The recent move by the U.S. government to designate Iran’s most powerful military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as a terrorist organization reflects a tougher U.S. stance towards Tehran in response to its controversial nuclear program and military reach in the Middle East. Though largely aimed at weakening the IRGC’s global business operations and financial network, the new sanctions are the most aggressive form of U.S. policy in confronting Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, where U.S. military officials accuse the Guard of supplying weapons and military expertise to Shiite militias (AP, September 24). With the IRGC as the first national military organization sanctioned by the United States, Washington and Tehran have now moved another step closer to a possible military showdown.
In light of the unfolding crisis, it remains unclear what could happen in a military conflict between Iran and the United States. A basic scenario involves a comprehensive U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, naval forces, information and technology support system (especially those linked to nuclear sites in Bushehr, Isfahan and Tehran) and finally the bombing of IRGC ground force units stationed near the strategic cities of Abadan, Ahvaz, Chah Bahar, Dezful, Hamadan, Khoramshahr and Mashahd. The United States, possibly with the help of Israel, could help stave off Iranian retaliation by destroying Iran’s command air base where Iranian fighter jets are kept on daily readiness against potential attacks by American forces.
Assuredly, these military operations will be followed by a severe Iranian retaliation. In the words of the Guard’s commander, General Muhammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC will unleash its most sophisticated conventional armed forces against the U.S. military in the event of any attack on Iranian soil (Fars News, November 1). To what degree the Guard will use unconventional means of response remains unclear. So far, most of the discussion in academic and policy circles has focused on the Guard’s connection with various Iraqi Shiite militia groups, particularly the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) that originally received training and funding from the IRGC in the early 1980s. Yet such a straightforward assessment reads too much into the historical connections between the two military units and ignores the highly complex relationship between post-Baathist Shiite militias and IRGC forces.
Shiite Militias and Sunni Insurgents
A common perception in the intelligence community is that the IRGC and its intelligence operations branch, the Qods Brigade, have their greatest influence with Shiite militant organizations like the Mahdi Army (whose operations were suspended for six months in August by Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr). According to General David Petraeus, the Qods Brigade is already engaged in a proxy war with U.S. forces by providing the most radical Shiite groups ammunition and shaped explosive charges to wage guerrilla warfare in the cities of Iraq (VOA, October 23).
While conclusive evidence for Iran’s activities in Iraq has yet to be presented by the U.S. army, a direct connection between the IRGC and politically established Shiite militant groups remains somewhat unlikely. The military wings of a number of major Iraqi Shiite parties are already implanted in the country’s political establishment and these organizations will most likely avoid any risky involvement in a proxy war that would link them with a foreign army, especially one which was largely responsible for the death of many Iraqis (including Shiites) in the 1980s.
Since 2003, Shiite leaders like Abdul Aziz Hakim and Moqtada al-Sadr have been doing their best to be perceived by the Iraqi population as leaders of indigenous movements, independent from any foreign entities, especially Iran. Any direct attempt to collaborate with the Iranian government, particularly the IRGC with its infamous reputation among many Shiite and Sunni nationalists as the sworn enemy of Iraq, could jeopardize the long-standing objective of politically active Shiite groups to secure their parties’ interests in the country’s unstable democratic process.
Much of the rhetoric behind al-Sadr’s support for Iran should be viewed therefore as the tactics of political opportunism rather than an actual plan of military cooperation with Tehran. In the case of the Badr Organization, this professional militia is fully under the control of the political elites of the SIIC and integrated within the party’s political structure. The chances of the militia splintering away from the political party and collaborating with the IRGC, while at the same time continuing to seek the support of the U.S. military against potential attacks from the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgents, remains unlikely.
In Iraq’s unstable political situation, the IRGC will most likely seek the alliance of non-politically established Shiite militants, like the many splinter groups of the Mahdi Army. Many former Mahdi Army commanders are willing to strike an alliance with the Guard in their fight against U.S. domination over Shiite territories. Here ideology may play a more decisive role than mere military or political opportunism. Many high-level IRGC militants, especially veterans of the Iraq-Iran War, are admirers of the revolutionary ideology advocated by Ayatollah Sadeq al-Sadr, who is a source of authority and reverence for his followers. The ideological affinity between the IRGC and various Sadrists militants, especially those who see Moqtada al-Sadr as a traitor for joining the Iraqi political establishment under the U.S. occupation, may bring about a dangerous alliance between the two Shiite factions, despite their different agendas.
A less likely but still conceivable scenario involves the emergence of a military alliance between the IRGC and Sunni insurgent groups. Sunni insurgent groups may be a source of support for the IRGC as the Qods Brigade moves to provide advance explosive devices and intensive training for assassination and kidnappings of U.S. personnel and Iraqi collaborators. In the event of a U.S. attack on Iran, the Guard could supply arms and military technology to various non-Baathist, non-Salafist Iraqi Sunni militant groups, though such a move remains unlikely since many Sunni Iraqis are Arab nationalists unwilling to cooperate with Persian Iran.
Tactics of Retaliation
It goes without saying that in the case of a U.S. attack on Iran the Shiite population in Iraq would be largely supportive of Tehran’s retaliatory military actions. It remains unclear, however, as to the extent to which the Shiite clerical establishment would be willing to give allegiance to the Iranian leadership, who historically have rejected the Quietist ideology of the Iraqi Shiite seminary at Najaf and its conservative stance against revolutionary uprising. By holding that a cleric should advise and teach rather than rule, Quietism is at odds with the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s belief that those most knowledgeable in Islamic law should rule.
The Shiite clerical establishment of Iraq could declare its opposition to U.S. military operations, particularly if civilian casualties resulted from an attack. This would be reminiscent of the time when Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gave a stark warning to Israel during the summer war of 2006 when many Lebanese civilians (especially Shiites) were the victims of Israeli air attacks. Ayatollah Sistani could call on ordinary Shiite Iraqis to rise up against the U.S. occupation with the IRGC finding fertile new ground for recruitment in its military attacks against U.S. forces inside Iraq.
The IRGC’s most effective means of combating U.S. forces in Iraq will revolve primarily around unconventional war tactics and intelligence gathering, namely suicide terrorism and espionage intelligence through an effective system of native informants. The deadliest weapon that the IRGC can employ against U.S. forces in Iraq will be the “live bomb.” It is well-known that the IRGC originally carried suicide strategies to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon in the early 1980s; the IRGC and Hezbollah even deployed joint suicide operations against Israeli and U.S. forces.
Undoubtedly, the younger generation of the IRGC would be more willing to commit acts of suicide terrorism as a way to reenact the heroic days of the Iran-Iraq War. The older, more experienced generation of the Guard could operate in Iraq as covert military instructors to Shiite militants for suicide operations. With porous borders between the two countries, many IRGC militants trained in suicide tactics could find bases in a number of southern Iraqi cities where they could recruit volunteers for suicide missions from the younger population of Shiite Iraq, especially in places where anti-occupation sentiments run high, like Diwaniya and Sadr City.
Although most of the IRGC’s military operations rely on conventional forces based in Iran, like the special Muharram 10 Brigade with combined training in ground and air defense (Fars News, October 31), IRGC operatives in Iraq could make car bombs a central feature of counter-attacks on U.S. forces. Similar to Lebanese Hezbollah tactics against Israeli and U.S. forces, explosive-laden vehicles driven by radicalized Iraqi Shiites could be crashed into military targets.
The Fifth Column
The most significant advantage that the IRGC has in Iraq is the support of military operatives working within the U.S.-trained Iraqi police and army units in Baghdad and elsewhere. According to a former Iranian agent deployed during the Iraq-Iraq War, the IRGC’s operatives were fully embedded members of the Baathist army while collaborating with the Guard’s intelligence center (author’s interview with a former IRGC intelligence officer of the Iran-Iraq War, October 10). In a similar way, these military personnel, who have been entrenched in the Iraqi military and police force since 2003, can provide valuable information for the IRGC’s Qods Brigade. At the time of conflict between Iran and the United States, the task of the Qods Brigade would be to transfer critical tactical and military operations information from Iraq to the Committee on Foreign Intelligence Abroad (CFIA), an IRGC intelligence agency in Tehran.
Evaluating the Threat
The most dangerous development that could occur in the period prior to a military conflict between the United States and Iran is the development of an alliance between non-political Shiite organizations, like the Mahdi splinter groups, and the IRGC. The formation of such alliances could be prevented by encouraging the Iraqi government (with the possible assistance of al-Sadr and his militia) to find ways to locate, negotiate and incorporate these splinter groups into the Iraqi electoral process and governmental institutions. There is a further threat of acting on bad intelligence from Iranian sources like the terrorist group Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), who may provide information to the coalition forces designed to expand a military conflict between the United States and Iran for their own political interests.
Conclusion: Defusing the Revolutionary Guards
The notion that direct negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran legitimize its authority is to ignore the basic truth that the fundamental source of legitimacy of the Iranian regime lies with the Iranian people. A crisis of legitimacy has already been in process in Iran since the election of Mohammed Khatami in 1997. What a policy of engagement consists of is not the “appeasement” of the Iranian government but its recognition as a regional power, and the understanding that the best way to contain Iran would depend not on external forces of pressure (e.g. UN sanctions or military attacks), but the weakening of the most radicalized faction of the IRGC, which seeks to keep Iran isolated for its own economic interests. In this sense, the most effective way to chip away at the IRGC’s power is to vigorously integrate it into the global economic and political system rather than isolate it.
Similar to the Chinese military, the IRGC is now a major financial enterprise, but its economic power is unevenly distributed among its members. Many lower-ranking Guard militants come from the low-income sector of Iranian society and have leanings toward the reformist camp. Offering younger IRGC officers an opportunity to participate in regional and global markets could create division between senior and middle ranks within the Guard’s economic community. An obsession with force threatens to unite the IRGC against a common enemy and brings the younger, more impoverished generation closer to the older, wealthier generation. As the sound of the drum-beat of confrontation increases, the call for unity within Iran also gets louder. The consequence of the policy of disengagement is that Iranian influence in Afghanistan and Iraq is enhanced by the growing military threat on Iran; this accordingly follows the empowerment of Iranian hardliners in the country’s domestic political circles with the looming threat of an invasion by a foreign force already occupying two of Iran’s neighbors. The irony of the U.S. policy of disengagement is that the more it aims to weaken IRGC through sanctions, the more it strengthens its military influence, and hence increases the chance of conflict in a region the United States has sought to stabilize for many years.