Political scientists who write about terrorism often discuss “spoilers,” those more radical personalities and outliers who seek to undercut any rapprochement by means of new attacks against the backdrop of diplomacy.
This was certainly the case with the Irish Republic Army and its talks with Great Britain, and it has also been true with regard to periods of rapprochement between the United States and Iran. In 1998, for example, vigilantes affiliated with the Iranian security forces attacked a busload of American businessmen in Tehran to study new opportunities given then-President Mohammad Khatami’s flirtation with change.
Let’s put aside the possibility that the Iranian government is simply playing good-cop, bad-cop in order to maximize the incentives it desires. Who wouldn’t want a loosening of sanctions when the economy has shrank 5.4 percent over the past year? And, instead, give Rouhani benefit of the doubt for a second. Even if he is sincere—and I see no reason to believe that is the case—then he still must overcome the overriding influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in which, unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has not served.
In an interview today, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, had made clear that the IRGC opposes any rapprochement with the United States. According to the Fars News Agency (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center):
Major General Mohammad Ali Ja’fari, the commander-in-chief of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), has criticized the efforts of President Hasan Ruhani’s government to improve ties with the United States, calling them a “big mistake.” “Creating such moods is contrary to the words of the late imam [Ruhollah Khomeyni, the founder of the Islamic Republic] and the supreme leader [Ali Khamene’i] and is a big mistake,” Fars quoted him as telling Guards troops in North Khorasan Province. “The imam never said such a thing and never had a compromising stance toward America,” he added. Ja’fari said that certain people had misinterpreted and “misused” the leader’s remark on the importance of “heroic flexibility” in dealing with adversaries. These people wrongly think that “restoring relations with America will eliminate problems and sanctions,” he said. The IRGC commander said that “the people, the Guards Corps, and the Basij are vigilant and follow the path of the Islamic system.”
Let us hope that the United States will remain at least as vigilant as the IRGC, because the IRGC has the means and the will to test the United States Navy and challenge U.S. facilities and interests in the region. And, unlike the Iranian challenge posed to the Clinton administration in 1996 at Khobar Towers, let us hope that the United States will not let Iran’s good cop, bad cop strategy absolve the regime of accountability for its actions. It may seem ironic given Rouhani’s charm offensive, but Jafari’s posture suggests that the situation in the region is now far more dangerous than it was before Rouhani’s inauguration.