Supporters of the landmark nuclear deal signed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 powers continue to laud its achievements, emphasizing the important role diplomacy and negotiations can play to help better integrate Iran into the international community. Will the nuclear deal empower the pragmatic bloc domestically by opening Iran up to the global economy or embolden conservative factions dedicated to maintaining its power base and pursuing hegemonic regional ambitions? While analysts continue to debate the long-term implications of the nuclear agreement on Iran’s multi-faceted decision-making apparatus, recent developments suggest that the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are increasingly confident, cracking down on dissent at home and intensifying military endeavours abroad.
Keeping Tehran’s House in Order
Since the nuclear deal was signed, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been regularly accusing Western powers of trying to “spread their influence” in Iran. Recently, five journalists and activists have been arrested – a move justified by an IRGC official on state television for curbing alleged Western intelligence infiltration in the country. Moreover, an Iranian-American businessman and a Lebanese IT expert with U.S. permanent residency have been recently arrested in Tehran.
In a live broadcast, President Hassan Rouhani – regarded as a representative of the Iranian moderate camp – accused some Iranian media outlets of serving as “undercover police” that are directly tied to security forces tasked with conducting the detentions. Powerful Iranian institutions, including the IRGC, seek to undermine the nuclear agreement – contributing to a growing public rift between the pragmatic and conservative camps – despite Rouhani’s legitimate plea for hardliners to cease subversive endeavours.
During a September 15 address to the IRGC’s senior leadership, President Rouhani hinted that sanctions relief would allow significant funds to support the IRGC’s stranglehold on its extensive business empire – including vast construction contracts, oil and gas facilities, and the airlines. However, this proposed accommodation mirrors Akber Rafsanjani’s futile effort – during his 1989-97 presidential term – to secure IRGC commitments to refrain from domestic political matters in return for taking over major reconstruction projects following the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
Based on this precedent, there is no evidence to suggest increasing IRGC funds will diminish its opposition to the nuclear agreement and will likely strengthen its ability to attain more business clients and political control. Regardless of whether Rouhani’s economic bargain pans out, anticipation of financial sanctions relief is contributing to an IRGC with heightened conviction, particularly with respect to military objectives throughout the Middle East.
Battle for the Shi’ite Crescent
Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Iran has actively engaged in propping up Bashar al-Assad – mainly through Hezbollah – viewing the Assad regime as a significant component of the Islamic Republic’s regional expansion. Before September 2015, Iran’s direct involvement in Syria resembled similar interventions in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen – relying on militant proxies, Iranian advisors, and weapons transfers.
However, in recent months, Iran significantly enhanced its military presence to bolster Syrian regime strongholds in the northwestern areas of the country, increasing the number of IRGC and affiliated Shi’ite militia troops from several hundred to several thousand. In early October 2015, the commander of IRGC’s elite Quds Force – Qassem Soleimani – arrived in northwestern Syria and personally directed the military offensive against rebels with Russian air support. Soleimani has been documented briefing Hezbollah militants – who have significantly expanded their operations in the civil war – and his presence suggests that critical Iranian assets are being diverted from the Iraqi theatre to Syria.
Preserving the Assad regime remains Iran’s utmost priority; however, Iran is also increasing its presence in the Golan Heights to consolidate a base of operations to target Israel. By working with Hezbollah, Druze operatives, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) militants, the Islamic Republic is overseeing the coordination of vast militant networks intended to combat the Jewish state.
Iran’s footprint in the Golan came to the fore in August 2015 when a senior IRGC commander reportedly directed the PIJ to fire four rockets that hit Israel – the first rocket barrage from the Golan Heights striking the Galilee since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. In January 2015, Israel allegedly targeted a convoy of Hezbollah and Iranian operatives in the northern Golan, killing a senior IRGC commander and Jihad Mugniyeh – head of Hezbollah’s operations in Syria/Iraq.
Whereas the vast majority of Israeli strikes on Syrian territory focus on sophisticated – “game-changing” – weapons transfers to Hezbollah, striking such a high-profile group signalled Israel’s concerns of direct Iranian entrenchment on its strategic northeastern border. While Russian intervention provides an important opportunity for coordinating Iranian escalations, diminished international attention on the nuclear file and anticipation of released finances contribute to the Islamic Republic’s augmented regional presence.
Despite Iran’s reinvigorated posture, major obstacles are challenging the generally cohesive nature of its military apparatus. In the past several weeks, roughly 30 IRGC personnel have been killed, including high-ranking generals. Furthermore, the rising death toll among Quds Force members has forced its leadership to recruit among high-ranking officers for combat in Syria, facilitating internal discord and deteriorating morale among the ranks. Several senior commanders – along with junior officers – have reportedly refused to obey orders to fight in Syria amid rising IRGC casualties. Defiant military personnel have been referred to a court-marshal, facing charges of “mutiny and treason” amid unprecedented levels of insubordination facing the IRGC.
Western leaders that view Iran’s regional activities as a source of instability should play closer attention to rising tensions within the IRGC and consult strategies to exploit this rift in the event that Iranian-Russian-Hezbollah cooperation evolves into a more threatening alliance.
Iran preserves oversight over the most powerful Shi’a militias operating in Iraq, maintaining a strong presence in the country while effectively containing the Islamic State’s expansion. Similarly, Iran continues to support its Houthi clients in Yemen who seized control of the capital Sana’a in September 2014. Yet Iraq remains divided along sectarian and regional cleavages, while the Houthis in Yemen suffer military setbacks, failing to conquer Aden City. The Islamic Republic is facing severe limitations in achieving ultimate objectives concerning full domination and the establishment of pro-Iranian client states.
However its modus operandi continues to abide by the process of supporting proxy militias for the purposes of advancing Iranian interests in multiple countries throughout the region, maintaining fragmentation and ongoing conflict in each theatre of operations. While it may be too early to identify the nuclear deal’s long-term impacts on Iranian behaviour, recent developments indicate that in the short to intermediate-run, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will behave in an increasingly assertive manner with respect to both domestic and regional affairs.
The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
Michael Shkolnik is the Cadieux-Léger Fellow at the Department of Global Affairs Canada and is a Ph.D. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Shkolnik’s doctoral research focuses on the conditions that enable low-level terrorist groups to evolve into full-fledged insurgencies. Shkolnik also serves as research coordinator for the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies (CCISS) and has worked with international security and counterterrorism institutes in Washington, D.C., Ottawa, and Israel.
Featured Photo Courtesy Casey Hugelfink.