TOPICS : Iranian Guards untouched by US pressure

In recent weeks, as Washington ratcheted up pressure to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation, officials throughout Iran sprang to its defence. The sermon by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati last month was typical. The corps “is not separate from the people,” Jannati told the congregation. “Are you introducing the 70 million people living in this country as terrorists?”

This public embrace makes devising effective sanctions against the corps problematic. The corps was created shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution because the loyalty of the conventional armed forces was in doubt. The corps has the traditional responsibilities of a military force. It has roughly 120,000 men in uniform and a much larger reserve called the Basij, and its leaders boast about observing US military tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq and being ready to counter them.

What has changed about the corps is its political role. It now has the characteristics of what political scientists call a praetorian force, wherein higher-ranking officers participate in political affairs, sometimes at the behest of civil authorities. Praetorians also reveal

a mistrust of civilian leaders. An examination of statements by Maj Gen Mohammad Ali Aziz-Jafari, who was chosen as the new head of the Guards on Sept. 1, illustrates these points.

“The corps is not just a military organisation,” Jafari said in 2002. “It is a politico-military organisation. Today, America is issuing threats and, unfortunately, there are groups that are prepared to sacrifice the main goals and principles of the revolution in pursuit of their own political aims. That is why the corps has expressed its views.”

Recent personnel moves suggest that the corps is being prepared to play a key role in parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2008. In August, corps officer Alireza Afshar was selected as the Interior Ministry official in charge of elections. Afshar replaced a close ally of President Mahmood Ahmadinejad, himself a former Guard, and joined former deputy corps commander Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr.

Designation of the corps as a terrorist organisation would require freezing any assets it has in the US. In practical terms this is meaningless, because the corps does not have any assets here. UN Security Council Resolutions 1737 and 1747 — passed in connection with Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes — identify several corps officers and call for restrictions on their overseas travel and assets. This too is fairly meaningless, because corps members are unlikely to travel to the US or Europe or keep money in foreign banks.

As these efforts demonstrate, and in light of the corps’s decisive role in Iranian politics and its significant economic power, the ability of sanctions to restrain the organisation is questionable. A combination of assertive diplomacy and sanctions that target the real engines of the regime — its energy sector, trade, and finance — is ikely to affect Iranian behaviour. — The Christian Science Monitor