IRAN AS COMPETITOR: Measured, Violent, Relentless


by Christopher C. Harmon

Bren Chair for Great Powers Competition

6 May 2019


In April the United States government imposed new sanctions on a large, well-functioning segment of state power and governance of Iran: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  Iran is of course a long-time rival power to the United States in the Middle East, and it is a terrorism sponsor—the worst in the world, according to our State Department.  So this intensified focus on the Guards Corps is due to its roles in illegal violence abroad.  But this is also the latest chapter in a lengthy, difficult testament of troubles between the two states.  

Tension has been the lead characteristic of our state-to-state relations for decades.  Washington finds it difficult to imagine a fresh start.  After all, it was only in 2011 that a plot by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps aimed to blow up the Saudi Ambassador and his security detail in Washington, at a Georgetown restaurant. And as recently as 2018, new Iranian terror plots affected the sovereignty and security of half a dozen of our allied countries in Europe.  Having already identified Iran as a “rogue regime” in policy documents the U.S. administration has chosen the strategy of enhancing pressure on Iran economically.

Given many existing American sanctions, are new measures required?  What  will be added, against Iranian interests, by restrictions on its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps imposed April 15th?  Can economic restraints—naturally much resented by Iranians and even by some of our allies—alter Tehran’s willingness to export Shia revolutionary violence or deter their assassination campaigns in Europe and Asia?

To answer such questions it helps to reconsider five aspects of U.S. – Iranian relations.  Notably, these lie outside the equally-important matter of nuclear proliferation and that abortive multilateral pact renounced by the Trump Administration.  What emerges from our present review is that low-intensity conflict, even more than nuclear issues, is the deepest pattern in these bilateral relations.  Here we briefly consider: (1) older attacks that defined this zealous Iranian regime; (2) recent attacks that reveal an unchanged regime character; (3) the remarkable range of Iranian violence far outside-of-area; (4) the Revolutionary Guard, its purposes and its roles; and (5) the particulars of the newest US. economic sanctions on that particular military and security force.

First  were the early and defining moments of violence.  U.S. support for the Shah was extensive, and so it is natural that some Iranians’ anger at America would be deep.  But the revolutionary regime of 1979 might have re-started our bilateral relations in some way other than allowing the sacking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and its prolonged occupation.  That outrage against the Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 could have been prevented or ended; the Shah had long since left the country; yet month after month during 1980 the new government of Ayatollah Khomeini sat by.  Only the clear signaling of American willingness to use force brought our diplomats home. 

Then, three important buildings in Beirut were shattered by massive bombs during 1983: a U.S. embassy, and the French and American barracks for troops trying to keep the peace in Lebanon.  Outside military forces are rarely popular, but these in Lebanon imagined themselves to be helping out, with United Nations support.  France suffered her worst losses of life on any given day since 1954 when hit by a vehicle bomb, and the loss to the US Marine Corps is infamous. Both states traced the operation to Hezbollah men trained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley—the (Iranian) Guards having moved there in strength during early years of the Iran-Iraq war.  France retaliated by airstrikes against the barracks there of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  That was the only real rejoinder made against this Iranian deployments outside Iranian borders.  And, strangely, over the next decades the world community would all but ignore the Syrian and Iranian forces entrenched in Lebanon; no one seemed to call that “imperialism” or “neocolonialism.”    

It was other Iranian tactics— out-of-area assassinations—that linked the regime’s practices of the latter 1980s to those of the 1990s and beyond.  In a distinctive pattern of international terror, many Iranian dissidents or exiles paid for their opinions with their lives.  The sovereignties of France and Germany were among those damaged by the punitive teams sent by Tehran.  For example, German investigations and a telephone intercept make it evident that the attack on Kurds in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992 was set in motion by Iran, done with weapons from Iran, by Hezbollah members including a former Revy Guardsman and one Lebanese trained by the Guards near Rasht in Iran.  We consider that today we are shocked by seeing just one such assassination of an unarmed political opposition figure: the recent murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.  But this pattern of Iranian executions and plots against its critics and emigres has run indefinitely.  In 1996 and 1997 alone, a mere two year period, some 20 Iranian dissidents were murdered in various countries.  To totalitarians, any critic is a lethal enemy.  

1996 brought another massive bombing that reminded Americans of how serious about low-intensity warfare Iranians are.  In Dhahran, eastern Saudi Arabia, where American Air Force personnel were lodged in Khobar Towers, 19 died and many were injured in a massive truck bombing.  National Security Council experts later wrote: “High-level Iranians were involved and…some of the Saudi perpetrators were thought to be living in Tehran.”  The FBI director of the time, Louis Freeh, gave several years to that investigation and concluded it was Iranian-planned.  His memoirs say Iran’s President Rafsanjani all but admitted as much.  Freeh says one of the drivers on the scene had been recruited into the Saudi Hizballah cell by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  He determined that the Guards (IRGC) and Iranian intelligence service (MOIS) “had both been in on the planning and execution.”  This was one of many occasions where Iranian animosity towards the Saudis showed as strongly as did their anti-Americanism.    

The second dimension of our investigation takes us further down the path, into recent attacks, which seem to fully confirm the character of the Iranian regime. 

Iranian hands are manifest in many lethal cases in Iraq, during the war there to defend an elected Iraqi regime against Iraqi and foreign insurgents.  In one 2007 highly-sophisticated attack at a U.S. training facility in Karbala, south of Baghdad, the reconnaissance was done by the Qods Force, which is the external arm of the Revolutionary Guards.  The direction of the Iraqi Shia gunmen came from the deputy commander of the Quds Force of the Revy Guard, Abdul Reza Shahlai.  The mission leader, on scene, whose fingerprints were found on the wheel of the getaway car, was Azhar al Dulaymi, a man trained in kidnapping missions near Qom, Iran, and a Hezbollah member. Then, as if to remove any doubt, our reconnaissance photographed a mock-up of the targeted Karbala building at a training ground: Iran had built a facsimile of the Iraqi building, as a prop for rehearsals, apparently.   

Many deaths of coalition members in Iraq were due to Iranian-made Explosively-Formed Penetrators, an advanced form of munition (EFPs).  Defense Department briefings and other sources, including British, make clear the Iranian fingerprints on these weapons.

Overseas, Iran continued to pressure the Saudis, an important state competitor to Iran.   A Saudi consul in Karachi Pakistan was shot to death in May of 2011 by men on motorcycles from Quds Force of the Guard, operating at great distance from home in Iran.  The same year brought that astonishing plot intended to end with the bombing of a Georgetown restaurant favored by the Saudi Ambassador to Washington.  Successive steps in the conspiracy were soon detailed in open court, and recorded by historian David Crist, an expert on patterns of Iranian–US hostilities. Large sums of money were transferred.  One of the worst of the Mexican drug cartels, Los Zetas, had been contacted for firepower.  Iranian participants were taped discussing the collateral damage of a bomb and agreeing it would be acceptable.  The main perpetrator, Iranian-American Mansour J. Arbabsiar, is now serving a 25-year sentence here in the U.S.     

The third factor to consider is how far Iranian-directed violence has spread beyond Iran’s region.  Some tend to think that extends mainly to Lebanon, as indeed it has for three and a half decades.  Iran is truly a global problem, whose rogue behaviors affect the nearly-two hundred other states of the world.  The U.S. administration has pressed hard—including via pointed remarks from Vice President Mike Pence in Warsaw in February—to be sure other states are fully aware of how international this problem is.  

The problem is so old that there can be little room to miss it.  A declassified 1985 report, which can be found in the George H. W. Bush library, covered aspects of international terrorism as seen by our Central Intelligence Agency.  It faced the pattern of international terrorism and speculated that so-called pragmatists in the Iranian regime did condone it, to be sure, but would usually prefer to export their religio-political revolution via subversion and propaganda.  These named “pragmatists” included then-Assembly Speaker Rafsanjani, later Iranian president.  Having briefly considered pragmatists, the CIA report pointed to religious zealots dominating most regime posts and noted their interest in exporting terrorism was evident.  The 1985 estimate anticipated the further export of terrorism—especially via the Revolutionary Guards.

What we learn from recent sources, including Asian, Latin American, intelligence results released by U.S. Treasury and State and Defense departments, and that most-impressive investigator Matthew Levitt of the Washington Center for Near East Policy, is that Iran’s terror program touches countries all over the world. 

One repeat-target category is a large organization of secular opponents of religious tyranny in Tehran.  The People’s Mujihideen e Khalq, “MEK,” has extensive European infrastructure.  An April 1990 murder plot was one of those aimed at MEK – this time in Switzerland.  Authorities there found that the killing team had used 13 official Iranian passports, issued on the same day in Tehran, and that all the men had arrived in Switzerland on Iran Air.  However, by 2012, MEK had convincingly forsworn violence in favor of pacific politics. Yet this policy change has not abated certain atavistic impulses of the rulers in Iran.  Last summer, Western Europe was treated to a new plot in which diplomats of Iran and the intelligence service teamed up to kill MEK dissidents in Paris.  One of conspirators, Assadollah Assadi was under diplomatic cover, German prosecutors determined; he is an officer of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, charged with the “combatting of opposition groups inside and outside Iran.”  In 2019 and 2020 I judge that we can expect more attacks in Albania, because MEK has opened a new establishment there.

Israel is another prominent Iranian target.  Tehran’s adhesion to war plans instead of respect for the law of nations shows in how often it has plotted against embassies of Israel, and other countries.  South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, and Albania have successfully blocked Iranian attacks via good police work, or seen the plots end with Iranian agents’ errors. But we know from the high death tallies of Argentine Jews and others in Buenos Ares in 1992 and 1994 that some Iranian plots succeed.  In many, but not all such cases, Iranian actors in these overseas dramas are members of the intelligence service MOIS, or the external military “Quds Force” that is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  

Given how important the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is proven to be overseas, and in international terrorism, it may be time to add to what we now of its character and purpose: the fourth part of our essay. 

From the beginning, 1979/1980, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps have flourished. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989) knew he was coming to power in the face of numerous indigenous enemies, and that much of the opposition to the Shah among Iranians had been Leftist, or Communist, not religious.  The Guard was meant to be a praetorian guard, formed to defend the new regime, and it has done so surprisingly well.  If the mission was initially internally-focused, it quickly grew to external operations.  This was doubtless justified to the IRGC itself as obvious: ‘if the enemies are overseas, we must get at them overseas.’  The Ayatollah himself prepared his take-over of Iran in the late 1970s from a base in Paris, and it is in such free countries of Europe that some of the louder critics of the ayatollahs live.  Regime men have no trouble connecting such dissidence to an imminent threat, even where it is only imagined.    

In the early 1980s, according to CIA career man Robert Baer, a few analysts understood well that hostage-taking in Lebanon was being run by Iran’s IRGC, under cover names.  Eight years after the Revolution, a US Interagency Intelligence Assessment had plenty on which to profile “Iran’s Use of Terrorism” for state purposes.  Now declassified, this report identified a department within Iran’s Foreign Ministry as “a primary operations center for coordination with Iranian intelligence terrorist officers abroad and (it) is often used to instruct intelligence officers about terrorist operations.”  That is, “MOIS” is vital to the enterprise.  The report continued: “The Revolutionary Guard, which is the principal agent of Iranian terrorism in Lebanon, uses its own resources, as well as diplomatic and intelligence organizations to support, sponsor, and conduct terrorist actions.” In short, the Guards are not the only arm of Iranian violent actions during peacetime, but they have a pronounced role in much of it. 

Today the Guard has ground, aerospace, and naval units, including commandos, and the Quds force specialists in operations outside the country.  There are missile forces, cyberwar experts, and many other assets.  According to an authoritative book for Oxford by Afshon Ostovar, there may be about 125,000 regular troops and officers in IRGC but such numbers do not begin to tell of the Guards’ true reach in Iran.  There is for example the volunteer militia, the Basij, who literally number in the millions across the country.  They fall under IRGC authority.  Some are organized for war, while other units specialize in domestic security operations including stopping demonstrations against governing clerics, (whose rampant personal wealth is infuriating to citizens). Then there is the matter of prestige—and for the Guards it is enormous.  One indicator: year after year, almost all top political leaders in Iran or emerging therein have a background as officers in the Guards.

The out-of-area specialists of IRGC are the Quds Force.  That name refers to Jerusalem—a central foreign objective--but the organization’s range is world-wide.  Several of the operations already mentioned have clear Quds Force links, and there are more.  One former leader of Guards, Mohsen Chizari, was captured in Iraq in 2006 where he was helping the insurgency.  Two years before, a Quds Force Brigadier General was captured while driving a truck full of suicide bombing equipment across the border into Iraq.  Repeatedly, Iran has posted Quds Force officers to Baghdad as their “ambassador” of state.  Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani was in effect a policy maker during the height of insurgency in Iraq.  Today he is wildly popular inside Iran as a hero of anti-American martial operations.  Interviewed at the Marine Corps University’s Middle East Studies Center, my colleagues Amin Tarzi and Adam Seitz say Iranians talk of Suleimani with such respect that he might become President, save for an absence of clerical qualifications, and the real possibility that Suleimani might prefer to remain a king-maker instead of becoming the king.    

One feature of the IRGC’s overseas powers is its direct hand inside Hezbollah, the so-called “Party of God” that has long been known for low-level violence, overt war with Israel, and power-plays within Lebanon and its parliament.  Hezbollah is expert at all of it.  And the IRGC is a generous help-mate.  IRGC’s logo has an up-thrust AK automatic rifle and a book, presumably the Koran, because the words printed within the green and red and white logo are the start to a Sura that is famous among Muslim terrorists, Sura Al Anfal: “And make ready for them whatever force you can.”  We see those words at an angle in the upper half; in the Koran itself the passage continues “and terrorize the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others beside them…”  Hezbollah, which openly attributes its origins to Iranian inspiration and efforts, has a somewhat similar logo, but different colors: yellow and green.

Hezbollah took shape by 1983 and from its beginning had a direct role in anti-Western bombings and hostage-taking in Beirut.  It’s links to Iran are often detailed in the annual Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism.  The linkages are financial, and operational, and they feature much training:  Hezbollah trains in Iran, as at Quds Force bases; Hezbollah has brought Iraqi Shia to Lebanon to train in recent years. Such patterns echo the combinations of Iranian advisors and Lebanese trainees known in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon in the early 1980s. 

Overseas, Hezbollah operations are themselves now infamous. The challenge for scholars such as Mathew Levitt is not so much deciding if Hezbollah is making money way out of area, or killing way out of area; it is to what degree a given violent act manifests the hand of Guards versus the Iranian intelligence service MOIS versus Hezbollah. The ratios in that troika seem to vary, incident by incident. The partnerships are fully evident, based on the reports of foreign prosecutors, and other sources.

Fifth, we turn to the newest American sanctions and sketch answers to some of the questions in the news of April and May.  Skeptics are asking “what is new,” and “why would new sanctions do more than all the others?”  They do. 

Economic sanctions are an alternative to war.  They work much more slowly than military force, but are far more in the interests of the average Iranian subject than would be war.  Sanctions only work if well-enforced by the full range of those interacting with the target, but they can indeed work: consider how world efforts to dampen South African regime’s power helped yield dramatic change of governance in 1994.  But if the world community keeps dealing with Iran, and if some Europeans continue to buy Iranian oil even when world market prices are reasonably low, no sanctions will be telling; the target can play one country off against others, and all the international effort is wasted.   

Some forms of economic sanctions were imposed on Iran after 1979, many renewable and a few suspended.  A round of sanctions imposed in November has already coast Iran ten billion dollars in oil revenue, according to Brian Hook of the Dept. of State.  Individuals of Iran have been sanctioned; America can do that, just as the United Nations can, and does, in terrorism cases.  Various persons leading IRGC and Quds Forces have been so sanctioned; it affects their travel, official meetings, and ability to move the masses of money the Guards control.  It is especially important that, by virtue of some U.S. laws, “secondary sanctions” also bite any foreign parties independently doing business with the original Iranian targets.  That is, when Iran’s Central Bank governor was designated a terrorist supporter by the U.S. Treasury in May of 2018, it meant that Veifollah Seif was not just barred from American dealings.  The man’s non-American business partners can also be sanctioned by the U.S. quite independently if those foreigners continue dealing with Governor Seif. 

Recall that in our campaign to isolate the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime, we did not just end American trade of most kinds with Nicaragua, we imposed secondary sanctions that quickly hurt Canada’s trade with Nicaragua.  It made some Canadians angry.  But that was the price Washington paid for a serious effort to fight the Sandinistas below the level of open war and stop their flagrant export of guerrilla war in Central America.  It was right to strongly oppose such export of violence.  Eventually, a complicated peace settlement brought an end to it. 

This year's sanctions on April 15 by our Dept. of State thus hit Quds Force and its IRGC parent both, and they hit with two forms of sanctions: direct, and secondary. Secretary Michael Pompeo said that "businesses and banks around the world now have a clear duty to ensure that companies with which they conduct financial transactions are not connected to the IRGC in any material way." His Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism, Nathan Sales, told reporters that "material support" for terrorism has landed several hundred in jails and that now, with the Guards designated as a "foreign terrorist organization", violators can be punished with up to 20 years in prison. That carries some force, even if its appropriate adjective is the banal word "economic". The Guards, intimately interlinked with the clerical regime, are part of Iranian governance; never before has the Dept. of State sanctioned a section of another nation's government.

The hard financial and physical realities of Iranian terrorism and specifically the IRGC roles in it make this new set of sanctions reasonable.  The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is at the very center of this targeted regime in Tehran.  Apart from its outsized political power, IRGC owns and operates a mass of economic interests: dams, centers of industry, banks, power companies; missile and armaments factories. If the U.S. is to press Iran economically, it must press the Guards to the maximum extent.  That means its individuals, as well as its collective functions.

Some of these IRGC economic functions , such as their money moving complexes, are of obvious and direct use in international terrorism—in which their record is long and ugly.  The IRGC’s small airline, Mahan Air, had earlier been sanctioned for funds transfers to Quds Force officers, and for moving weapons overseas, and for transporting IRGC personnel headed off to wars. Such commercial state air forces are a traditional way rogue states such as Syria have worked abroad.

Finally one must consider Iranian links to North Korea, another rogue state.  IRGC is among the entities that facilitate or manage business deals, trade, and arms work with North Koreans.  Dr. Bruce Bechtol, a former DIA officer who is now a noted Korea scholar, has uncovered innumerable ways that North Korean proliferation, exports of arms large and small, military training, and violations of related United Nations strictures, are tied to Iran--and often specifically to the IRGC.  Hamas and Hezbollah and Houthi rebels are recipients of these Iranian/North Korean arrangements and networks.

Finishing Bechtol’s 2018 book North Korean Military Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa, I had the following thought: North Korea is most characterized by its unusual, inhumane ratio as between guns and butter.  Pyongyang has little desire to make butter, perhaps because there is so little bread to butter.  But North Korea does produce, especially in: nuclear technology, missiles, small arms, and cyber war.  Half way around the world, in Tehran, all four of those categories of production are also central to daily efforts of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  For the United States, that yields one more reason to tighten sanctions on the Guards: it helps our parallel efforts to reduce the power and arrogance of the regime in North Korea. 


--Christopher C. Harmon,

Bren Chair of Great Power Competition

Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity 

Marine Corps University




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