President Obama has decided to double down on his claim that Iranian hardliners “are making common cause with the Republican caucus.” In an interview with Fareed Zakaria that aired on Sunday, Obama insisted, “What I said is absolutely true factually. The truth of the matter is, inside of Iran, the people most opposed to the deal are the Revolutionary Guard, the Quds Force, hardliners who are implacably opposed to any cooperation with the international community. And there’s a reason for that, because they recognize that if, in fact, this deal gets done, that rather than them being in the driver’s seat with respect to the Iranian economy, they are in a weaker position.”
As I wrote previously, this argument is based on a logical fallacy. Just because the sanctions regime allowed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) more control over the Iranian economy does not mean that the lifting of sanctions will lessen the Revolutionary Guards’ economic power. That the IRGC benefited under sanctions simply highlights the importance of the institution that Iranian decision-makers could least afford to alienate. The IRGC not only handles the nuclear portfolio, but also defends the clerical regime against potential domestic threats, like the 2009 Green Revolution, which the IRGC and its Basij allies quashed violently. The idea—Obama’s claim—that Iran’s supreme leader would sign off on a nuclear agreement that weakens the outfit that advances his interests and protects his life does not bear scrutiny.
The reality is that sanctions relief will go a long way toward keeping the IRGC happy, not least because the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action lifts sanctions on various IRGC-owned institutions as well as many of the organization’s leading figures, like Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, and Ahmad Vahidi, wanted by Interpol for his alleged involvement in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Then there’s IRGC ally Annis Nacacche, a Lebanese national and deputy of Carlos “the Jackal,” whom the founder of the Islamic Republic tasked to kill the former prime minister of Iran, Shapour Bakhtiar.
The sanctions relief that the IRGC will enjoy only underscores a disturbing trend in the Obama administration’s Middle East policy: the White House is coordinating with Iranian hardliners and their allies. Yes, John Kerry led a team of American diplomats to negotiate the JCPOA with their Iranian counterparts, but there’s another, non-diplomatic, channel where the two sides are engaging, not in European cities, but on the battlegrounds of the Middle East.
It seems that the president has something of a soft spot for the IRGC, or at least its expeditionary unit, the Quds Force. As Obama reportedly told a group of Arab officials in May, “The Arabs… need to learn from Iran’s example. In fact, they need to take a page out of the playbook of the Quds Force,” and develop local proxies, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the National Defense Forces in Syria, the Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Oddly, the White House has joined forces with a number of these outfits, most famously of course in Iraq, where American pilots have flown sorties in the anti-ISIS campaign in support of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, with Qassem Suleimani and his chief Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis calling the shots. As Bloomberg View reported:" “U.S. weapons often fall into the hands of militias like Iraqi Hezbollah. Sometimes the military cooperation is even more explicit. Commanders of some of the hard-line militias sit in on U.S. military briefings on operations that were meant for the government-controlled Iraqi Security Forces, a senior administration official said.”
In Lebanon, the administration coordinates with Lebanese Armed Forces units that are controlled by Hezbollah, another IRGC-trained and -supported outfit. The U.S. intelligence community has passed on intelligence regarding a Sunni jihadist plot to target Hezbollah. In support of the LAF and Hezbollah’s fight against Sunni groups, U.S. special forces are flying drones in northern Lebanon. Moreover, the administration has leaked Israeli air strikes against IRGC arms convoys headed to Hezbollah. A perhaps even more damaging leak was when the administration confirmed that Israel, with the CIA in support, killed Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, a long-time IRGC asset, in Damascus in 2008—an assassination for which Hezbollah continues to threaten vengeance, including attacks on Israelis around the world. (Mughniyeh, the man who plotted the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241 Americans, was also close to Anis Naccache.)
Bashar al-Assad’s forces are spread so thin that he would likely have been toppled two years ago were it not for the support of the IRGC and Hezbollah. Where the Syrian regime was once an Iranian ally, it is now entirely under the control of the IRGC. The White House’s strikes on ISIS have allowed Iranian-backed forces to target moderate Syrian rebel forces. As one Syrian rebel commander remarked, “Syrian warplanes used to shell us two or three times a week but now they target us every day thanks to the coalition forces.”
Obama demanded in August 2011 that Assad step aside, but the reality is that he promised Iran he wouldn’t target him—the president didn’t want to risk the chance of Iran walking away from the negotiating table. That’s the same reason of course why the administration didn’t back the Green Movement when it took to the streets in June 2009: Obama wanted to deal with the regime he already knew, one led by hardliners, including supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
Maybe it’s because it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the president to sell an unpopular nuclear agreement that he is likening opponents of the JCPOA, which include Democrats as well as Republicans, to Iranian hardliners. However, Obama’s rhetorical excesses may also make the administration vulnerable to hard questions. For instance, why is the White House giving the IRGC a free pass—when it’s not tacitly working with the IRGC, its allies, and assets in Tehran’s imperial wars throughout the Middle East?