IRAQ - Moving On IRGC.
The US State Department has placed Fatah al-Islam (FaI) on its terrorist list. Fighting the Lebanese Army in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon, FaI is a Neo-Salafi group said to be the creation of Syria's intelligence. The US measure against FaI coincides with a move by Neo-Salafi groups in Iraq to an area close to the Syrian border. This is where a flash point would be expected in a latent US campaign against the Damascus regime which could escalate through American hot pursuits against Neo-Salafis who would be fleeing from the new area in north-western Iraq.
The US move on the IRGC could deal a double blow to efforts to use diplomacy with Iran to stabilise Iraq. Not only would it risk undermining US-Iran talks in Baghdad, but it might negatively impact the next US president's ability to seek diplomacy with Tehran by further entrenching US-Iran relations in a paradigm of enmity.
Designating Iran's 125,000-strong military branch as a "global terrorist" under Executive Order 13224, because of its alleged destabilising activities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, will allow the US to target the IRGC's extensive business dealings which span several sectors in Iran and abroad, including blocking its assets. Originally set up by the theocracy in 1979 as a parallel force to prevent the regular Army from orchestrating a coup against its government, the IRGC is a pillar of the supremacists with close ties to the conservative factions. Through the presidency of Ahmadi-Nejad since 2005, the IRGC has heavily penetrated Iran's economy, including the petroleum, petrochemicals, and pharmaceutical sectors and other key industries. It is often accused of behaving like a state-sponsored mafia, with a corrupting influence on Iran's economy, police, media, industries, judiciary and government. As such, many Iranians find IRGC's power and political influence highly problematic.
Iranian political activists have warned that any swift political change in Iran will benefit the IRGC rather than the pro-democracy movement, precisely because the IRGC is well equipped and highly organised. The IRGC commander on Aug. 17 warned that all of the US military assets in the Middle East were within the range of its missiles.
The US Treasury is already engaged in an extensive campaign to dry up Iran's sources of finance. Whether the IRGC is labelled terrorist or not is likely to have little bearing on that campaign. Nor is the decision likely to have a decisive impact on IRGC's shady business
dealings. Iran has been under intense US sanctions since the mid-1990s. While the sanctions have been effective in imposing a major cost on the Iranian economy, they have been unsuccessful in compelling Iran to alter its foreign policy. More sanctions and financial pressure are likely to achieve more of the same: they will increase the cost for the Iranian government to pursue its policies while failing to halt or change those policies.
Some of the Iranian diplomats the US is dealing with in Iraq are still part of the IRGC, including Mohammad Ja'fari who sat across the table from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Iraq summit in Sharm el-Shaikh on May 3-4. The designation jeopardises the Baghdad channel by sending a signal of hostility which could convince Tehran that the US is not serious about diplomacy.
On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers supportive of the administration's policies have pointed to the Baghdad channel as evidence that the White House was implementing the bi-partisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) recommendations, and have urged their Democratic colleagues to support the "surge" of US troops in Iraq in return. Even if the Bush administration is not banking on the Baghdad channel to produce anything tangible, at least it provides the administration with much-needed political cover on Capitol Hill.
The long-term effect of designating the IRGC a terrorist organisation, however, would be more significant. It is easier to put an entity on the terrorist list than to remove it. Future US presidents will likely find their efforts to change Iranian behaviour and resolve US-Iranian disputes more difficult, not only because the designation may put legal limits on how the US can deal with individuals associated with the IRGC, but also by further entrenching US-Iran relations in a paradigm of enmity. It will strengthen and prolong the dominating narrative in the US, which reads that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through Iran's containment and defeat.
"In this paradigm", US-based Iranian expert Trita Parsi on Aug. 17 warned, "the US and Iran are entangled in a zero-sum game where compromise and dialogue are tantamount to defeat. Diplomacy, in this context, is not a tool for seeking win-win solutions, but rather another means for confrontation with the aim of beating back the United States' adversaries. Not surprisingly, this line of thought is equally common among radicals in Tehran, who in the past have found no shortage of ways to undercut any diplomatic outreach to Washington. Left unchallenged, the strengthening of this paradigm of enmity in Tehran and Washington may very well lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy".
Designating the IRGC as a terrorist group would trigger automatic US economic penalties against the guard leaders and companies dealing with them. But Iran does little direct business with the US, so those penalties would cause minimal pain. That suggests the US's real audience is not Tehran, but conflict-obsessed administration and neo-con hawks who are lobbying for military strikes, and conflict-averse European allies who have resisted more far-reaching multilateral economic sanctions.
The IRGC has played a central role in some of the theocracy's most abhorrent activities, including assassinating dissidents. The IRGC's Quds Force is involved in all Shi'ite militia and military operations in the Middle East, including those in Iraq and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
While the White House and State Department continue to debate when to make the formal designation, the administration has already adopted tougher talk towards Tehran. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Aug. 15 said: "We are confronting Iranian behaviour across a variety of different fronts, on a number of different, quote unquote, battlefields, if you will". His use of the word "battlefields" was described by some European diplomats as another escalation of anti-Iran statements. McCormack maintained that his use of the word did not mean the State Department had adopted the view that the US should confront Iran militarily, a line advocated by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney. McCormack said: "I was trying to illustrate that you don't just confront Iran with guns and soldiers; sometimes you do it with lawyers and accountants and diplomats".
The NYT on Aug. 16 quoted US officials as saying the US was increasingly frustrated that UNSC sanctions, meant to rein in Iranian nuclear ambitions, had been anemic. They were worried that allies in imposing sanctions on Iran - particularly Russia and China - had been slow to increase pressure and had balked at imposing tougher measures. In Tehran, officials across the political spectrum on Aug. 15 said proceeding with plans to declare the IRGC a terrorist organisation would only unify politicians in Iran and lead to an escalation of US-Iranian hostility. But analysts and former government officials in Tehran, both conservative and reformist, said the planned designation was intended to destabilize the government.
Sa'id Leylaz, a Tehran economist and political analyst, says: "Maybe the Revolutionary Guards have done certain things in their own backyard (referring to Afghanistan and Iraq). But they have also co-operated with Americans there. Now the US is asking Iran to help stabilise Iraq". Leylaz, often critical of President Ahmadi-Nejad, says the US is suggesting that, after stability in Iraq, "it will come after Iran".
The FT on Aug. 16 quoted Cliff Kupchan, an Iran expert at Eurasia Group and a former US State Department official, as saying: "[There is] increased frustration over the slow pace and perceived lack of effectiveness of UN sanctions. The [Bush] administration is telling the world, 'if you don't act, we will'". The administration has already imposed sanctions on senior members of the IRGC, which reports directly to the theocracy's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Kupchan said the Bush team had been "outflanked on the right" by Congressional proposals to tighten sanctions on Iran to include designating the IRGC as a terrorist group. US Treasury rules already bar US banks from dealing with Iranian banks and companies. But under certain conditions, US banks have been able to make use of the so-called U-turn exemption which has allowed them to process international dollar payments between Iranian banks and non-US financial institutions. George Kleinfeld, a lawyer at Clifford Chance in Washington, says the designation would limit the usefulness of that exemption, adding: "Now, any US bank will have to be wary of whether any U-turn payment involving Iran is ultimately for the benefit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, in which case they will be obligated to freeze such payment".
On Aug. 14, Ahmadi-Nejad dismissed US charges that Iran was providing weapons to the Taliban. Speaking in Kabul after talks with his President Hamid Karzai, Ahmadi-Nejad said Iran was "fully supporting" the government. Karzai played down the dispute over the weapons shipments, as he did during a visit to the White House earlier this month. He said Afghanistan and Iran were "brothers" and both the US and Iran were helping reconstruct his country.
In June, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the volume of weapons reaching the Taliban from Iran made it "difficult to believe" that the shipments were "taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government". In a TV interview on the same day, US Assistant Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said there was "irrefutable evidence" that the weapons were coming from the IRGC. This is despite the fact that the Taliban, like al-Qaeda, are Neo-Salafi Sunnis who regards the Shi'ites as heretics and kill them.
There are 42 organisations on the State Department's list of terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, Iran's Shi'ite Lebanese offshoot Hizbullah and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In taking aim at the IRGC, the administration is also trying to divide Iran's population. During his news conference on Aug. 9, President Bush addressed the Iranian people directly: "My message to the Iranian people is, 'You can do better than this current government. You don't have to be isolated. You don't have to be in a position where you can't realise your full economic potential'".
The IRGC's Quds Force is behind Shi'ite death squads in Iraq killing Sunni Arabs which, together with Neo-Salafis killing many Shi'ites, has caused millions of Iraqis to flee their areas or seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Number of unidentified bodies, assumedly murdered by Shi'ite death squads, found on the streets of Baghdad in June: 453, a rise of 41% over January, the month before "surge" operations began, according to unofficial Iraqi Health Ministry statistics taken from morgue counts. Number of Iraqis estimated to have fled their country: 2-2.5m; about 750,000 to Jordan; 1.5m to Syria; 200,000 to Egypt and Lebanon - with another 40,000-50,000 fleeing each month, 2,000 a day, according to UN figures. Officials at the central travel office in Baghdad are deluged by up to 3,000 passport applications a week. In addition, more than 2m Iraqis may now be internal refugees, uprooted from their homes largely by sectarian and ethnic cleansing. About 70% of these are women and children.
Number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the US in July: 57; only 133 for the year to date. Number of Iraqis held in US prisons in Iraq: About 22,500, according to US military officials, a leap to an all-time high from 16,000 in February when the "surge" began. (US prisons in Iraq also continue to undergo expansion). Number of Iraqis released from US incarceration in July: 224. Number of "foreign fighters" (Neo-Salafi jihadis) held by the US military in Iraq: 135 (nearly half are Saudis). Estimated number of bullets fired by US troops for every insurgent killed in Iraq (or Afghanistan): 250,000, according to John Pike, head of the Washington military-research group GlobalSecurity.org. This comes out to 1.8 bn rounds of small-arms ammunition yearly. With US munitions factories unable to meet the demand, 313m rounds of such munitions were purchased from Israel in 2006 for $10m more than if produced domestically. Percentage of amputations performed on US war-wounded in Iraq: about 6%. The average in earlier US conflicts, where the equivalents of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombings did not play such a role, was 3%.
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|Publication:||APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map|
|Date:||Aug 20, 2007|
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