Skip to main content

Could Revolutionary Guards sabotage Iran-U.S. thaw?

By Alex Vatanka, special to CNN
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Fri October 4, 2013
The IRGC generals lack sufficient political power to override the Supreme Leader, Alex Vatanka says.
The IRGC generals lack sufficient political power to override the Supreme Leader, Alex Vatanka says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A September 27 phone call by the U.S. and Iranian presidents was the first in 34 years
  • The head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corp called it a "tactical mistake"
  • Alex Vatanka says the IRGC generals see themselves as the epicenter of anti-Americanism
  • But Rouhani has Khamenei's backing and all the IRGC can do is act as spoiler, he says

Editor's note: Alex Vatanka is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., specializing in Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Iran. He is also a senior fellow in Middle East studies at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School and teaches at The Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management. He has lectured widely for both governmental and commercial audiences.

(CNN) -- On September 27, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani had a 15-minute phone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama. This was a historic moment, breaking a 34-year spell, and roundly applauded in Washington and Tehran. There was, however, one notable exception.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), promptly called the Obama-Rouhani phone conversation a "tactical mistake." The Iranian president, according to Jafari, should have waited to make such a call until after "America's sincerity" in negotiating with Iran "can be proven," as he put it.

Alex Vatanka
Alex Vatanka

Many in Tehran interpreted Jafari's comment -- not as goodhearted advice on foreign policy strategy -- but as a slap on the wrist on President Rouhani. Anxious supporters of Rouhani now wonder if the Revolutionary Guards will soon have an open season against the eight-week-old Rouhani administration and kill off any hope for U.S.-Iran d├ętente before it is given a proper shot. After all, the IRGC generals see themselves as the epicenter of anti-Americanism in the Islamic Republic.

Look at the Iranian political formation and you will see that when Jafari speaks it matters. He is the top general in Iran's top military-political force. He answers directly to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who appointed Jafari back in 2007. And on Jafari's watch, the Revolutionary Guards have entered the realm of politics as never before. These days the IRGC generals regularly face off all other factions in Iran's Byzantine bureaucratic setup.

Green movement

Just take developments since 2009 as an illustration. During the heyday of Iran's Green opposition movement, triggered by the disputed presidential elections in June 2009, won by the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the IRGC took the lead in cracking down on the anti-regime -- and anti-Ahmadinejad -- protesters.

In the months that followed, hundreds of protesters were arrested and scores allegedly killed in the clampdown.

Iranians want to correct misconceptions
Iranian President Rouhani on Twitter
Israeli PM speaks against Rouhani at UN
Historic U.S. phone call with Iran

The IRGC generals went out of their way to brand the leaders of the Green movement as traitors, as foreign agents and spearheads of "seditionists."

Read more: Iranian lawmakers call for execution of leaders

To the generals it mattered little that these Green leaders had at one point been pillars of the same Islamist system. Now that they were questioning the wisdom of the regime's policies they had to be punished, and harsh punishments were duly handed out. The two main Green leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of the parliament, have been under house arrest since February 2011.

But while the IRGC's brutal intervention in 2009 secured Ahmadinejad's second term as president, they soon turned on him too. As Ahmadinejad began to wander off on his own political path, the IRGC by late 2010 began to denounce him as an imposter. He was denounced as the head of the "Deviant Current," a catchall phrase that IRGC gladly now applied to the supporters of the same Ahmadinejad they had gone out of their way to keep in the presidential palace.

Ahmadinjead hit back and famously labeled the top IRGC generals as his "smuggler brothers," a jab at the illicit economic activities of the IRGC cartel, and ask them to stay out of politics.

But the already unpopular and now weakened Ahmadinejad could not outshine the senior men from the Revolutionary Guards. Not while they still had Khamenei's blessing. On August 3, Ahmadinejad left the presidential palace but the IRGC generals are still looming large.

'Heroic flexibility'

But not even Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's utmost power, is immune to IRGC's predatory ways. On September 17, Khamenei told a group of IRGC commanders that he is not against "heroic flexibility" when confronted by adversaries.

Everyone understood this phrase to mean that Tehran should now be open to serious negotiations over its nuclear program. Rouhani shortly after flew to New York, emboldened that he had Khamenei's full backing to open a new round of talks with the Americans and the other nations in the P5+1 group.

But not everyone in Tehran was on message. Two days before Rouhani's much-anticipated U.N. speech, an IRGC general sought to throw some cold water on the buzz around Rouhani and his mission of seeking d├ętente with the United States.

In a statement that seemed to question Khamenei's directive from a week earlier, the general said Iran "will not make any heroic exercise in regards to [its] nuclear rights." The man behind those words is General Hossein Salami, the second-in-command in the IRGC.

Open Mic: Tehran
Rouhani's landmark week
Iranians praise contact with U.S.
Roundtable: Rouhani has the muscle

Salami and his boss Jafari and the other IRGC generals know better than openly defy the wishes of Khamenei. This is why they go about it cautiously. They do not explicitly condemn Rouhani for talking to Obama, but call it a "tactical mistake." They don't say Ayatollah Khamenei's idea of "heroic exercise" is a bad one, but say it cannot apply to the one topic that matters, Iran's nuclear program.

If Khamenei wants to instil "heroic flexibility" in Iranian diplomacy, simply because the sanctions are bleeding Iran and his regime to death and he needs a way out -- then the IRGC generals do not have it in them to shoot down the trial balloons that he has launched. The IRGC generals are politically not that powerful that they can override the Supreme Leader.

But it is very obvious that the IRGC generals do not like any thawing in Iran's strained relations with the United States. They are principal stakeholders in the Iranian regime and fearful they will lose out if the status quo is somehow transformed.

The question is whether the generals will sit fuming at the sidelines and limit themselves to critiquing attempts to overhaul Iran's foreign policy or actively look for ways to sabotage it.

Supporters of Rouhani and his foreign policy agenda suspect sabotage and even violence. As Rouhani returned from New York, his motorcade came under attack by hardliners just as he was leaving Mehr Abad Airport in Tehran. This could be a harbinger of more to come.

Read more: Shoe thrown at Rouhani -- report

This week former President Mohammad Khatami warned about the return of "terror" of the 1990s when reformist candidates were frequently hounded and sometimes assassinated. "These are not random but organized operations, he warned. There is no doubt that he had the IRGC generals in mind too when he said that.

Sanctions

In the fast unfolding saga of U.S.-Iran relations, the IRGC generals can be expected to play the role of a spoiler for some time to come. This reality no doubt disheartens the supporters of Rouhani. But the IRGC generals are just that, namely spoilers. They have not presented a single credible blueprint for Iran's to come out of international isolation and ways to stop the plummeting economic conditions. They have put on the old mantle of the armed defender of Iranian nation but no foreign armies are lining up to invade.

The IRGC generals still look for legitimacy by pointing back at the role they played in defending Iran against Saddam Hussein's invading army during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. But Iran's conflict today is not comparable to the circumstances of the Iran-Iraq War.

Iran is bleeding today because there is a global economic sanction regime against it, backed by a strong international consensus.

Ayatollah Khamenei, certainly never a fan of the West or the United States, grasps the difference. That is why he conceded to the need for "heroic flexibility" and looking for ways to break the stalemate.

That is why Rouhani says he has the Supreme Leader's full backing to negotiate with the world. And unless the IRGC generals can come up with an alternative narrative for the way forward for Iran, then all they can do is sabotage Rouhani's efforts and hope that they can get away with it.

Read more: Why Rouhani needs Obama's help

Read more: Be cautious with new, smiley-face Iran

Read more: Can Rouhani or Obama deliver on any deal?

Read more: Amanpour -- why Rouhani may be different

Read more: One day, there might be a U.S.-Iran handshake

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Vatanka.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT