A Changing of the Guard

The leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, including Qods Force commander Qasam Soleimani (third from right) and Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari (third from left), wait for a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. | Photo: Associated Press

There are few organizations Iran hawks hate more than the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—for its meddling abroad, its brutality at home, and its enmity towards all things American. As sanctions are lifted and foreign business floods into Iran, they indignantly declare, the IRGC will only grow in its economic power and cruelty.

Of course, the analyses are as simplistic as their tone is dire. Sure, foreign firms want to enter Iran. But however excited they may be, they’re also terrified of doing business with an organization that has a hand in terrorism or human rights abuses.

While the Iran deal will lift the nuclear-related sanctions placed on Iran, a vast network of other sanctions, related to Iran’s financing of terrorism and human rights abuses, will still remain. Firms—especially European and American ones—will want to avoid the legal penalties which would come from transgressing these restrictions, potentially "costing [them] billions of dollars."

So no, the Iran deal won’t give the IRGC a blank cheque to do whatever it wants. In fact, the deal may force the Guard into a calculus it’s never had to make—between its support for regional-mischief and human rights abuses, and the profits it could gain through partnerships with international companies.

And that’s a dilemma from which both Iran and the broader Middle East will inevitably benefit.

The IRGC—part police force, part military organization, part business empire—has always been influential in deciding Iranian foreign policy and suppressing domestic dissent. Yet under the sanctions regime established by the P5+1 and their allies, the IRGC became Iran’s most powerful economic actor, as well.

In an economy isolated from the world, the IRGC won billions of dollars worth of contracts—in oil, tourism, transportation, construction, internet and communications—without any competition from international businesses. Its elites became aristocrats. Their children drive Lamborghinis, and show off their opulent lifestyles on Instagram.

But if those Guardsmen want to keep their wealth, they’ll need outside help. According to Reuters, the sanctions regime is "gradually making it impossible for even the IRGC to make money" from its ventures. It lacks the technology, knowledge and ability to carry out large-scale projects.

Foreign firms could provide exactly that. These firms, on the other hand, will need well-established Iranian partners to work with them on their ventures. If it weren’t for the Guard’s brutality, it would be a business-match made in heaven.

So it seems that the IRGC would profit enormously from reducing its support for human rights abuses at home, and terrorism abroad—maybe because doing so could help get some of the remaining sanctions removed. But, more likely, because it could mollify the IRGC’s savage public image, and help avoid scaring off foreign firms.

But let’s assume that the IRGC doesn’t become more moderate; those foreign firms won’t just disappear. Instead, they’ll engage with businesses unaffiliated with the IRGC. That, in turn, will cost the Guard its political influence, which analysts like Akbar Ganji tie directly to its economic might.

What’s more, the Guard will also lose its autonomy abroad, without what Dr. Alireza Nader calls its "decisive advantage" over other parts of the state in forming foreign policy— its ability to fund its actions independently. A weaker, if still extremist, IRGC would allow moderate elements like President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Javad Zarif to play a greater role in constructing Iran’s foreign and domestic policies.

On the other hand, if crude financial-pragmatism does indeed win out, then all the better: the interests of moderates and the IRGC might converge. If the Guard doesn’t outright support their attempts to reform the Islamic Republic, it’ll at least be less likely to stand in their way.

We could eventually see an Iranian state which is more tolerant of dissent, and less supportive of militant groups.

These changes are most likely to be produced by removing nuclear sanctions, as the deal will do, and by opening the Iranian economy up to foreign companies. For Iran’s Revolutionary Guardsmen, the choice will be between their bad behaviour and their bank accounts.

Whichever they decide, the world will benefit from the sacrifice they’ll have to make.

Behbod Negahban

Behbod is a contributing editor at the Envoy, and studies political science at the University of British Columbia. He writes primarily on Iranian politics and the dynamics of the middle-east.

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