When the P5+1 struck a deal with Iran on its nuclear program in July 2015, general expectations were that the sanctions could be lifted as early as spring 2016. Within the agreed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian Foreign Ministry signed several obligations that needed time for legislative approval and final implementation. However, on January 16, the IAEA experts reported that Iran had already fulfilled all of its obligations; the sanctions were lifted the same day. This was a breakthrough for the Rouhani administration, which needed to complete the deal before elections slated for late this month. The elections will be crucial to determining whether Iran will adhere to the commitments it made under the deal.
The JCPOA does not envisage lifting all sanctions against Tehran, only those tied to the nuclear enrichment program. As noted in the White House summary of the agreement “U.S. statutory sanctions focused on Iran’s support for terrorism, human rights abuses, and missile activities will remain in effect and continue to be enforced.” That means the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which bears the primary responsibility for the crackdown on civil society groups in Iran and supports military proxies across the Middle East, will largely remain under the sanctions.
The IRGC, also known as Pasdaran, was established following Iran’s 1979 Revolution, and was charged with protecting the Islamic system of governance. Nowadays, through its Special Forces branch, known as the Quds Force, the IRGC supports militant groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis forces in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq. Pasdaran is also the main benefactor of the Assad regime in Syria.
Besides the Special Forces branch, ground, aerospace and naval forces, as well as a 90,000-strong militia, IRGC also owns much of the business sector in Iran. Considering that many high-level officials are former officers of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and through control of major news outlets in Iran (such as Fars News and Tasnim), Pasdaran exerts extensive influence over Iran’s politics. Generally, senior officials affiliated with the IRGC are known as hardliners, opposed to any kind of foreign policy compromise.
In the case of the nuclear deal, the IRGC had several pragmatic reasons to oppose it. First, the nuclear development program in Iran was under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, and it gave them a special edge in Iranian politics. Now they had to give up much of their hard earned achievements: all of the medium-enriched uranium, and 98% of the low-enriched uranium stockpile.
Second, under the sanctions regime the IRGC made billions of dollars on the black markets of Iran. In a 2010 article for Newsweek, Iranian reporter, Babak Dehghanpisheh writes that “the trouble with sanctions is that they squeeze out legitimate businesses and leave the field wide open for the IRGC.” He adds that “the size of Iran’s smuggling industry has been estimated at $12 billion a year, and the IRGC is believed to control much, if not all, of it.”
Third, many of the senior officers and affiliated businesses of the Pasdaran will remain under the sanctions. And last, but not least, even the IRGC entities that do not fall under the sanctions and are engaged in legal businesses in Iran will now have to compete with foreign companies. During the sanctions Revolutionary Guards earned huge revenues by monopolizing almost all major industries in Iran: energy, construction, car manufacturing and telecommunications. So, while repealing the nuclear sanctions will contribute to the overall development of Iran, they will diminish the relative power of the Pasdaran within the country.
That’s why the reformists in Iran, led by President Hassan Rouhani, had to work very hard to avoid the IRGC blocking of the nuclear deal. During his address to the 21st National Assembly of IRGC commanders in September 2015, Rouhani stressed the need for national unity and said that “Today the enemy is not only the Zionists, the Americans and terrorists, but today the enemy is also dust [pollution], unemployment, recession, inflation and loosening of morals and faith in society, which are all dangerous.” Nonetheless, approval of the nuclear deal by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was the only reason IRGC was unable to block it.
The Revolutionary Guards are directly subordinate to the Supreme Leader, whose decision proved vital for the implementation of the agreement. However, in their own way, the IRGC commanders have still tried to compromise the deal. On October 8, 2015, five days before the Iranian parliament voted on the nuclear agreement, the IRGC Commander, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, made a public statement warning about a secret U.S. plot. He claimed that “the adoption of the nuclear deal by the Iranian parliament would create a “new atmosphere” that would give Iran’s external and internal enemies more fuel to lead the country away from revolutionary ideals.”
On October 10, the IRGC test-fired a ballistic guided missile, drawing condemnation in the international media. Yet, on October 13, the Iranian Parliament passed the nuclear deal, following the approval of the U.S. Congress a month earlier. It is also hardly a coincidence that a month before Congress was to vote on the nuclear agreement, the Revolutionary Guards announced plans to hold “huge ballistic missile exercises.” The news certainly helped to stir debate in Congress and gave fuel to the arguments of those who opposed the deal.
To date, the IRGC’s efforts to derail the deal have backfired, because a day after the nuclear sanctions were lifted, the U.S. Treasury imposed new sanctions targeting 11 companies and individuals involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program. Meanwhile, the nuclear deal is a loss for the Revolutionary Guards of the Iran, though it’s a major victory for the country as a whole.
It was essential that Rouhani implement the deal before the upcoming elections: This month Iranians will be voting for seats in two major government institutions: parliament and the Assembly of Experts (the supreme council of clerics). An intense power struggle is underway between the reformists and hardliners over the seats in these bodies. On January 21, Iranian reformists called on the Guardian’s Council of Iran to reverse its decision disqualifying 99 percent of the moderate candidates from running for the parliament.
The Assembly of Experts are elected for eight years, and will have the authority to select a successor to the 76-year-old Supreme Leader, in case the latter steps down or is unable to fulfill his duties due to ill health. In short, this month’s elections will largely determine whether Iran will adhere to the commitments it made to the P5+1.
Huseyn Panahov is on the editorial board of the Public Policy Institute in Azerbaijan.