within Iranian society. The IRGC has become a self-perpetuating, political-economic-military elite. It is not unlike a criminal syndicate that engages in both legal and illegal activities and which relies on violence and political influence to protect itself and its sponsors from opponents.
The IRGC benefits from the continuation of ongoing tensions with the U.S., as it underscores its role in protecting the clerical regime, provided that those tensions stop short of triggering an all-out war. Indeed, it plays a prominent role in stoking them. Likewise, domestic unrest -- as a result of sanctions-induced, deteriorating economic conditions -- work for the benefit of the IRGC by highlighting its role in crushing any social or political dissent against the government. Sanctions also have the added benefit of creating lucrative smuggling opportunities.
Western analysts like to distinguish between conservative and reformist/moderate elements within Iranian politics, arguing that U.S. policy should be designed to help the moderate elements achieve and retain power. This was a common refrain during the Obama administration and was, in part, the inspiration of its policy of seeking a reconciliation with Tehran.
There are certainly moderate/reformist elements within Iranian politics. As long as the IRGC retains its role in Iran, however, such reforms will never be allowed to threaten the role of the IRGC in Iranian society. Indeed, it is questionable where Iran and the U.S. could ever normalize their relationship as long as the IRGC plays such a prominent role in Iran.
The IRGC certainly has its critics within Iran. Its wealth, and especially its ostentatious displays by many of its commanders, has made it unpopular with large segments of Iranian society. Given its military power, however, it is hard to imagine that the organization would ever be dismantled, short of a civil war and the complete collapse of the clerical regime.
In targeting the IRGC, the Trump administration is zeroing in on the one organization most responsible for maintaining the clerical regime in power and whose agenda is most inimical to U.S. interests in the region. In doing so, it will, in the short term, strengthen popular support for the IRGC within Iran. Following the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, for example, Iran's parliamentarians wore the green pants from the IRGC's uniform to show their support for the organization. President Rouhani remarked that the U.S. move "was a mistake which would only increase the IRGC's popularity in Iran and elsewhere."
In the long run, however, it is in Washington's interest to see that the power and influence of the IRGC in Iran is curbed. Making it harder for the organization to function, limiting its economic opportunities and constraining its activities, at least abroad, may serve to weaken the organization. This is a long-term objective, however. Short term, it is unlikely that the IRGC's position in Iran will change. Neither will U.S.-Iranian relations.
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