Correcting misunderstandings of the IRGC’s position on nuclear negotiations

Annie Tracy Samuel argues that many Western analysts and news outlets are misstating the position of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps on nuclear negotiations. The Guards, she writes, are "cautiously open" to an agreement, despite speculation that they are among the main agitators against the negotiations.

By Annie Tracy Samuel

A Reuters piece, published on February 9, is the latest in a string of articles insisting that the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are diametrically opposed to President Rouhani and his government’s nuclear negotiations with the West. According to the article, the Guards are attempting to “sabotage Rouhani’s opening to the West” because it threatens their economic interests and the “ideological basis of [their] power.” Unfortunately, this represents a misunderstanding of both what the Guards have recently claimed and what they have done since the revolution. 

In a post for Iran Matters at the end of December, I argued that the leaders of the IRGC were cautiously open to the interim nuclear agreement concluded in Geneva on November 24. While the Guards (meaning in this context their leaders and not necessarily their members) warned that Iran’s rights must be respected and that the United States has not proven itself to be trustworthy, they gave conditional approval to the deal and to the negotiating process. For example, Mohsen Kazemeini, IRGC commander for greater Tehran, expressed satisfaction with the deal, and IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami described it as “a diplomatic achievement.” Since then, despite press coverage to the contrary, the Guards have maintained their conditional approval while continuing to proclaim Iran’s, and their own, strength and independence.

It is those proclamations that Reuters and others have construed as condemnations of the nuclear talks. For example, the February 9 article includes a straightforward statement from IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari regarding the Guards’ “duty to protect the gains of the revolution,” which Reuters characterizes as “lash[ing] out at the nuclear negotiations.” Even the Guards themselves rejected that interpretation directly. After Reuters first published the quote under the headline “Iran commander criticizes government over influence from West,” Fars News, which is affiliated with the IRGC and which carried the story containing the quote, ran a piece explaining that Reuters had misrepresented Jafari’s statement and that his remarks were not a rebuke of Rouhani.

In addition to other mischaracterizations and errors (the article says “the Guards [were] established 35 years ago this week,” but the week of February 9 actually corresponds to the fall of the shah’s regime and the victory of the revolution; the referendum establishing the Islamic Republic was not held until the end of March, and the IRGC was established at the end of April), the premise of the article—that the nuclear deal has heightened tensions between Rouhani and the Guards—misses the point. The Guards may indeed harbor a degree of discomfort with some of Rouhani’s policies, but a careful reading of their statements reveals that their discomfort is far less intense than Reuters suggests and that their criticisms have been accompanied by support for the nuclear negotiations. Further, an examination of the IRGC’s history shows that the Guards have been able to survive as a powerful institution in Iran not exclusively or even primarily by defying all developments that make them uneasy. Rather, they have exhibited the ability to adjust their organization, strategies, and even their ideology to present circumstances in order to maintain and expand their power.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps member prays in Tehran
May 26, 2006 - IRGC members pray in Tehran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

Negotiating from a position of strength

This is not to say that the IRGC has avoided making confrontational statements in the past month and a half. The Guards are rarely quiet about their insistence that they are capable of defending Iran against a foreign attack. Such declarations are typical of the IRGC regardless of the status of the nuclear negotiations, but they do tend to increase in number and intensity in response to developments in the negotiations that the Guards deem to be particularly threatening.

Several incidents since mid-December have provoked sharp words from the IRGC. Its leaders continued to refute the distinctly vexatious comments from Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohamed Javad Zarif that Iran has no chance of withstanding a U.S. attack. The Guards also raise their voices when American officials declare that, despite their commitment to negotiations, all options (i.e. military action) are still on the table. When President Obama reiterated that point on December 20, IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani called Obama’s threat a lie and rejected his analysis that U.S. sanctions had forced Iran to negotiate.  Secretary of State Kerry’s remarks at the end of January regarding the continued availability of the military option also provoked quite a few rebukes from IRGC leaders. Several emphasized that Iran is well prepared to defend against any attack and is ready to respond should the United States (or Israel) strike.

Yet it would be a mistake to view the Guards as acting aggressively, either toward the Rouhani administration or toward the West. Indeed, despite their reproach of his comments regarding their ability to defend Iran against a Western attack, IRGC leaders praised Foreign Minister Zarif’s trips to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon (referred to collectively as “the resistance front”), saying they strengthened Iran’s position in the region and in the nuclear negotiations.

To the West, the IRGC underscored their defensive posture. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan, who also serves as an IRGC air force commander, “emphasized that Iran does not welcome war and tension but will give a decisive response to warmongering powers.” Ali Saeedi, the Supreme Leader’s representative in the IRGC, asserted that U.S. threats would not force Iran’s nuclear negotiators to withdraw from their positions, and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hassan Firouzabadi encouraged the United States to focus on diplomacy rather than threats. The Guards have also continued to emphasize that their insistence on maintaining their defensive posture stems from what they see as the West’s long record of opposition to the Islamic Revolution.

The Guards continued to call for the removal of all sanctions against Iran (while maintaining that the sanctions have not hampered Iran’s influence) and for the fulfillment of Iran’s nuclear rights within “the framework of international law.” This did not prevent them, however, from also continuing to advance positive interpretations of the negotiating process. Defense Minister Dehqan said that Iran’s negotiating team had “followed the path of maintaining dignity and authority” and that the negotiations were a sign of Iran’s power. Following the announcement on January 12 that the interim deal would be implemented by the end of the month, an IRGC political deputy called the development “the first stage of a ceasefire.” The Guards also described their own efforts to support engagement. According to IRGC Deputy Commander Salami, Iran’s military power is intended to support the country’s negotiators and bolster rather than detract from their diplomatic efforts.

Guards commanders also lent support to the argument that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. Defense Minister Dehqan emphasized that “we do not have a need for nuclear weapons,” and Quds Force commander Soleimani declared that “faith is the most powerful nuclear bomb against global arrogance” (meaning the United States and its allies).

Making connections

Still, alongside their cautious approval of engagement, IRGC leaders have emphasized that Iran does not need relations with the United States and that the Islamic Republic has done just fine without them. IRGC Navy Commander Ali Fadavi argued that “relations with America are not the basis of the Islamic Republic’s progress” and noted that Iran’s economic, scientific, and academic achievements were greater than those of countries that do have direct ties with Washington.

Other IRGC commanders have asserted that the United States is undermining its own influence in the region by rejecting a closer relationship with Iran, especially to aid its efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria. They made that point after announcements that Iran would not be included in the peace talks convened to try to end the civil war there. Basij Force Commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi “blasted the U.S. attempts to marginalize Tehran in efforts to settle the Syrian crisis.”  Inviting Iran to the talks “was an opportunity that the Westerners lost,” Naqdi said, and he maintained that “[a]ny decision to be taken without the Islamic Republic of Iran’s presence will be futile and fruitless.” Similarly, IRGC Deputy Commander Salami declared that the United States could not solve “regional and international problems without Tehran’s assistance.”

These statements reveal that connections between the nuclear negotiations and issues of regional security, and between Iran’s past interactions with the United States and their persistent mistrust of Washington, are important in understanding how the Revolutionary Guards interpret recent developments. Rather than reflecting their inalterable opposition to interactions with the West, they demonstrate that the Guards are still cautiously open to those interactions and that there are certain things the Guards are looking for—Iran’s inclusion in regional security arrangements and the curtailment of threats to use the military option—that could lessen their distrust of the United States and possibly make them even more supportive of closer ties.

Annie Tracy Samuel is a research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and is a PhD candidate in history at Tel Aviv University.