By Ghazal Vaisi*
Nuclear talks between Iran and the West have stalled as the US continues to refuse Iran’s demand that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) be removed from the Foreign Terrorist Organization’s (FTO) list.
Both Democratic US Senator, Joe Manchin, who expressed concerns in a letter to Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and former Iranian parliamentarian, Faezeh Hashemi, who infuriated hardliners in Tehran for opposing the delisting of the IRGC, have spoken out in opposition. Hashemi declared, “I don’t believe the removal of the IRGC from the list serves the Iranian nation any good,” and that the IRGC should, “retreat to its bases.”
The widespread belief among Iranian dissidents is that the sanctions relief will provide Iran with the funds to strengthen IRGC’s missile and drone programs and boost the Islamic Republic’s leadership’s morale while delivering a slap in the face to all their victims from Syria to Tehran.
If IRGC is removed, its reputation prior to Soleimani’s killing will be restored among its militias, and Iran will never curb its missile and drone program, which has been the main driver of its influence in the Middle East. Moreover, lifting sanctions will strengthen their system of domestic oppression, demoralizing Iranian dissidents.
The Islamic Republic has long sought to exclude any address of its funding of proxies and weapons development programs in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accord. Masoud Jazayeri, former Iranian Armed Forces Deputy Chief of Staff, said “The plan to develop the Islamic Republic’s missile and defense power has nothing to do with the JCPOA.”
On the contrary, Iran’s missile and defense power are critical inclusions to ensure an effective JCPOA. As Senator Manchin states to Secretary Blinken, “We should not reward Iran with sanctions relief before they demonstrate verifiable efforts towards curbing… their nuclear ambitions, terrorism financing, and dual-use weapons development.”
In the six months following the agreement’s implementation in 2015, Iran received sanctions relief of over $100 billion in formerly frozen monetary assets abroad. In addition to infusing the Islamic Republic with funds, the 2015 deal offered Iran access to global trade in return for accepting curbs on its atomic program.
The deal, however, did not last long. Since Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal in 2018, Iran has breached the enriched uranium limit of 3.67% fissile purity. Fissile purity currently stands at 60%, about 15 times the JCPOA limit set in 2015, according to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Roughly 90% enrichment is required to construct an atomic bomb. Due to the bipartisan nature of the US foreign policy, Iran is now very close to acquiring a nuclear weapon.
While Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon currently feels like the most potent threat, and while possession of a nuclear weapon would start an arms race with regional rivals and lead to further destabilization of the Middle East, not addressing Iran’s drone and missile program and support of proxy wars from negotiations will undermine any peaceful resolution proposed in the Middle East.
The Islamic Republic poses a threat even without a nuclear weapon. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei, deemed Iran’s regional strength and nuclear capabilities as Iran’s “power arms” in his speech during the Assembly of Experts in March of 2022. Khamenei’s viewpoints are strictly followed by his network of IRGC generals as a guideline.
Since 2015, and amid talks, IRGC has strengthened its missile and drone program and has continued to build a network of militias across the Middle East.
The restrictions on Iran’s missile program in the first agreement were weak and non-binding. As a result, Iran’s missile arsenal now towers over its regional adversaries by size and diversity, with some munitions capable of striking as far as Egypt and Eastern Europe.
Iran has also embraced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a critical pillar of its military strategy. “for the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority,” warned former CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth Mckenzie.
Iran’s IRGC shares its capabilities with its associated militias across the Middle East. The unresolved conflicts between Iran and its neighboring countries are responsible for the regions’ several failing states (Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen) torn by civil war and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
In addition to supporting rebel militias, IRGC directly enabled the Syrian dictator, Bashar-al-Assad, to massacre his people and permanently displace 13.5 million Syrians from their homes.
IRGC also arms and funds groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Union, operating from the Gaza Strip. In recent developments, the Israeli military announced that Iran launched drones from its military bases—carrying small arms, heading for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—eschewing its usual strategy of using proxies to target neighboring countries.
In addition, the Iran-backed-Houthi rebels have claimed hundreds attacks within Saudi borders. As a result, Israel, and several Arab nations, are on the brink of creating an unprecedented ‘joint defense system’ to deter the threat of Iranian drones and missiles at their doorsteps. This burgeoning alliance is proof of the imminent threat Iran can pose, even without a nuclear weapon.
IRGC’s critics believe that any sanctions relief will be allocated to military spending and strengthening Iran’s IRGC-linked and state-run intelligence services. Not only will Iranians not feel the benefits of the sanction’s relief, but the funds released will further worsen human rights issues within Iran for dissidents.
Moreover, it would demoralize Iranians and all victims of IRGC’s offensive policy, from Yemen to Syria to Tehran.
Iran’s nuclear program remains a threat to international security, and an agreement must be reached between Iran and the P5+1 nations, however not before there is a holistic coverage of all matters of conflict between Iran, the US, and its allies in the region—otherwise, the accord will provide the Islamic Republic with financial relief and a morale boost, as it did in 2015.
Delisting Iran’s IRGC from the terrorist list will send the wrong message to the decision-makers in Tehran, encouraging Iran and its associated militias to continue with their mischiefs in the region. Before giving the Islamic Republic the financial relief, they so desperately need, the US must use its leverage to bring Iran to the negotiating table and address all points of conflict driving the chaos in the Middle East.
*The author is an Iranian-born international affairs analyst focusing on the evolution of authoritarianism in the modern world. Her writings have appeared in the Middle East Institute, Independent Farsi, and Iran International.
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