For a lot of reasons, it comes as no surprise. Robin Wright, who’s responsible for tonight’s scoop, reported five days ago that hawks had regained the momentum within the administration on all things Iran so a new escalation wasn’t unexpected. And in fact, this is just a logical next step from what’s been happening for six months. The two rounds of UN sanctions on Iran for noncompliance on its enrichment program specifically targeted the assets of the Guard’s top commanders; a parallel track of unilateral U.S. sanctions since January (around the same time Bush informally declared war on the regime) has been aimed at squeezing foreign financial institutions who deal with Iran. Formally designating the entire Guard a terrorist group will, I’m guessing, let the feds reach far beyond the commanders and squeeze even harder. Revisit this WaPo piece from April, also written by Wright, and marvel at the massive power they now enjoy within Iran under Ahmadinejad, himself a veteran of the group. Given their influence, declaring them a “specially designated global terrorist” is tantamount to applying that label to the Iranian government as a whole:
[A]lmost three decades after the 1979 revolution, the Revolutionary Guard has also become a leading political and economic force in Iran. One of its veterans, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became Iran’s president in 2005. The force and a network of current and former commanders have also moved into Iran’s oil and gas business, won bids on major government construction contracts, and even gained lucrative franchises such as Mercedes-Benz dealerships, the sources say.
“The Revolutionary Guards are quickly emerging as the most prominent actor in Iran,” said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They’re playing an increasingly active role on the domestic political scene, have enormous economic assets and interests, are a key player in the nuclear program, and are essentially running Iranian activities in Iraq and Lebanon.”
They also control WMD production. Wright adds this in tonight’s piece:
“They are heavily involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to telecommunications and pipelines, even the new Imam Khomeini Airport and a great deal of smuggling,” said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Many of the front companies engaged in procuring nuclear technology are owned and run by the Revolutionary Guards. They’re developing along the lines of the Chinese military which is involved in many business enterprises. It’s a huge business conglomeration.”
Hence the designation of the entire group, to reach all branches of that conglomerate. Both WaPo and the Times in its own article on this tonight emphasize the unusual step of labeling part of a sovereign nation’s military a terrorist group, but Wright’s story in April had a bit more nuance on that point: “The Guard is separate from Iran’s conventional military — and less than one-third the size, according to [Anthony] Cordesman. Iran’s regular army, navy and air force total more than 400,000 troops. The Guard numbers about 125,000.” The Quds Force, which is part of the Guard, reports directly to Khamenei to boot. The obvious, and obviously imperfect, analogy is to the SS vis-a-vis the Wehrmacht. Which is to say, yeah, they’re military, but they’re a lot more than that, too.
The upshot of all this, unless it’s just a bargaining chip to be rescinded if and when Iran plays ball on Iraq and its nuke program, is that we’re now officially past the point of any “negotiated settlements” to the crisis with the mullahs. (As if we weren’t already.) How odd that Bush would make that move before Petraeus’s progress report, though. One of the selling points of the new strategy for the left is that we’ve begun meeting, however tenuously and painfully, with Iran to discuss Iraqi security. This is going to make the negotiations more difficult than they already were, which only makes it easier for the left to say that we haven’t made any real progress on the diplomatic front either so we might as well pack it in. Very strange.