Based on their public statements, we can ascertain that the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. (IRGC) have mixed feelings about the interim nuclear agreement concluded in Geneva on November 24 between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany). On one hand, the Guards have given conditional approval to the deal and the negotiating processes. On the other hand, they have warned the negotiating parties that they will continue to monitor the diplomatic developments, that Iran’s sovereign rights must be respected, and that the United States has not proven itself to be trustworthy.
Though the IRGC reaction may seem surprising, it can be explained by the IRGC’s loyalty to the Supreme Leader and its pragmatic adaptability. So far, the IRGC reaction reveals that the Guards are more ductile and less reactionary that is often assumed.
The deal was greeted enthusiastically by many Iranians and their leaders. The agreement was a victory for Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June 2013 on a platform of improving relations with the West and resolving the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Since the deal, many analysts have been waiting for what they thought was inevitable—overt criticism of the agreement from Iran’s hardliners, especially the Revolutionary Guards. The IRGC and its allies, it was assumed, would see any opening to the West as dangerous to their ideology and would therefore denounce it as a threat to the Islamic Revolution. Given the IRGC’s record of anti-Americanism and militancy, that assumption was not entirely unreasonable.
However, the prediction that the Revolutionary Guards would necessarily oppose the deal was based only on that part of the IRGC’s record, while disregarding other factors that shape the Guards’ behavior, such as the IRGC’s loyalty to the Supreme Leader and its adaptability and pragmatism that exists alongside its militant rhetoric.
Indeed, the Revolutionary Guards—which in this context means their leaders and not necessarily their members—have not been openly critical of the deal or of the negotiations that preceded it. During the talks IRGC commanders and media outlets combined expressions of cautious approval for the negotiations with statements insisting that Iran not relinquish its rights.
In the days and weeks following the conclusion of the deal, IRGC leaders have continued their support for the diplomatic process and for Iran’s negotiating team, and have even praised the deal itself. Mohsen Kazemeini, IRGC commander for greater Tehran, expressed satisfaction with the deal, and IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami described it as “a diplomatic achievement.” The head of the IRGC, Mohammad Ali Jafari, conveyed his appreciation for the work of the Iranian negotiators. He gave the deal partial approval, saying it had both positive and negative points. According to Jafari, “the concessions we gave were the maximum and the concessions we received were the minimum.”
In assessing the nuclear agreement, IRGC commanders have argued that the favorable outcome of negotiations is the result of Iran’s strength and power. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan, who also serves as a commander in the IRGC air force, and Deputy IRGC Commander Salami both made statements asserting that Iran’s nuclear achievements, and particularly its success in enriching uranium to twenty percent, made the world realize that Iran had become a nuclear power and that its nuclear rights could not be denied. Salami and IRGC head Jafari also cited Iran’s “diplomacy of resistance” and “defense capabilities” as factors that strengthened Iran’s position in the negotiations. While such declarations of Iran’s might are typical of the IRGC, they are noteworthy in this context because they reveal the IRGC’s ability to characterize the nuclear negotiations in a way that aligns with their principles of strength and resistance.
Those declarations also serve the purpose of warning Iran’s enemies that the Islamic Republic will continue to stand against threats and that the Revolutionary Guards are capable of defending the country. IRGC commanders have reacted particularly forcefully to threats from the United States that, despite the interim agreement, military action against Iran has not been ruled out. IRGC head Jafari asserted that repeating the “military option is still on the table” has become a “joke.” American and Israeli officials know that “military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran is not feasible,” he stated, and emphasized that Iran also “has many options on the table.”
In looking forward to the next stages of the nuclear negotiations, IRGC leaders have urged Iran to remain vigilant in protecting its rights and principles, which indicates that the Guards will countenance the continuation of the talks. According to IRGC Deputy Commander Salami, the interim agreement “is just the beginning of a process [and] we think about a comprehensive agreement.” At the same time, he and other IRGC leaders have stipulated that in a next-stage agreement, Western sanctions against Iran must be lifted. Former IRGC commander and current Secretary of the Expediency Council Mohsen Rezaee stated that the “American sanctions against Iran must be removed as quickly as possible.”
Should new sanctions be imposed on Iran, or if the Western states otherwise violate the interim agreement or attempt to trample on Iran’s rights, IRGC commanders have warned, Iran will cancel the agreement and return its nuclear program to its previous state. “If the Islamic Republic realized that its interlocutors in the deal were to breach its terms,” stated Hamidreza Moqaddamfar, deputy IRGC commander for cultural and social affairs, “the diplomatic apparatus of the country . . . would definitely declare the agreement null and void.”
IRGC commanders also warned that Iran should be prepared for violations of the agreement by the P5+1, because the West and especially the United States cannot be trusted. Hojateleslam Ali Saeedi, the Supreme Leader’s representative in the IRGC, noted that the United States has a record of breaking its promises, and Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij force, which is under the authority of the IRGC, added that the United States has long shown a hostile attitude towards Iran.
While such statements might suggest that the Revolutionary Guards are categorically opposed to improving relations with the West and the United States, the Guards do leave room for the possibility of rapprochement, should the United States alter its policy of enmity towards the Islamic Republic. Basij force commander Naqdi declared that “the slogan of death to America continues” because “Iran does not trust America.” But he went on, the slogan “will disappear only with the changing of America’s nature.” Similarly, IRGC head Jafari stated that the Islamic Revolution cannot accept the “hegemonic system” that the United States leads, “unless the United States’ arrogant nature would change, in which case there would remain no cause for enmity.”
The characterization of the IRGC as adaptable and even tentatively open to better relations with the West calls into question the contention that the Guards are irreconcilably opposed to a deal. However, the Revolutionary Guards can be better understood when their reactions to the nuclear agreement are placed in the context of the political landscape of the Islamic Republic.
As the guardians of the revolution, the leaders of the IRGC are loyal to the revolution’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and accordingly do not openly advocate views that contradict his own. In the months between Rouhani’s inauguration and the conclusion of the interim agreement, Khamenei has made a number of statements giving his support to the Iranian negotiators and telling the Revolutionary Guards to get on board or back off.
In an address to the IRGC on September 17, the Supreme Leader told the Guards that it was “not necessary” for them “to be active in the political field,” a statement that was widely seen as an effort to check the expansion of the IRGC’s political activities. The Supreme Leader also announced to the Guards that he supported “heroic flexibility” in foreign relations, which indicated that he was prepared to support negotiations and even a degree of compromise, and that the Guards should too.
Khamenei maintained his support for the negotiations as they progressed. On November 3, a day before the anniversary of the 1979 occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the Supreme Leader said he “supports the nuclear negotiating team” and that “no one must weaken the negotiators,” though he also added that he “was not optimistic” about the talks. Following the conclusion of the interim deal, he wrote an open letter to President Rouhani in which he praised the negotiators for their success and said the agreement could be the basis for next steps.
This is essentially the line that the leaders of the IRGC have adopted, as outlined above.
In their statements, the Guards have said explicitly that their positions are based on the views of the Supreme Leader. In October, just before the talks were set to resume, IRGC head Jafari declared that Iran would not relinquish its nuclear rights, but would “continue talks with the world powers based on the Supreme Leader’s guidelines.” A few weeks later, Hassan Firouzabadi, an IRGC commander and the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said, “as the Leader of the Revolution prescribed, we support the nuclear negotiators of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” And following the conclusion of the deal, Jafari reiterated that the “Supreme Leader’s comments in [the nuclear] and in every field are [the] Iranian nation’s guidelines.”
Alongside efforts urging the Guards to limit their political activities and to give the negotiations room to proceed, Khamenei and other Iranian leaders have tried to reassure the Guards that they are not being shunned. In their speeches to the IRGC in mid-September before the negotiations commenced, both Khamenei and Rouhani coupled requests for the Guards to remain outside politics with praise for the organization, and particularly for their paramount role in guarding the revolution against threats and for their role in the Iranian economy.
The IRGC’s economic role also plays a part in explaining the organization’s reactions to the nuclear deal. The IRGC is sustained not only or primarily by ideology, but by its economic and military interests, which have forced the Revolutionary Guards to balance ideology with pragmatism as those interests dictate. Though they will not tolerate aspersions on their military might, the Guards are not amateurs and are not ignorant of their military weakness relative to the United States. A U.S. attack on Iran, which may become more likely if the negotiations fail, would likely be very costly for the IRGC, and the Guards surely know this. In contrast, if the negotiations succeed and are followed by new economic opportunities, the IRGC may be able to materially benefit from rapprochement.
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.