Both President Obama and Governor Romney have spoken a good deal about Iran and have outlined general principles if not specific strategies. President Obama believes in the efficacy of diplomacy and continues to place faith that the Islamic Republic wants only nuclear weapons capability and will not take the final half step of actualizing nuclear weapons ambitions. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, on the other hand, declares that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, although, beyond the campaign rhetoric, how he would go about this is far from clear.
Both Obama and Romney, however, avoid talking about the key to the problem: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is important for several reasons:
- Custody, control, and perhaps command of any nuclear weapon would be in the hands of the IRGC.
- The IRGC controls perhaps 40 percent of Iran’s economy.
- While the Islamic Republic grants the IRGC an annual budget of perhaps $5 billion, since 2007, the IRGC economic wing has won over $35 billion in state contracts; it makes an additional $12 billion annually through its “invisible jetties” and smuggling networks. This means that the IRGC is now financially independent from the control of the very people whom the Obama administration seeks to strike a deal.
The IRGC is not a simple military, but rather an ideological army. Today, it operates as the Supreme Leader’s Praetorian Guard. Since 2007, its chief, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has identified Iranians themselves rather than external armies as posing the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic. It was Jafari’s “mosaic doctrine” and the subsequent reorganization of the IRGC into provincial units which helped the regime put down the 2009 student uprising.
Because the IRGC is both the ideological guardians of the regime, Khamenei’s enforcers, and the group most directly involved in the nuclear program, then it serves to reason that they are the obstacle to any resolution of America’s Iran problem. Pundits and academics can talk all they like about hardliners, reformers, and the Green Movement, but there can be no muddle-though reform so long as the IRGC remains steadfast. Put another way, the end to Iran’s odious regime will not come until the IRGC collapses.
While Pentagon officials, intelligence analysts, and diplomats can convince themselves that deterrence can work; the Iranian regime is not suicidal, they miss two points: It is not the regime in its entirety about which the West must worry, but rather the most elite and ideologically pure units within the Revolutionary Guards. The argument that these are not suicidal is counterfactual. After all, from the time of the Iran-Iraq War to the present, willingness to commit suicide was the key determinant of ideological purity.
Just as terrorism is a tactic, and it’s the ideology underlying its practitioners which should be the target of U.S. policy, the nuclear weapons are less of a problem than the regime which would wield them. The key to U.S. national security is simply regime collapse in Iran. How to hasten that collapse should be the guiding principle of U.S. policy. But, drilling down even further, collapse will not occur without a dedicated policy to neuter and fracture the IRGC. It is discussion of how to do this which is missing from Obama administration discussion and the Romney campaign. Certainly, the IRGC is not monolithic. Some join for the privileges, and only a fraction should be counted as among the most ideologically pure. That the intelligence community focuses on factions among politicians but not among IRGC generals suggests that Director of Central Intelligence David Petraeus is allowing the persistent intelligence failure of his predecessors to continue.
Fracturing the IRGC is difficult. A good place to start would be to publicize and ridicule the IRGC’s abysmal treatment of its veterans, a complaint made quite openly on the streets of Tehran and among the family members of those fallen. Highlighting corruption (and perversions) would be another tactic, not only among the Khatamis, Rafsanjanis, and Ahmadinejads of the political class, but also among the various IRGC flag officers. While Voice of America – Persian Service appears more interested in badmouthing American policy and promoting diplomacy, a more productive strategy would be to launch a steady and dedicated campaign to convince the more opportunistic IRGC members that firing on their brothers, peers, and classmates protesting for liberty are not honor, but treason. There should also be an economic warfare component to seize smuggled goods, freeze assets, and counter IRGC money laundering. Should IRGC hardline commanders find magnet bombs attached to their car doors, I would not complain: After all, if they engage in war against Americans, let them pay the ultimate consequence or make the tough decision that their livelihood requires a new career path.
Much of this should ultimately be the stuff of private decision-making, but unless the U.S. focus is on defeating the enablers of the regime, the Islamic Republic will triumph.