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Inducing Behavioral Change in the Islamic Republic of Iran

The Trump Administration’s decision to designate Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) is an understandable part of Washington’s efforts to change Tehran’s foreign policy behavior. However, the move is unlikely to produce the desired result. In fact, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, it is not likely to change much in the long-stalemated adversarial U.S.-Iranian relationship. Ensuring that the clerical regime does not undermine our national interests will require more than symbolic moves like this.

The Shiite Islamist Threat

Ever since the rise of al Qaeda, the United States has been caught between two competing forms of Islamist radicalisms. Since 9/11 – and especially since the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS) – Washington has expended the bulk of its energies fighting non-state Sunni jihadist actors. While this struggle continues, the U.S. faces a renewed challenge from Shiite Islamism. In some ways, the latter may prove to be a more enduring threat than jihadism, because it is backed by a state actor and has asserted itself in the politics of governance in places like Iraq and Lebanon, while Sunni jihadists,  as my colleague Hassan Hassan argues, failed every time they tried – as is evident from the collapse of the ISIS caliphate.  

Long before Sunni Islamists adopted terrorism, Iran’s IRGC-supported Hezbollah was engaged in terrorist attacks. In fact, it was Shiite Islamists who first embraced the use of suicide bombings in Lebanon during the early 1980s. Since the 1990s, Iran’s premier regional proxy has entrenched itself in Lebanon’s political system and, with the help of its IRGC patron, developed a military force more powerful than the Lebanese Armed Forces. Meanwhile, Sunni terrorist entities such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS adopted and mastered the tactic of suicide bombings.

The U.S. decision to effect regime change in Baghdad in 2003 allowed the IRGC’s foreign operations arm, the Qods Force (QF), to cultivate Shiite militias in Iraq. What helped Iran nurture these militias was the Bush administration’s dependence on pro-Iranian Shia political groups to forge the post-Baathist Iraqi state. Eight years later, just as Iraq-based jihadists were able to take advantage of the Arab Spring uprising in Syria and become ISIS, the IRGC-QF was well-placed to mobilize Shiite militias from the broader Arab/Muslim world to fight alongside the Assad regime’s forces against the largely Salafist-jihadist rebels. The United States is thus caught in a perpetual balancing act between Shiite and Sunni radicalisms – locked in a vicious geosectarian conflict.

Washington’s Priorities

It is no secret that Washington and Tehran have tactically cooperated to counter ISIS. The dilemma for Washington is that the struggle against ISIS provides Iran the opportunity to advance its regional ambitions. This unintended outcome informed the Trump Administration’s decision to nix the 2015 nuclear deal and pursue a policy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Tehran, which has culminated in the designation of the IRGC as an FTO. It is crucial to ensure that Tehran does not exploit the fight against jihadism to advance its agenda.

Likewise, it is also vital that U.S. efforts to counter Iran do not strengthen jihadists. In an August 2018 issue of the Navigator, I argued that Washington must focus on escaping from a causality loop, which has the United States continuously oscillating between fighting jihadists and containing Iran. Both struggles involve getting the actors in question to change their behavior because military force alone cannot defeat radicalism. While there is a great deal of work being done on understanding how extremist non-state actors can be brought into the political mainstreams; far less emphasis is being placed on studying the ways in which the behavior of radical state actors can be moderated.

The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have shown that regime-change is not a panacea. On the contrary, it only makes matters worse, which would explain why the Trump Administration is not pursuing that route with Iran. Instead, the president has made it clear that he wants a better deal – as unlikely as this is – with Tehran than the previous nuclear agreement. Thus, he is increasing pressure on Iran in hopes of forcing Tehran to come to the table, where Washington can negotiate from a position of relative strength.

Another Unintended Consequence

The problem with the FTO designation is it is more symbolic than substantive. It makes for good domestic politics and offers some reassurance to our key regional allies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. But the move is not likely to help us reshape Iran’s behavior. Iran is already under so many sanctions that this move is of questionable additional value.

Moreover, the IRGC arose under increasing international sanctions and has learned to survive under harsh conditionsTherefore, the regime can be expected to become more defiant. This is not just because the IRGC dominates the clerical regime’s political economy but also because the Corps is seen as the guarantor of the security of the republic. At times like this, all those factions and centers of power who would normally want to rein in the Corps’ disproportionate amount of influence will have no choice but to strengthen it.

We are inadvertently empowering the very force we seek to curb – strengthening its ability to consolidate its domestic position. Now more than ever before the Corps will be able to succeed in neutralizing those seeking political reform. The IRGC thrives in isolation and if we truly want to induce ideological and behavioral transformation in Tehran, there is no better way than facilitating greater international contact with the country. This is why the Corps and the clergy were so fearful of the nuclear deal because it would have led to increased engagement with the outside world, which in turn would weaken their hold over the regime.

Iran is, therefore, unlikely to throw in the towel in the face of the Trump Administration’s latest efforts to increase pressure. It will engage in counter-moves to complicate matters for the United States in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Pressure is indeed necessary to compel the other side, but it should not be applied in ways that are counterproductive and could lead to additional unintended negative consequences. Washington needs a well thought out coherent strategy to impel Tehran towards behavioral change because ad hoc pressure tactics don’t work; they only create additional problems.

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Director of Governance in Muslim-Majority States program at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Bokhari is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Arabia Foundation. He is also is a national security & foreign policy specialist with the Professional Development Institute at the University of Ottawa and tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.