America let its guard down and Iran got away. Not anymore
By the time the Trump administration woke up to the extent of Iran's entanglements in the security affairs of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East had been all but redrawn.
With the Trump administration designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran as a "foreign terrorist organisation", the reactions of Western media liberals will be interesting to watch. But then again, this is neither about domestic US politics nor trans-Atlantic ties. What matters is whether Iran's powerful hardliners wake up and smell the coffee or double down on their disastrous policies.
After unilaterally announcing the withdrawal of American forces from northeastern Syria last year, Trump caught flak for lacking a coherent strategy to counter the ambitions of Iran's "deep state". His gratuitous move last month to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the annexed portion of Syria's Golan Heights was seen as part of a pattern of imprudent behaviour. With the IRGC announcement, however, he has made amends, so to speak, by going for the jugular.
From Beirut to Baghdad, and even beyond, there is little room for confusion about Washington's intentions. Doing business with Iranian banks, companies and conglomerates will be extremely risky from now on without first confirming their antecedents. No matter how strong the temptation or compulsion to deal with Iranian entities or individuals, the wise thing to do would be to give them a wide berth unless a business is ready for every aspect of its operations to be placed under scrutiny.
Since US sanctions against Iran began snapping back into place around the middle of 2018, a number of IRGC and related entities have been punished for their alleged support for terrorism and rights abuses and role in proliferation activities. Given the IRGC's pervasive presence in the economic sector, the new designation could enable the Trump administration to target the military unit with a fairly high level of accuracy.
Created after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the Islamic theocracy and to keep the regular armed forces within bounds, the IRGC today is a veritable state within a state. It derives its clout from its own ground forces, navy and air force as well as its oversight of strategic weapons, including Iran's ballistic missiles.
Even as ordinary Iranians grapple with nearly 50 per cent inflation and an anaemic currency, the IRGC somehow can afford to project power across the Middle East via its Quds Force, which provides training, arms, advice and money to proxy forces and friendly governments. There are also allegations that it deals in narcotics, human smuggling, kidnapping and extortion, and money laundering. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that the Middle East's most feared military unit has been put on notice by the US.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran's government has turned exploitation of security vacuum in war-torn countries into an art form. In fact, by the end of the 1980s, the catalogue of accusations against the IRGC had become so lengthy, no US administration ran the risk of exaggerating them. Yet, instead of calling Iran out on its actions, each of them chose to avert its gaze, resulting in the steady transformation of the IRGC into one of the world's most formidable quasi-official organisations.
Wasting no time, the IRGC created, trained and nurtured like-minded organisations in countries sitting on sectarian fault lines. For a long time, the best-known creature of the IRGC, Lebanon's Hezbollah, managed to ride on a wave of sympathy by targeting Western soldiers and individuals and waging a war of attrition on Israel. Not until the UN investigation into the 2005 assassination of Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri did the wraps come off Hezbollah's sectarian grand strategy.
The fact that the IRGC is not an extremist group like Al Qaeda confounded Western governments, who were unsure whether the "terrorist" label applied to it. But perceptive politicians and scholars, including many who ended up dead or wounded in attacks in Lebanon, were under no illusions about the threat posed to the region's security, stability and prosperity by Iran's "deep state". When the IRGC began using militias to crush student protests in Iran in the late 1990s, it was clear that the regime in Tehran intended to hold power in perpetuity.
The scales fell from the eyes of the many admirers of Iran and Hezbollah when their fighters swung into action after the Arab Spring revolt came close to toppling Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on President Obama's watch. By the time the Trump administration woke up to the extent of Iran's entanglements in the security affairs of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East had been all but redrawn.
These days, the IRGC has its hands full, from plotting to use Syria as a springboard for starting a direct confrontation with Israel and pressuring Iraq to increase its economic dependence on Iran to advising the Houthi militia in Yemen on how to stall the latest UN-led peace process while portraying itself as the victim of an unjust war. At the same time, judging by reports from Iran and its currency slide, the US administration's coercive diplomacy is taking its toll.
Trump and his national-security team have been labelled shortsighted, blunt, crude and unduly belligerent by critics for designating the IRGC a terrorist organisation. If only such pejoratives were applied to the IRGC instead.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East.
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