Guest Column: Delegitimize Iran

The Islamic Republic should be designated under the law and in policy as an illegitimate regime.

February 12, 2010 16:28
An Iranian protestor holds a picture of the suprem

teheran khamenei protest 311. (photo credit: AP)


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Any degree of legitimacy is a treasured asset for totalitarian regimes. It is used by these states as a barometer of sorts to gauge what level of international pressure they may encounter in response to their policies. By treating Iran as an “ordinary” totalitarian state that can be traded with, bargained with, flattered or cajoled into forsaking excesses or principles, the international community has bestowed a degree of legitimacy upon this regime that has only emboldened it. Iran has felt free to continue its pursuit of unconventional weapons, while the West continues to be constrained by conventional and ineffective diplomatic strategies. These policies have succeeded only in disenabling the West from addressing Iran for what it actually is – a sui generis national entity.

But as the international community continues to equivocate, the first victims of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution – the Iranian people themselves – have risen to proclaim what the world has been unwilling to formally declare: that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a fundamentally illegitimate regime. The accusation should not be dismissed as the angry rhetoric of an oppressed people. It is not only an imputation of Iran’s behaviors or policies, but an indictment of the very nature of this regime, irrespective of its actions, and it is a perspective that deserves careful consideration by policy-makers.

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The Islamic Republic of Iran is truly different – it is a regime thoroughly defined by its ideology and it cannot easily be compared to other nation-states or even to most other dictatorships. Its prime tenet, enshrined in Iran’s constitution and the works of Khomeini, is based on a single principle: the establishment of “an Islamic state worldwide” and “confronting the world with our ideology.”

As a constitutional imperative, this is less a mandate for governance or state building than a mission statement for a theologically premised global movement promoting terrorism and the destruction of the international order. It is designed to “undefine” Iran as a nation-state and to redefine it as a revolutionary movement, supplanting the identity of Iran with Khomeini’s version of revolutionary Islam. And it is the core value that has successfully driven Iran to become the world’s preeminent state sponsor of terror, a brutal human rights violator and a global nuclear threat. In the words of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, it is “the essence” of this regime.

THIS IS what sets Iran apart from other totalitarian states and sponsors of terror. As Iran expert Amir Taheri has noted, these other regimes do not define themselves as the embodiment of a divinely sanctioned inviolable “cause,” mandated “to smash all other state structures” and to force all humanity to adopt their belief systems. However reprehensible their behaviors, other totalitarian states do not actively embrace the destruction of the global community and the eradication of all other systems of religious belief as a national goal above other state interests.

But for the Islamic Republic, this remains and must remain the publicly declared theological imperative, regardless of how many concessions and accommodations have been made or will be offered.

If another state were to be founded on similarly reprehensible principles (like the enslavement of others), structured its government to that end and created specially mandated entities to pursue these goals, would the international community not be justified in formulating a policy that would consider this constitution and its mandated institutions unworthy of recognition and legitimacy?


The regime should be designated under the law and in policy as an illegitimate regime that does not merit all the privileges granted even to some of the more dubious members of the family of states. It should not be granted the protections and legitimacy it does not afford others. And that designation should first and foremost be applied to the backbone of the regime, the master of it nuclear arms program and the force charged with eradicating dissent in Iran – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

The most direct mechanism for designating the IRGC as an illegal entity is for Western countries to have this body listed as a banned terrorist entity. The designation would target the vast holdings of the IRGC and the bloated bank accounts of its leaders, while minimizing the impact on ordinary Iranians. As noted in Jane’s Weekly, listing the IRGC as a terrorist entity “represents a fatal risk” to the regime of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and it is a designation that the IRGC richly deserves. Since its inception, the IRGC in its entirety has facilitated, supported and directly committed terrorist acts across the globe. Its terrorist outrages have rivaled or exceeded the atrocities committed by most, if not all, of the terrorist organizations presently listed by most Western countries.

This “smart” sanction has the added benefit of being within arm’s reach of policy-makers. Most democratic countries already have a legal framework for listing the IRGC, and utilizing it would not represent a radical departure from existing international norms. The US, UN, EU and others have all applied various sanctions against the IRGC and its leaders, and recently Dutch lawmakers introduced a resolution to have the IRGC listed as a terrorist body. A group of 50 British MPs has also pushed for a similar British listing. Listing the IRGC as the terrorist entity it is would simply allow for a more effective implementation of the weak UN sanctions against it that UN members are already committed to enforce.

WHAT MAY concern lawmakers is designating a foreign military or state agency as a terrorist entity, a definition usually reserved for non-state actors. But a 65-page report recently submitted to the government of Canada by the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT) maintains that this should not be an impediment. Citing a compelling body of expert opinion, the report argues that the IRGC is anything but a normative military or state entity.

 The IRGC has defied easy definition and has been described respectively by analysts and former members as “mafia like”; “a deeply entrenched domestic institution”; “a vast business conglomerate”; as similar to “Hitler’s brownshirts”; and as a unique structure that “probably does not have a counterpart in the Western world.” However one chooses to define it, the IRGC is clearly not a conventional armed force. It has not acted as such and does not regard itself as such.

Defined by the American courts as an “untraditional instrumentality of Iran,” its primary constitutional duty is not to protect Iran from conventional military threats but to “protect the revolution and its ideals.” This amorphous and almost borderless mandate allows the IRGC to take on whatever role is necessary to “protect the revolution,” making it something other than just a military structure. So like Hamas or Hizbullah, the IRGC’s military dimension is just one component of a broader ideological mandate that also includes political, industrial and theological functions. There is no reason, therefore, for Western lawmakers to treat the IRGC as a normative military construct, when the organization itself and the constitution mandating its existence clearly do not limit or define it as such.

But however one chooses to classify it, the IRGC is an entity that does not deserve deference as a state agency of any sort. As documented in the report, the IRGC has an extraordinary level of autonomy interpreting “its operational freedom so broadly that it accepts no constitutional restrictions.” This ever increasing independence has led experts to describe the IRGC as a “state within a state” and as “the only institution in Iran capable of both enforcing and breaching any red lines,” leaving it essentially unaccountable for its actions.

And now, having emerged as the most powerful element in Iran’s ruling elite, the IRGC will become increasingly less accountable to anyone but itself. Given its level of operational control, independence from government hierarchy, and economic self- reliance, the IRGC has far too much autonomy from government oversight and accountability to be considered a normative state agency. It should be regarded as a non-state actor for the purposes of listing it as a terrorist entity.  If the IRGC does not feel obligated by Iran’s constitutional and legal framework, neither should the international community.

But if there remains any doubt as to the value of sanctioning the IRGC, perhaps the most persuasive endorsement comes from Khamenei himself, who cautioned his associates that “the authority of the Islamic Revolution would collapse” if the IRGC ceased to exist. The West can help realize Khamenei’s worst fears – and the greatest hopes of Iran’s dissidents – by addressing its own culpability in the present state of Iranian affairs.

Western governments bear a significant degree of moral responsibility for the IRGC’s ascendance. By allowing it to remain a legitimate entity that has made billions of dollars in profits from Western trade, the West has facilitated the empowerment of the IRGC and its abuses. This includes the murder, injury and incarceration of Western nationals and others by the IRGC and its proxies in places like France, Lebanon and Argentina – and most shamefully, the death and injury of western coalition forces at the hands of IRGC surrogates in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In pointing a finger at the illegitimacy of their government, Iran’s dissidents have pointed a way forward for the international community to attempt to rectify its mistakes. Their tua culpa must become ours. Western governments must revoke the tacit legitimacy they have conferred on this regime and can start by designating its most powerful protector, the IRGC, as an illegitimate terrorist entity that will continue to seek the dissolution of the global community regardless of any deal that may or may not be reached on Iran’s nuclear program.

The writer is a Toronto-based consultant and the cofounder of  the Canadian Coalition Against Terror.

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