Though a final deal over Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely to take shape in Vienna before Sunday’s self-imposed deadline, the U.S. should make it clear in the negotiations over an extension of the diplomatic talks that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps cannot stand to benefit from sanctions relief.
In the delicate diplomatic game with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, the IRGC are seen as hardliners, and for good reason. As Syria’s Bashar al-Assad found himself threatened by a popular uprising, it was IRGC training, personnel, and financial assistance that saved the Syrian dictator. The IRGC is the conduit for Iranian support to terrorist groups in the region and beyond. The Syrian-made missiles being fired on Israel by Hamas are transferred to Gaza by the IRGC. They’ve propped up Hezbollah in Lebanon. They’ve helped establish and train Shi’a militias in Iraq that for years contributed to a sectarian bloodbath. In addition, IRGC companies are at the forefront of Iran’s clandestine procurement efforts for Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, both key components of Iran’s military industrial complex.
At no point in time, whether during the course of negotiations over an extension to the diplomatic talks or in a final accord, sanctions relief should be constructed in a manner that benefits the IRGC. All relief must be designed to keep the IRGC, its leadership, and its financial and business enterprises under sanctions to deprive them with the opportunity to continue to pursue their nefarious activities.
Sanctions enacted by legislation and executive order allow U.S. negotiators to provide concessions while making an exception for the IRGC. The language was included because policymakers in Washington understand that the IRGC plays a key tool in Iran’s ongoing state sponsorship of terrorism, that they are a tool of oppression and human rights’ violations, and that they are a key instrument in Iran’s ballistic missile program.
European sanctions against Iran, however, are mostly targeted against Iran’s nuclear program and will gradually dissipate once a final agreement is reached. This stands to free the IRGC of impediments to procure technology and benefit from the foreign investment and business opportunities that a deal will usher in.
To protect against that eventuality, ratcheting up sanctions against the IRGC should be a priority for the U.S. government today – especially since, as the EU will relax its restrictions, U.S. secondary sanctions may soon become the only bulwark against Iran’s cheating.
The U.S. can use existing sanctions against the IRGC to target hundreds of IRGC companies that have so far eluded sanctions. Targets should include all IRGC-owned businesses listed on Iran’s stock exchange, the ones that are not publicly traded, and the companies where the IRGC has a minority stake. Their senior personnel should be targeted with asset freezes and travel bans on all senior managers, board members, and C-suite executives. They are the backbone of IRGC, trusted people who make both daily calls and long term strategic decisions for the IRGC’s financial empire.
Critics will no doubt say that expanding sanctions at this critical time in negotiations – or insisting that such stringent measures be passed after an agreement is signed – would doom any compromise to failure. Yet, these critics are usually quick to point out to the ongoing battle between Rouhani and the IRGC as evidence of Rouhani’s moderation.
A strong U.S. effort to cripple the IRGC would have the added benefit of testing if the conventional wisdom of Rouhani’s supposed moderation. Rouhani’s ongoing confrontation with the IRGC is in part a power struggle over influence and state resources. It may also stem from a genuine desire to weaken the IRGC because of its nefarious role in Iran’s economy, its foreign policy, and domestic matters. By showing that the proper nuclear concessions will yield benefits to those who embrace moderation, not those who foment extremism, the U.S. could empower Rouhani with more ammunition to put IRGC out of business.
Besides, denying the IRGC any benefits from sanctions relief stands to yield additional policy advantages even if it were not to boost moderate forces inside Iran. The market value and revenues of IRGC companies would decline, thus reducing their role in Iran’s economy and denying the IRGC access to funds for their terrorist and proliferation activities. The exclusion of the IRGC from the expected windfall that Iran will enjoy from sanctions relief is also bound to weaken their political influence domestically.
The primary goal of the sanctions architecture has been to give negotiators leverage. But they are also a tool to deny proliferators access to wealth and technology. There is nothing to suggest that the IRGC will renounce its designs under any circumstances – and there is good reason, therefore, to deny them the benefits that sanction relief will yield for Iran in exchange for its compliance.
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Saeed Ghasseminejad is a Ph.D. candidate in Finance at City University of New York.