How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
It is fair to assume that any deal between Iran and the United States to freeze Iran’s nuclear program will be greeted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps with cries of “Death to America!” Hassan Rouhani was elected president earlier this year with a mandate to seek just such a deal. But he still has to reckon with the fact that Iran’s most powerful military force has traditionally been a bastion for ideological hard-liners uninterested in building closer relations with the United States.
At the same time, any hope that the Revolutionary Guards have of playing the spoiler in a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement will be undermined by the fact that the force is implacably divided against itself, between those who are dead set against closer relations with the United States and those who are likely to support a deal.
This is not to suggest that the Revolutionary Guards don’t pose a threat to détente; its most hard-line factions certainly do. And those tend to be the most vocal -- or at least the most visible. On September 30, just a few days after Rouhani’s breakthrough telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, the chief of the Guards, Mohammad Ali Jafari, labeled the move a “tactical error,” adding that his forces would be monitoring the issue in the future so that it could issue “necessary warnings.” Two weeks later, on October 13, Jafari declared that “the people have figured out what [the reformists] are up to and will not be duped by their provocations in the interests of the enemy.” That same day, Yahya Rahim Safavi, a general in the Guards, expressed the Islamic Republic’s standard ideological line against relations with Washington when he said that the United States had proved repeatedly that it could not be trusted.
Around the same time, however, other prominent Guardsmen were offering a strikingly different message, by way of a revisionist interpretation of recent Iranian history. In early October, the former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who served as commander in chief of the Guards during the Iran-Iraq War, published an article recounting that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, had repeatedly made clear in the early 1980s that he wanted the Iranian government to stop needlessly taunting the United States with the slogan “Death to America.” Rafsanjani also pointed out that, in April 1980, Khomeini said that “Should our awakened and noble nation permit, it will establish a very normal relationship with the United States, just as with other countries.” A founding member of the Guards, Mohsen Rafighdoost, gave an interview on October 21 concurring with Rafsanjani's assessment of Khomeini's views, pointing out that Khomeini dissuaded him from setting up the Guards' headquarters at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. “Why do you want to go there?” Rafighdoost recounts Khomeini asking him. “Are our disputes with the U.S. supposed to last a thousand years? Do not go there.”
This emphasis on Khomeini's overlooked pragmatism is entirely consistent with the preferred self-image of an increasing number of Guardsmen. Although the Guards were founded as an ideological organization, they have become vastly more pragmatic as they’ve acquired more power in the Iranian establishment. The Revolutionary Guards are no longer simply a military institution. They are among the country’s most important economic actors, controlling an estimated ten percent of the economy, directly and through various subsidiaries. And those economic interests increasingly trump other concerns. And, although the force can corner a greater share of the domestic market under the sanctions regime imposed by the United States because the private sector has a chronic shortage of funds, many Guardsmen are aware that they stand to gain much more if Iran strengthens its ties to the rest of the world. Companies controlled by the Guards would likely win a lion's share of new foreign investment. But that would require, of course, reaching some sort of accommodation with the United States on the nuclear program.
The Guards have also always shown signs of pragmatism when it comes to military strategy. They are aware that if talks between Tehran and Washington break down, the United States could begin to seriously consider a military intervention. Few leading Guardsmen are eager for that; unlike the clerical establishment that preaches resistance to the West, the Guards are very capable of calculating the material and strategic costs of escalation. On June 3, Brigadier General Hossein Alaei, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and a highly respected IRGC commander, declared in a public speech that war in the region has only ever resulted in “increased killing of the Muslim people, particularly the Shiites.”
Commanders are increasingly framing their military tactics and political goals to avoid direct confrontation. After the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that Iran was building “intercontinental ballistic missiles” capable of striking Washington, the IRGC quickly responded that “the range of even our long-range missiles is only two thousand kilometers” and suggested that it had no intention of building missiles with a longer range.
Further, there is no shortage of high-ranking Guards offering explicit support for the idea of rapprochement with the United States. Often, this support is framed as calls for cooperation on Washington and Tehran’s mutual interests in the region. In a speech on October 16, Major Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the armed forces, was even more explicit. He called on the United States to take advantage of the “historic opportunity” to cooperate with the Islamic Republic in combatting extremist groups such as al Qaeda and in providing stability in the Middle East. “Obama’s domestic opponents are trying to scuttle these negotiations, because they do not want this winning card to belong to Obama,” he said. “Obama must save himself by resisting them.”
To be sure, it would make no difference if the entire Revolutionary Guards wanted rapprochement if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was opposed. But even he seems to have given his quiet backing to pragmatism. Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a commander of the Guards who was personally appointed by Khamenei to become the secretary-general of the Islamic Republic’s National Security Council, has endorsed Rouhani and Obama’s approach. On October 14, he commended both for their “commitment to diplomacy to solve and eliminate the differences” between the two countries, and for creating “a positive basis for managing their differences.” Clearly, there are members of the IRGC who would vehemently disagree with any kind words for the U.S. president, but Khamenei’s tacit endorsement would not be taken lightly.
Of course, the only members of the Guards who are on the record on this issue -- on either side -- are officers at or near the top of the organization’s hierarchy. Just as important will be what the group’s rank and file make of the idea of better relations with the United States. And on that question, there are grounds for even greater optimism. The younger members at the middle or toward the bottom of the IRGC organization are largely drawn from the lower strata of society, which has been hardest hit by the international sanctions regime. They have no memories of the Islamic Revolution, or of the searing experience of the Iran-Iraq War. If they do share the older generation’s ideological framework, it is only in an attenuated form. Indeed, what informal polling exists on the matter suggests that when members of the Revolutionary Guards have been given the chance to freely vote in presidential elections, they have been most likely to vote for moderates, and even reformists. (In the 1997 presidential election, 70 percent of the Guards are estimated to have voted for the reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami.) The rank and file can be manipulated (and forced) by their superiors into calling for the United States’ downfall. But like their colleagues in the upper echelons of the Guards, they are likely hoping for a new era with fewer tensions and greater mutual respect.
So long as the Guards are divided between themselves, the decisive factor will be the group's sworn loyalty to the country's highest clerics. That explains why Khomeini's views on the United States have now become such contested terrain for people like Rafighdoost and Rafsanjani. Hard-liners may have resisted accepting détente when it is advocated by reformists. But one should not be surprised if they accept such a policy when there is evidence of its backing from Khomeini and Khamenei.