US Affairs: Is the US off-target with its focus on the IRGC?

The US hopes that by sanctioning the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, it will be able to pressure the regime while sparing the Iranian people from suffering. But the division between the Guards and the people may not be so cut and dry.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
February 11, 2010 21:46
Iranian Basij paramilitary volunteers

Basij volunteers 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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WASHINGTON – As the Obama administration presses ahead with imposing greater sanctions on Iran, designating Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps elements on Wednesday and pushing for the UN Security Council to back a package of measures, the US has emphasized its desire to hurt the regime rather than the people.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out when first openly articulating the administration’s plans to go after the IRGC last month, “Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering of ordinary [Iranians], who deserve better than what they currently are receiving.”

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And on Sunday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that efforts targeting the government rather than the people “have the greater potential to achieve the objective” the US seeks. “The international community does not want the people of Iran to suffer more hardship than absolutely necessary.”

Concerns that current broad-based sanctions legislation pending before Congress would deeply hurt the general population – an undesirably circumstance in and of itself, but also because the US is hoping to strengthen rather than weaken the popular reform movement opposing the regime – have been among the factors cited in the administration’s lukewarm response to the measure. If the bill passes, the US would sanction foreign companies providing refined petroleum to Iran, essentially trying to bar Iran’s access to gasoline.

Yet the administration’s use of targeted sanctions against the IRGC and other regime elements might not be as different from broad-based measures such as Congress’ as the administration implies. That’s because nearly a third of Iran’s economy is estimated to be controlled by the IRGC.

Or as former US treasury secretary Henry Paulson said in 2007, “The IRGC is so deeply entrenched in Iran’s economy and commercial enterprises, it is increasingly likely that if you are doing business with Iran, you are somehow doing business with the IRGC.”

More recently, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee in October, Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey said that “in the name of ‘privatization,’ the IRGC has taken over broad swaths of the Iranian economy.” Levey has been quietly warning foreign companies of the risk of doing business, leading many to terminate their ties, as well as adding IRGC entities to a list of believed proliferators whose assets have been frozen and otherwise shut off from American markets, as five more were on Wednesday.

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In his appearance before Congress, Levey explained that former Guards Corps members in Iranian ministries had “directed millions of dollars in government contracts to the IRGC for a myriad of projects,” including developing a major gas field, running Teheran’s international airport and expanding the city’s metro system.

“DESPITE THE appeal of only sanctioning the IRGC, the US government can’t effectively sanction such a dominant player in the Iranian economy without hurting the Iranian people,” according to Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who called the idea of effective targeted sanctions that didn’t hurt the Iranian people “a fiction.” He compared the concept of targeting the IRGC to limiting sanctions against the US to the Standard and Poor’s 500. By shutting off business with the countries top companies, he said, “the American people would surely suffer.”

Still, Dubowitz thought the administration’s emphasis on “targeted sanctions” against the IRGC made sense, even if the stated standard of minimizing the impact on average Iranians was specious.

He called the focus on the targeted measures a “rhetorical sleight of hand” that strengthens the administration’s ability to rally other countries to its efforts. He said zeroing in on the IRGC – which has enhanced its power following the contested presidential election in June 12 – was more “politically acceptable” to those who didn’t want to hurt the reform movement’s efforts.

He also noted that targeting the IRGC comprised a larger array of options than it might seem. He pointed to significant differences in the Americans’ ambitions for such sanctions, including cutting off its access to the world financial system, and that of permanent Security Council members such as Russia and China, which might only be amenable to limits on the movement of certain IRGC leaders.

“The ambiguity helps because it potentially allows for some negotiation about what this Security Council resolution could mean,” he said.

Michael Jacobson, who once served as a senior advisor in Levey’s office at the Treasury, agreed that the focus on the IRGC rather than blocking gasoline imports had a significant symbolic component, but said there were practical differences as well.

“They are different both in perception and reality,” he said. “The perception is very, very different symbolically to say, ‘No gas for Iran,’ which very much translates down to the street level, versus, ‘We’re targeting the bad actors.’” Jacobson said that while both moves could have a financial impact on Iranians, limitations on refined petroleum would likely be more direct.

But he cautioned that given the situation’s complexities and question marks, it was hard to predict how either set of sanctions would play out.

“The situation is so fluid. There can be best guesses, but I don’t think anyone really knows the exact impact that the different routes would have,” he said.

And an Iranian advocacy organization argued that sanctions on gasoline were inadvisable because they’d actually play into the IRGC’s hand because then refined petroleum would become a commodity to be smuggled into the country – a practice the IRGC largely controls and benefits from.

The National Iranian American Council welcomed “the Obama administration’s decision to pursue targeted sanctions on Iran’s leaders rather than indiscriminate sanctions that would contribute to the suffering of the Iranian people,” according to a release it put out when the administration’s policy began to be articulated.

In contrast, NIAC President Trita Parsi warned against the effect the broad-based sanctions passed by the Senate in late January would have on Iranians. (The US House of Representatives passed its own version in December and the two are currently being reconciled.)

“Innocent Iranians are suffering every day at the hands of their own government; today the Senate voted to increase their suffering,” he said. “The last thing that the Iranian people need as they continue to battle for their rights and dignity is for the US to target them rather than Iran’s oppressive rulers.”

But Dubowitz suggested that not only were the implications of the strategies employed by the administration and Congress not that different, but that their implementation was also not at odds.

While the administration has made clear that it would prefer more flexibility in the congressional sanctions package, including the discretion to exempt allied countries cooperating on sanctions, it hasn’t categorically rejected the legislature’s efforts.

“The congressional legislation is a public shot across the bow,” something Dubowitz called “an important complement to what the administration and Treasury are doing privately.”

“All of this is part of an integrated strategy,” Dubowitz said. “It’s not an either-or proposition.”

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