Exporting Iran's revolution

The Revolutionary Guards Corps is becoming increasingly involved in setting Iran’s foreign policy. Published in MEED, 30 September 2011

For the self-proclaimed revolutionary government in Tehran, the turmoil across the region this year could have been a golden opportunity to extend its influence. Iranian officials have tried to characterise the protest movements as a belated follow-up to their own 1979 revolution, insisting on calling it the ‘Islamic Awakening’ in any public pronouncements. Yet despite their best efforts, there is no sign of Iran successfully exporting its brand of revolution any time soon.

Several awkward, complicating facts have been getting in the way of Tehran’s preferred narrative, not least the fact that Iran’s only ally in the Arab world, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, has been in the firing line. And unlike the 1979 revolution, this year’s events have had almost nothing to do with religion. Just as importantly, Iran today is widely distrusted around the region.

Iran unpopular in the Middle East

In a speech on 13 September reported by the local Fars news agency, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: “The huge Islamic moves in the Muslim world are a prelude to bigger developments and the rule of Islam. Our position comprises supporting these moves and strengthening them.”

However, Iran’s help is not in great demand. An opinion poll by the Arab American Institute conducted in June among more than 4,000 people in six Arab countries showed that Iran is often viewed negatively in the region and many are uneasy about its apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Even in Egypt, where the interim authorities have been reaching out to Tehran, two thirds of people have a negative perception of Iran’s role in the region.

“Iran is probably a loser in the Arab Spring,” said Gary Sick, professor at the US’ Colombia University, speaking at a public lecture at the London School of Economics on 7 September. “They’re not going to have much to pat themselves on the back about.”

When Tehran does try to exert its influence in the region, it often does so via the Quds Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp that was set up to deal with its international operations. This elite force has been active in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places, in the past and it is strongly suspected of getting involved in events in Syria this year. According to the EU, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Quds Force Major General Qassem Suleimani and its Deputy Commander of intelligence Hossein Taeb have all been involved in providing equipment and other support to help the regime of Al-Assad suppress protests. All three were included in a fresh set of EU sanctions aimed at Syria in June.

Iran has repeatedly denied any such role, and not everyone accepts that it has been involved to any great extent. “I doubt there is very much Iranian involvement,” says one political analyst based in Beirut. “The Syrian regime, like a lot of these Arab regimes, has a large security apparatus. Maybe, there are a few people here and there as advisers or something, but in terms of actual people on the ground, I don’t buy it because they don’t need it. If there’s one thing that these Arab regimes have plenty of it’s oppressive ability.”

Foreign policy of Middle East countries

Although Iran has denied any involvement in Syria, the Quds Force is not always so shy or retiring about its activities. In 2008, Suleimani sent a message to General David Petraeus, who was in charge of US forces in Iraq at the time, via a senior Iraqi leader. Petraeus recalled the message during a talk at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington on 22 January 2010: “He said: General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, 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.”

Petraeus then offered his own analysis of the situation. “Now, that makes diplomacy difficult if you think that you’re going to do the traditional means of diplomacy by dealing with another country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry because in this case, it is not the ministry. It is not [then Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr] Mottaki, who controls the foreign policy, for these countries at least. It is a security apparatus, the Quds Force, which is also carrying out other activities.”

The brazen nature of the message gives some indication as to the power that Suleimani and his Quds Forces now have in setting Iranian foreign policy. Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at US think-tank Rand Corporation, says the Revolutionary Guards has to some extent now become the foreign policy establishment in Tehran.

“The Revolutionary Guards has a significant role in shaping Iran’s policy of being arsonists and fireman. In places like Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, it pursues this unconventional policy, using the clandestine method of the Quds Force. It supports armed proxies to create trouble and then presents itself as an indispensible force. It’s a dual track strategy and the Guards are at the forefront of that. You can argue they’ve probably displaced the Foreign Ministry as an executor and perhaps as a formulator of Iranian foreign policy.”

Consolidating power

The Revolutionary Guards has become central to Iran’s foreign policy in another way too. As the body in charge of developing the fledgling nuclear industry, it is directly responsible for the international sanctions, which have been repeatedly heaped on the country.

Those sanctions have, to some extent at least, benefited the Revolutionary Guards by reducing the amount of competition for its business interests in the domestic economy, not least the activities of its main engineering subsidiary, Khatam ol-Anbia Construction Base.

“The domestic and international activities of the Revolutionary Guards reinforce each other,” says Ali Alfoney, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “The Revolutionary Guards uses its influence upon strategic decision-making to make Iran take a hawkish stance on the nuclear issue. The hawkish stance provokes international sanctions, which force foreign companies [out of] Iran’s oil and gas sector. In the absence of foreign companies, the government engages Khatam ol-Anbia in developing Iran’s oil and gas sector.

“Another example is the Revolutionary Guards’ use of its proxies to create a state of permanent crisis in Iran’s relations with its neighbours and the West. As Iran’s neighbours and the West respond to provocations, the Revolutionary Guards assumes more powers because of the state of emergency Iran finds itself in.”

The Revolutionary Guards is also intricately involved in developing Iranian defence capabilities. Its aerospace division, led by Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, is in charge of its missile development programme and its forces run war games in the Gulf and elsewhere, sometimes in conjunction with the regular army. The Defence Minister, Ahmad Vahidi, is himself a former commander of the Quds Force.

As in the case of Suleimani in Iraq, Jafari is not shy about projecting the group’s power in this area. In July, the Revolutionary Guards commander-in-chief gave an interview to the local Mehr news agency in which he threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Gulf to the Arabian Sea, if Iran was attacked. He also referred to the capabilities the Revolutionary Guards was developing in cyber warfare – a key issue for Iran in the wake of the Stuxnet computer virus, which appeared in 2010 and was apparently developed to target the country’s nuclear programme.

“Closing the Strait of Hormuz is on Iran’s agenda in special circumstances and in the event the country is threatened,” he said. “The [Revolutionary Guards’] mission in all spheres, including the military and cultural spheres, is defensive and they will carry out defensive operations in cyber warfare as well.”

Western concerns over Iran

The growing role of the Revolutionary Guards in Iranian political life has certainly not gone unnoticed by outside powers and has prompted unease in Western capitals. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly voiced her concerns on the issue.

“Increasingly, more and more aspects of Iranian society – the security apparatus, the economy – are being controlled not by the clerical leadership, not by the political leadership, but by the Revolutionary Guards,” she said in February 2010, while on an official visit to Riyadh. “The space keeps shrinking for either religious or civilian leadership. And something else is filling that space, and so far as we can tell, it’s the expanded power of the Revolutionary Guards.”

While the US frets about the rising power of the Revolutionary Guards, there is little if anything that it can do to stop it. There is every chance the years ahead will see the group augment its influence by taking control of even more senior government posts. The links between the group’s domestic and foreign policy interests could also come into even stronger focus if, as some analysts speculate, Suleimani is able to accumulate even more personal power.

“Let’s imagine a situation where the supreme leader can’t get along with [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad any more,” said Sick during his talk in London in September.

“What does he do about it? Well, he could declare a state of emergency and temporarily turn over the leadership to some member of the Revolutionary Guards. It’s not, to my mind, completely beyond the realm of possibility.

“Suleimani would be an ideal person. He knows the foreign policy. He has dealt with the US directly and indirectly, he has run their foreign policy in Iraq. I don’t think it's particularly going to happen, but I don’t think it’s impossible.”