Commentary Magazine


Topic: Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Does the Qods Force Operate in America?

The Washington Times is reporting U.S. concern that the Qods Force, the elite wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), could strike at targets in the United States:

“We have seen an uptick in operational activity by the Qods Force over the last year or so,” National Counter-Terrorism Center Director Matthew G. Olsen told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Mr. Olsen said the Qods Force, the elite division of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for operations abroad, “poses a threat beyond the immediate [Middle East] region,” including to the U.S. homeland.

This conclusion should be nothing new. Indeed, Iranian authorities have long sought, if not to carry out terrorist attacks inside the United States, then to maintain the option to do so. In 1980, of course, the Iranian government hired a hitman to assassinate a former pre-revolutionary Iranian diplomat living in Bethesda, Maryland. And, as Olsen sited in his testimony, the Qods Force allegedly planned an attack in Washington, DC, last year.

There is a deeper pattern, though.

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The Washington Times is reporting U.S. concern that the Qods Force, the elite wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), could strike at targets in the United States:

“We have seen an uptick in operational activity by the Qods Force over the last year or so,” National Counter-Terrorism Center Director Matthew G. Olsen told a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Mr. Olsen said the Qods Force, the elite division of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for operations abroad, “poses a threat beyond the immediate [Middle East] region,” including to the U.S. homeland.

This conclusion should be nothing new. Indeed, Iranian authorities have long sought, if not to carry out terrorist attacks inside the United States, then to maintain the option to do so. In 1980, of course, the Iranian government hired a hitman to assassinate a former pre-revolutionary Iranian diplomat living in Bethesda, Maryland. And, as Olsen sited in his testimony, the Qods Force allegedly planned an attack in Washington, DC, last year.

There is a deeper pattern, though.

In 2003, an Iranian immigrant to the United States allegedly lied his way into the United States and then, subsequently, into the Arkansas National Guard. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit found him guilty of lying on his visa application. In 2008, Joe Volpe, then an anti-terrorism advisory council coordinator in the U.S. Attorney’s Office (and now a judge), suggested that the case was actually deeper, and that the defendant—who had joined the Arkansas National Guard—was quite possibly an IRGC plant (see page 3):

Now here is the most interesting case in Arkansas to me that is hard to believe. An actual U.S. court case involving a probable Iranian Revolutionary Guard plant in our U.S. Army Reserve Forces here in this state. It was fund that this guy was an actual Iranian Army Officer and chemical engineer. A local bar tender flagged him as being strange from asking several questions involving troop movements and the strengths of all things. He was charged with visa fraud and is currently awaiting removal and deportation out of the United States.

If this is true, then the episode raises questions not only about how the convicted Iranian was recruited into the U.S. military, but also about whether U.S. authorities luckily got the only Iranian agent in the United States or, more likely, whether there are many.

No country has gotten as many passes from the United States as Iran. It has never paid the consequence for its Carter-era terrorism, its role in the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing, or the Khobar Towers attack. In all likelihood, what we know is only the tip of the iceberg.

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The Missing Piece in Iran Strategy

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.

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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.

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Beyond Sanctions

There was bipartisan praise for the sanctions resolution that emerged from the long-delayed House-Senate conference committee. AIPAC cheered the passage of the “toughest sanctions ever passed.” Its news release asserted:

The new legislation seeks to exploit Iranian economic vulnerabilities in order to persuade Iran’s regime to curtail its nuclear ambitions and support of terrorism. CISAD [the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act] explicitly targets the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), requiring financial sanctions on entities that facilitate any IRGC activity. CISAD also mandates broad financial sanctions on any entity involved with Iran’s nuclear weapons program or support for terrorism. CISAD seeks to limit investments in Iran’s energy sector by sanctioning offending companies and barring them from federal contracts. The bill presumes denial of export licenses to countries permitting sensitive technology diversions to Iran. CISAD also prohibits U.S. nuclear technology export licenses to any country assisting Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit.

CISAD provides the President with a narrow diplomatic window to significantly curb Iran’s refined petroleum imports and its ability to expand its own refinery operations; if diplomacy fails, the President must impose sanctions on companies in violation of CISAD.

But what do sanctions really mean at this stage? Not all that much, as this report explains:

Senior US officials have acknowledged that newly imposed sanctions against Iran would not be enough to end its quest for nuclear capabilities, but told Congress that the approach was bearing fruit.

“It will certainly not change the calculations of the Iranian leadership overnight, nor is it a panacea,” William Burns, under-secretary for political affairs at the State Department, said of US-backed sanctions passed by the UN Security Council earlier this month during testimony Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But it is a mark of the potential effect that Iran has worked so hard in recent months to avert action in the Security Council and tried so hard to deflect or divert the steps that are now under way.”

And the administration still wishes to see changes to the sanctions deal:

“We will continue to work with the Congress over the coming days as it finalizes work on this important bill, and in our ongoing efforts to hold Iran accountable,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in a statement.

The administration has long had reservations that the legislation would restrict the president’s ability to provide exemptions to countries considered helpful on international sanctions and which he would not want to alienate.

“It is no secret that our international partners contain their enthusiasm for extra-territorial applications of US legislation, and that’s why we continue to work closely with you and your colleagues to try to ensure that the measures are going to be targeted in a way that maximizes the goal here,” Burns told the Senate panel.

So to sum up, we have UN sanctions and are on the verge of passing unilateral sanctions. What we don’t have is an effective, timely means of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program. As Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative explained via e-mail, “The bottom line with this is that it is good it is finally moving and will become law, but in reality, the impact will be minimal.”

We had other options — vigorous support for the Green Movement, a full-court press to isolate Iran diplomatically, and the use of force (or the realistic threat of force) — but instead Obama chose prolonged “engagement” and sanctions that are unlikely to slow progress on Iran’s nuclear program.

The administration must now be pressed to answer two questions: how will we know if sanctions are working? And what are we prepared to do if they don’t? One suspects the administration doesn’t have a ready answer for either and that neither Congress nor Jewish groups are all that eager to pose them. But both lawmakers and Jewish groups need to keep their eyes on the ball. The goal here was not to pass sanctions; the goal was to stop Iran from going nuclear. The former is means to the end, although “smart” diplomats often get confused when asked to distinguish between lovely paper documents and effective policy.

Those who cannot conceive of an effective “containment” policy for a nuclear Iran had better think ahead. Unless they begin to forcefully press the administration to think about options if and when sanctions fail and to commit to supporting Israel in the event that the Jewish state is forced to act on its own, they will be ill prepared for the day when Obama, as he certainly will,  moves from deterrence to containment and announces: “We tried everything we could but we told you sanctions might not work.”

There was bipartisan praise for the sanctions resolution that emerged from the long-delayed House-Senate conference committee. AIPAC cheered the passage of the “toughest sanctions ever passed.” Its news release asserted:

The new legislation seeks to exploit Iranian economic vulnerabilities in order to persuade Iran’s regime to curtail its nuclear ambitions and support of terrorism. CISAD [the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act] explicitly targets the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), requiring financial sanctions on entities that facilitate any IRGC activity. CISAD also mandates broad financial sanctions on any entity involved with Iran’s nuclear weapons program or support for terrorism. CISAD seeks to limit investments in Iran’s energy sector by sanctioning offending companies and barring them from federal contracts. The bill presumes denial of export licenses to countries permitting sensitive technology diversions to Iran. CISAD also prohibits U.S. nuclear technology export licenses to any country assisting Iran’s nuclear weapons pursuit.

CISAD provides the President with a narrow diplomatic window to significantly curb Iran’s refined petroleum imports and its ability to expand its own refinery operations; if diplomacy fails, the President must impose sanctions on companies in violation of CISAD.

But what do sanctions really mean at this stage? Not all that much, as this report explains:

Senior US officials have acknowledged that newly imposed sanctions against Iran would not be enough to end its quest for nuclear capabilities, but told Congress that the approach was bearing fruit.

“It will certainly not change the calculations of the Iranian leadership overnight, nor is it a panacea,” William Burns, under-secretary for political affairs at the State Department, said of US-backed sanctions passed by the UN Security Council earlier this month during testimony Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “But it is a mark of the potential effect that Iran has worked so hard in recent months to avert action in the Security Council and tried so hard to deflect or divert the steps that are now under way.”

And the administration still wishes to see changes to the sanctions deal:

“We will continue to work with the Congress over the coming days as it finalizes work on this important bill, and in our ongoing efforts to hold Iran accountable,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in a statement.

The administration has long had reservations that the legislation would restrict the president’s ability to provide exemptions to countries considered helpful on international sanctions and which he would not want to alienate.

“It is no secret that our international partners contain their enthusiasm for extra-territorial applications of US legislation, and that’s why we continue to work closely with you and your colleagues to try to ensure that the measures are going to be targeted in a way that maximizes the goal here,” Burns told the Senate panel.

So to sum up, we have UN sanctions and are on the verge of passing unilateral sanctions. What we don’t have is an effective, timely means of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program. As Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative explained via e-mail, “The bottom line with this is that it is good it is finally moving and will become law, but in reality, the impact will be minimal.”

We had other options — vigorous support for the Green Movement, a full-court press to isolate Iran diplomatically, and the use of force (or the realistic threat of force) — but instead Obama chose prolonged “engagement” and sanctions that are unlikely to slow progress on Iran’s nuclear program.

The administration must now be pressed to answer two questions: how will we know if sanctions are working? And what are we prepared to do if they don’t? One suspects the administration doesn’t have a ready answer for either and that neither Congress nor Jewish groups are all that eager to pose them. But both lawmakers and Jewish groups need to keep their eyes on the ball. The goal here was not to pass sanctions; the goal was to stop Iran from going nuclear. The former is means to the end, although “smart” diplomats often get confused when asked to distinguish between lovely paper documents and effective policy.

Those who cannot conceive of an effective “containment” policy for a nuclear Iran had better think ahead. Unless they begin to forcefully press the administration to think about options if and when sanctions fail and to commit to supporting Israel in the event that the Jewish state is forced to act on its own, they will be ill prepared for the day when Obama, as he certainly will,  moves from deterrence to containment and announces: “We tried everything we could but we told you sanctions might not work.”

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Israel Prepares for the Enemy It Faces

In contrast with the Obama administration, which perpetually talks down the potential for a military strike, Israeli officials are beginning to talk openly about such action. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Israeli security establishment is divided over whether it needs Washington’s blessing if Israel decides to attack Iran, Israeli officials say, as the U.S. campaign for sanctions drags on and Tehran steadily develops greater nuclear capability.

Some senior Israeli officials say in interviews that they see signs Washington may be willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, an eventuality that Israel says it won’t accept. Compounding Israeli concerns were U.S. statements this past weekend that underscored U.S. resistance to a military option. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday discussed a memo to National Security Adviser James Jones warning that the U.S. needed new strategies, including how to contain a nuclear Iran—suggesting that Iran could reach nuclear capability without any foreign military force trying to stop it.

Until now Bibi has played along both with the Obama engagement gambit and the sanctions effort, but we now hear that “Israeli officials have increasingly voiced frustration over the slow pace of diplomatic efforts to get sanctions in place.” We are, after all, running out of time. The concern for the Israelis tells us much about the state of U.S.-Israel relations and the real weak link in going after Iranian nuclear capabilities:

Many Israeli military experts say Israel can easily cope with any military retaliation by Iran in response to a strike. Iran’s medium-range rockets would cause damage and casualties in Israel, but they aren’t very accurate, and Israel’s sophisticated missile-defense system would likely knock many out midflight. Israel has similarly proved it can handle attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel also hosts a contingent of U.S. troops attached to a radar system to help give early warning against incoming rocket attacks.

More worrying to Israeli strategic planners examining possible attack scenarios is the possibility that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by ramping up support to groups battling U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to recently retired officials familiar with the military’s thinking on Iran. If American soldiers start dying in greater numbers as a result of an Israeli unilateral attack, Americans could turn against Israel.

The debate and planning go on within Israel, which, unlike the U.S. president, does not have the luxury of procrastination or the ability to wish away the looming threat it faces.

Meanwhile, a newly released unclassified report on Iran’s military and terrorist activities is worth a read, especially the description of its foreign policy goals and tools — “diplomacy, economic leverage, soft power, and active sponsorship of terrorist and paramilitary groups are the tools Iran uses to drive its aggressive foreign policy.” Left unsaid is the lunacy of expecting that such a regime would voluntarily — unless its survival were threatened — give up the most powerful tools it could acquire: nuclear weapons. Also of note is the section on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qod Forces, which are “well established in the Middle East and North Africa, and recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.” The report also details “Iranian Support to Terrorists and Regional Military Groups” — the very sorts of groups Obama said he is most concerned might acquire a nuclear weapon.

So the gap between the Israelis’ planning and ours is vast, as is the mismatch between the nature of the Iranian regime and our chosen strategy for thwarting its nuclear ambitions. Whatever the merits and risks of a military strike, at least Israel is focused on the real world that confronts it and an enemy determined to use every weapon to undermine and destroy the Jewish state. As for the United States, our meandering, slow walk through engagement and toward itty-bitty sanctions seems spectacularly unsuited to blocking the ambitions of the regime described in the report.

In contrast with the Obama administration, which perpetually talks down the potential for a military strike, Israeli officials are beginning to talk openly about such action. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Israeli security establishment is divided over whether it needs Washington’s blessing if Israel decides to attack Iran, Israeli officials say, as the U.S. campaign for sanctions drags on and Tehran steadily develops greater nuclear capability.

Some senior Israeli officials say in interviews that they see signs Washington may be willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, an eventuality that Israel says it won’t accept. Compounding Israeli concerns were U.S. statements this past weekend that underscored U.S. resistance to a military option. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday discussed a memo to National Security Adviser James Jones warning that the U.S. needed new strategies, including how to contain a nuclear Iran—suggesting that Iran could reach nuclear capability without any foreign military force trying to stop it.

Until now Bibi has played along both with the Obama engagement gambit and the sanctions effort, but we now hear that “Israeli officials have increasingly voiced frustration over the slow pace of diplomatic efforts to get sanctions in place.” We are, after all, running out of time. The concern for the Israelis tells us much about the state of U.S.-Israel relations and the real weak link in going after Iranian nuclear capabilities:

Many Israeli military experts say Israel can easily cope with any military retaliation by Iran in response to a strike. Iran’s medium-range rockets would cause damage and casualties in Israel, but they aren’t very accurate, and Israel’s sophisticated missile-defense system would likely knock many out midflight. Israel has similarly proved it can handle attacks against Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel also hosts a contingent of U.S. troops attached to a radar system to help give early warning against incoming rocket attacks.

More worrying to Israeli strategic planners examining possible attack scenarios is the possibility that Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by ramping up support to groups battling U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to recently retired officials familiar with the military’s thinking on Iran. If American soldiers start dying in greater numbers as a result of an Israeli unilateral attack, Americans could turn against Israel.

The debate and planning go on within Israel, which, unlike the U.S. president, does not have the luxury of procrastination or the ability to wish away the looming threat it faces.

Meanwhile, a newly released unclassified report on Iran’s military and terrorist activities is worth a read, especially the description of its foreign policy goals and tools — “diplomacy, economic leverage, soft power, and active sponsorship of terrorist and paramilitary groups are the tools Iran uses to drive its aggressive foreign policy.” Left unsaid is the lunacy of expecting that such a regime would voluntarily — unless its survival were threatened — give up the most powerful tools it could acquire: nuclear weapons. Also of note is the section on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qod Forces, which are “well established in the Middle East and North Africa, and recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.” The report also details “Iranian Support to Terrorists and Regional Military Groups” — the very sorts of groups Obama said he is most concerned might acquire a nuclear weapon.

So the gap between the Israelis’ planning and ours is vast, as is the mismatch between the nature of the Iranian regime and our chosen strategy for thwarting its nuclear ambitions. Whatever the merits and risks of a military strike, at least Israel is focused on the real world that confronts it and an enemy determined to use every weapon to undermine and destroy the Jewish state. As for the United States, our meandering, slow walk through engagement and toward itty-bitty sanctions seems spectacularly unsuited to blocking the ambitions of the regime described in the report.

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Sanctions That Nibble

At AIPAC this week, Hillary Clinton promised not “crippling” sanctions against Iran but rather sanctions that would “bite.” That appears to be an overstatement. This report explains:

The U.S. has backed away from pursuing a number of tough measures against Iran in order to win support from Russia and China for a new United Nations Security Council resolution on sanctions, according to people familiar with the matter.

Among provisions removed from the original draft resolution the U.S. sent to key allies last month were sanctions aimed at choking off Tehran’s access to international banking services and capital markets, and closing international airspace and waters to Iran’s national air cargo and shipping lines, according to the people.

This is pathetic. The problem, of course, is that engagement did not, as promised, sell Russia and China on crippling sanctions that might actually have had some impact on the mullahs. (“The disclosure of weakened proposals came as U.S. officials sought to persuade Russia and China to back measures against Iran in a conference call on Wednesday among the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, the first such meeting including China since mid-January.”) So we begin the process of watering down and then watering down some more the economic measures that are the Obami’s sole means now — they have in effect taken military force off the table and are uninterested in regime change — of persuading the mullahs to put aside their nuclear ambitions.

The report explains:

The current resolution still would target major power centers in Iran, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s elite military force, according to a person familiar with the draft. It would also stiffen a broad range of existing sanctions, including the search and seizure of suspicious cargo bound for Iran through international waters and a ban on states offering financial assistance or credits for trade with Iran. If approved, they would be the most stringent measures Iran has faced.

Yet the original U.S. draft would have gone much further. The cargo sanctions initially named Iran Air and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and demand a blanket ban of their airplanes and ships from other countries’ airspace or territorial waters. The revised version calls for interdiction only of shipments that would evade already-existing sanctions.

The earlier resolution would have made it difficult for Iran to insure imports and exports of oil and other essential commodities, by barring foreign insurers from serving international transport contracts from Iran. … The previous draft would also have barred Iran’s access to international capital markets by prohibiting foreign investment in Iranian bonds.

This has been the flaw in the entire sanctions strategy from the get-go. By the time something is negotiated, watered down, implemented, and its results assessed, it is too little and too late. In the process we reveal ourselves to be unserious and uncommitted to doing “whatever it takes” (Tony Blair’s formulation but certainly not the Obami’s) to prevent the revolutionary Islamic state from acquiring nuclear weapons. We are, it seems, inching ever closer to pronouncement of a full-blown “containment” approach — the inevitable alternative after the Obami have frittered away time and credibility and forsworn military action and regime change. The “unacceptable” is about to become reality.

At AIPAC this week, Hillary Clinton promised not “crippling” sanctions against Iran but rather sanctions that would “bite.” That appears to be an overstatement. This report explains:

The U.S. has backed away from pursuing a number of tough measures against Iran in order to win support from Russia and China for a new United Nations Security Council resolution on sanctions, according to people familiar with the matter.

Among provisions removed from the original draft resolution the U.S. sent to key allies last month were sanctions aimed at choking off Tehran’s access to international banking services and capital markets, and closing international airspace and waters to Iran’s national air cargo and shipping lines, according to the people.

This is pathetic. The problem, of course, is that engagement did not, as promised, sell Russia and China on crippling sanctions that might actually have had some impact on the mullahs. (“The disclosure of weakened proposals came as U.S. officials sought to persuade Russia and China to back measures against Iran in a conference call on Wednesday among the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, the first such meeting including China since mid-January.”) So we begin the process of watering down and then watering down some more the economic measures that are the Obami’s sole means now — they have in effect taken military force off the table and are uninterested in regime change — of persuading the mullahs to put aside their nuclear ambitions.

The report explains:

The current resolution still would target major power centers in Iran, in particular the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s elite military force, according to a person familiar with the draft. It would also stiffen a broad range of existing sanctions, including the search and seizure of suspicious cargo bound for Iran through international waters and a ban on states offering financial assistance or credits for trade with Iran. If approved, they would be the most stringent measures Iran has faced.

Yet the original U.S. draft would have gone much further. The cargo sanctions initially named Iran Air and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and demand a blanket ban of their airplanes and ships from other countries’ airspace or territorial waters. The revised version calls for interdiction only of shipments that would evade already-existing sanctions.

The earlier resolution would have made it difficult for Iran to insure imports and exports of oil and other essential commodities, by barring foreign insurers from serving international transport contracts from Iran. … The previous draft would also have barred Iran’s access to international capital markets by prohibiting foreign investment in Iranian bonds.

This has been the flaw in the entire sanctions strategy from the get-go. By the time something is negotiated, watered down, implemented, and its results assessed, it is too little and too late. In the process we reveal ourselves to be unserious and uncommitted to doing “whatever it takes” (Tony Blair’s formulation but certainly not the Obami’s) to prevent the revolutionary Islamic state from acquiring nuclear weapons. We are, it seems, inching ever closer to pronouncement of a full-blown “containment” approach — the inevitable alternative after the Obami have frittered away time and credibility and forsworn military action and regime change. The “unacceptable” is about to become reality.

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Re: Leveretts Revealed

In case you thought Michael Crowley may have gotten it wrong (really, could any two supposedly sophisticated people have willingly revealed themselves to be pawns of a brutal dictatorship?), or in case you thought the Leveretts really hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole of shillery for the butchers of Tehran, think again. They have their own blog, a CONTENTIONS reader informs me. This particular post should be read in full, not so much for the suck-uppery for the University of Tehran or for giddy flattery bestowed on its students, who put American students to shame, tell Flynt and Hillary Mann. No, that’s sort of par for the course for the pair who find Tehran the happiest place on earth. Rather, it is this bit of jaw-dropping propaganda, putting Jane Fonda circa 1972 to shame, which deserves a gander:

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”.  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.

Brutal military repression? What military repression? Amir Taheri, writing recently and not under the thrall of the Tehran regime, reminded us:

The pro-democracy movement had promised that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, would be a turning point for the cause of freedom. But Mr. Khamenei’s regime contained the mounting opposition.The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controlled Tehran with the help of tens of thousands of club-wielding street fighters shipped in from all over the country. Opposition marchers, confined to the northern part of the city, were locked into hit-and-run battles with the regime’s professional goons. An opposition attempt at storming the Evin Prison, where more than 3,000 dissidents are being tortured, did not materialize. The would-be liberators failed to break a ring of steel the IRGC threw around the sprawling compound…

For the first time the regime had to transform Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry. The IRGC was in total control. Code-named “Simorgh,” after a bird in Persian mythology, its operation created an atmosphere of war in the divided city. Warned that his life may be in danger, Mr. Khamenei was forced to watch the events on TV rather than take his usual personal tour.

Foggy Bottom isn’t exactly home base for aggressive Iran analysis. But really, it’s well accepted at this point that the IRCG has infiltrated and is now controlling government ministries. But the Leveretts, surrounded by evil, see and hear and speak of none.

The comments below the Leveretts’ inanity are worth a read. One of the Leveretts’ readers remarks: “As far as your jab on Iran being a militarized state — only a fool would have derived at the Clinton’s comments and more importantly the actions of Sepah in the past years that what was meant was that if one drives around Tehran with a government guide s/he will see tanks and soldiers! … Are you two really analysts or politicians?” Hmm. Propagandists, I think.

UPDATE: Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism and Islamism, reacts to the Leverett’s observations: “It is astonishing that people who consider themselves political scientists have concluded that the Revolutionary Guards are not in control because ‘as they drove around Tehran’ they didn’t see in many soldiers in the streets. One wonders: If they had visited the Soviet Union in the 1960s and not seen members of the KGB in the streets, would they have included the USSR was not a police state?”

In case you thought Michael Crowley may have gotten it wrong (really, could any two supposedly sophisticated people have willingly revealed themselves to be pawns of a brutal dictatorship?), or in case you thought the Leveretts really hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole of shillery for the butchers of Tehran, think again. They have their own blog, a CONTENTIONS reader informs me. This particular post should be read in full, not so much for the suck-uppery for the University of Tehran or for giddy flattery bestowed on its students, who put American students to shame, tell Flynt and Hillary Mann. No, that’s sort of par for the course for the pair who find Tehran the happiest place on earth. Rather, it is this bit of jaw-dropping propaganda, putting Jane Fonda circa 1972 to shame, which deserves a gander:

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”.  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.

Brutal military repression? What military repression? Amir Taheri, writing recently and not under the thrall of the Tehran regime, reminded us:

The pro-democracy movement had promised that last Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, would be a turning point for the cause of freedom. But Mr. Khamenei’s regime contained the mounting opposition.The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) controlled Tehran with the help of tens of thousands of club-wielding street fighters shipped in from all over the country. Opposition marchers, confined to the northern part of the city, were locked into hit-and-run battles with the regime’s professional goons. An opposition attempt at storming the Evin Prison, where more than 3,000 dissidents are being tortured, did not materialize. The would-be liberators failed to break a ring of steel the IRGC threw around the sprawling compound…

For the first time the regime had to transform Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry. The IRGC was in total control. Code-named “Simorgh,” after a bird in Persian mythology, its operation created an atmosphere of war in the divided city. Warned that his life may be in danger, Mr. Khamenei was forced to watch the events on TV rather than take his usual personal tour.

Foggy Bottom isn’t exactly home base for aggressive Iran analysis. But really, it’s well accepted at this point that the IRCG has infiltrated and is now controlling government ministries. But the Leveretts, surrounded by evil, see and hear and speak of none.

The comments below the Leveretts’ inanity are worth a read. One of the Leveretts’ readers remarks: “As far as your jab on Iran being a militarized state — only a fool would have derived at the Clinton’s comments and more importantly the actions of Sepah in the past years that what was meant was that if one drives around Tehran with a government guide s/he will see tanks and soldiers! … Are you two really analysts or politicians?” Hmm. Propagandists, I think.

UPDATE: Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism and Islamism, reacts to the Leverett’s observations: “It is astonishing that people who consider themselves political scientists have concluded that the Revolutionary Guards are not in control because ‘as they drove around Tehran’ they didn’t see in many soldiers in the streets. One wonders: If they had visited the Soviet Union in the 1960s and not seen members of the KGB in the streets, would they have included the USSR was not a police state?”

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The Obami’s Engagement Dead End

Hillary Clinton is now decrying the emergence in Iran of a military dictatorship. She declares:

“We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. … I think the trend with this greater and greater military lock on leadership decisions should be disturbing to Iranians, as well as to those of us on the outside,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters as she flew from Qatar to Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, Clinton appears to root for the mullahs. Why in the world are we seemingly bemoaning the plight of the Supreme Leader? Could we perhaps take the side of real regime change and root for the democracy protestors? Too much to expect, I think. Even the New York Times notices the cul-de-sac in which this sort of argument puts Clinton: “But in prodding the clerics and politicians to take action, Mrs. Clinton found herself in the awkward position of celebrating the early days of the Islamic Revolution. Iran today, she said, is ‘a far cry from the Islamic republic that had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle.'” So the current regime isn’t as swell as the old regime, but we’re rooting for ‘em anyway. And this is what passes for smart diplomacy.

But there is another problem here. If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is infesting and manipulating the regime, and if its reach extends to the political apparatus, how are itty-bitty, narrowly focused sanctions going to work? Amir Taheri observes that the IRGC essentially turned “Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry” in response to the Feb. 11 protests. He observes of the IRGC:

Their leaders are more strident than many of the regime’s leaders, vetoing countless attempts by mullahs and politicians to reach a compromise with the portion of the opposition still calling for reform rather than regime change. Revolutionary Guard generals frequently appear on television to call for mass arrests and show trials. A weak and indecisive caliph, Mr. Khamenei has so far refused to endorse the kind of “final solution” the generals demand.

Abroad, the Revolutionary Guard pursues an aggressive policy aimed at “filling the vacuum” the generals hope will be created when the U.S. disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan by funding terrorist groups and their political front organizations. The IRGC has reportedly created a special desk to monitor the coming parliamentary elections in Baghdad and Kabul with the aim of helping pro-Tehran elements win power.

Hmm. But the Obami are going to come up with very narrowly framed sanctions, they keep telling us. This is to avoid impacting the rest of the government and to keep the Iranian population at large – the same population that has already pretty much figured out who the bad guys are – from becoming upset with the U.S. (although they are actually already upset with the U.S. for granting legitimacy to the regime).

You wonder how the Obami, such smart and educated folks, got so tied up in knots. Well, it seems like they had not a clue about whom they were dealing when they headed down the regime road. The New York Times tells us:

Ray Takeyh, a former Iran adviser to the Obama administration, said administration officials were learning from experience.

“There was a thesis a year ago that the differences between the United States and Iran was subject to diplomatic mediation, that they could find areas of common experience, that we were ready to have a dialogue with each other,” Mr. Takeyh said, but “those anticipations discounted the extent how the Iranian theocracy views engagement with the United States as a threat to its ideological identity.”

Even the Gray Lady can figure it out: “And if Mrs. Clinton is correct that the Revolutionary Guards, not the politicians or the clerics, are becoming the central power in Iran, the prospects for rapprochement can only look worse. Not that Iran’s political and religious leaders, so far, have demonstrated much interest in Mr. Obama’s outreach.”

There is only one reasonable and viable path out of this: regime change. Not mullah boosterism. Not pin-prick sanctions to get the mullahs back to dickering with us in Vienna. There are Iranians dying in the street to displace the regime — mullahs, IRGC, the whole gaggle of thugs — and that is the horse we should be betting on.

Hillary Clinton is now decrying the emergence in Iran of a military dictatorship. She declares:

“We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the Parliament is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. … I think the trend with this greater and greater military lock on leadership decisions should be disturbing to Iranians, as well as to those of us on the outside,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters as she flew from Qatar to Saudi Arabia.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, Clinton appears to root for the mullahs. Why in the world are we seemingly bemoaning the plight of the Supreme Leader? Could we perhaps take the side of real regime change and root for the democracy protestors? Too much to expect, I think. Even the New York Times notices the cul-de-sac in which this sort of argument puts Clinton: “But in prodding the clerics and politicians to take action, Mrs. Clinton found herself in the awkward position of celebrating the early days of the Islamic Revolution. Iran today, she said, is ‘a far cry from the Islamic republic that had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle.'” So the current regime isn’t as swell as the old regime, but we’re rooting for ‘em anyway. And this is what passes for smart diplomacy.

But there is another problem here. If the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is infesting and manipulating the regime, and if its reach extends to the political apparatus, how are itty-bitty, narrowly focused sanctions going to work? Amir Taheri observes that the IRGC essentially turned “Tehran into a sealed citadel with checkpoints at all points of entry” in response to the Feb. 11 protests. He observes of the IRGC:

Their leaders are more strident than many of the regime’s leaders, vetoing countless attempts by mullahs and politicians to reach a compromise with the portion of the opposition still calling for reform rather than regime change. Revolutionary Guard generals frequently appear on television to call for mass arrests and show trials. A weak and indecisive caliph, Mr. Khamenei has so far refused to endorse the kind of “final solution” the generals demand.

Abroad, the Revolutionary Guard pursues an aggressive policy aimed at “filling the vacuum” the generals hope will be created when the U.S. disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan by funding terrorist groups and their political front organizations. The IRGC has reportedly created a special desk to monitor the coming parliamentary elections in Baghdad and Kabul with the aim of helping pro-Tehran elements win power.

Hmm. But the Obami are going to come up with very narrowly framed sanctions, they keep telling us. This is to avoid impacting the rest of the government and to keep the Iranian population at large – the same population that has already pretty much figured out who the bad guys are – from becoming upset with the U.S. (although they are actually already upset with the U.S. for granting legitimacy to the regime).

You wonder how the Obami, such smart and educated folks, got so tied up in knots. Well, it seems like they had not a clue about whom they were dealing when they headed down the regime road. The New York Times tells us:

Ray Takeyh, a former Iran adviser to the Obama administration, said administration officials were learning from experience.

“There was a thesis a year ago that the differences between the United States and Iran was subject to diplomatic mediation, that they could find areas of common experience, that we were ready to have a dialogue with each other,” Mr. Takeyh said, but “those anticipations discounted the extent how the Iranian theocracy views engagement with the United States as a threat to its ideological identity.”

Even the Gray Lady can figure it out: “And if Mrs. Clinton is correct that the Revolutionary Guards, not the politicians or the clerics, are becoming the central power in Iran, the prospects for rapprochement can only look worse. Not that Iran’s political and religious leaders, so far, have demonstrated much interest in Mr. Obama’s outreach.”

There is only one reasonable and viable path out of this: regime change. Not mullah boosterism. Not pin-prick sanctions to get the mullahs back to dickering with us in Vienna. There are Iranians dying in the street to displace the regime — mullahs, IRGC, the whole gaggle of thugs — and that is the horse we should be betting on.

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Our Fallible CIA

I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

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I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

It’s no wonder the agency was so deceived. The CIA had depended for its knowledge of Iran on the Shah’s intelligence service, and when the Shah was overthrown, America’s intelligence agencies were left dumb and blind.

Unfortunately, there is good cause to suspect that conditions have not improved substantially in the past 28 years. The CIA has never had much luck operating in countries where there is not even an American embassy, and it would be remarkable if Iran today were an exception.

In fact, the Robb-Silberman Commission’s 2005 report strongly suggested—with details omitted in its unclassified version—that the American intelligence community has scant knowledge of what’s happening behind the scenes in either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs:

We found an intelligence community that has had some significant successes, but that is, on balance, badly equipped and badly organized to confront today’s threats. We found human intelligence collectors who have struggled in vain to find sources with valuable information—and often failed to vet properly the sources they did find. We found technical intelligence collectors whose traditional techniques have declining utility against threats that are increasingly elusive and diffuse. And we found an analytical community too quick to rely upon assumptions or conjecture, and too slow to communicate gaps and uncertainties to policymakers.

But above all, we found an intelligence community that was too disorganized and fragmented to use its many talented people and sophisticated tools effectively.

Keep the above in mind if you happen to read David Samuels’s cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic. Called “Grand Illusions,” it is a veeeery long account of the author’s travels and interviews with Condi Rice during her Middle Eastern diplomatic efforts. Amid the stultifying litany of meetings and press conferences, Samuels nonchalantly passes along a rather startling claim. A claim, in fact, that suggests the CIA is having a lot more behind-the-scenes success in Iran than anyone suspects.

Citing “[s]ources in the United States and the Middle East familiar with the covert side of the American-led effort to push back Iran,” Samuels claims that American agents are responsible for a series of recent events in Iran:

a bomb in Zahedan, the economic center of the province of Baluchistan, that killed 11 soldiers in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on February 14; the mysterious death of the Iranian scientist Ardashir Hosseinpour, who worked on uranium enrichment at the Isfahan nuclear facility; and the defection of a high ranking Iranian general named Ali Asgari.

If true, this would be good news, indicating that the CIA is conducting an effective covert action against the Iranian regime currently making war on us in Iraq and other places. But a healthy measure of skepticism is warranted. I asked a friend, a former CIA clandestine-service officer, about the veracity of Samuels’s reporting. His response: “It’s all crap. The Atlantic should not have put that in. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The Atlantic should not descend to the level of the New Yorker.”

Of course my friend’s dismissal of these allegations will not convince hardcore conspiracy theorists. They will think that his words are part of an elaborate disinformation campaign. There is, apparently, no shortage of people, especially abroad, who watch movies like Spy Game (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002) and think that they provide an accurate picture of CIA capabilities—that with a few words the CIA director can launch a commando mission to free a spy from a Chinese prison or send hit teams to Europe to hunt down a renegade agent. While Hollywood often depicts the CIA and other intelligence agencies such as the NSA (Enemy of the State, 1998) as malevolent entities, it inevitably presents them as nearly omnipotent.

Too bad the real world doesn’t bear much resemblance to the reel world. In fact, the upcoming film based on the classic TV series Get Smart might provide a more accurate picture of our intelligence capabilities.

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