After the US unilaterally walked out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 to revive the Iran nuclear deal have not succeeded so far. Points of contention have included re-imposition of sanctions by the US, Iran making significant gains in its nuclear programme, as well as domestic political issues like the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in 2022.1
The 2019 designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) by the US State Department has been another key impediment that has prevented the revival of the deal. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in March 2022 held that sanctions imposed on the IRGC were a “red line” as the IRGC was “the most important security and defense” organisation in the country.2 While speaking at the Doha Forum in 2022, Kamal Kharazi, a former foreign minister and adviser to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei insisted that the IRGC “certainly must be removed” from the FTOs list for nuclear talks to succeed.3
The IRGC is an influential institution as the Guardian of the Islamic Revolution and has come to play a significant role economically as well as politically. The sanctions re-imposed on Iran after the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA made it difficult for foreign firms to conduct business with Iran and further isolated Iran’s economy. As part of Khamenei’s vision of a ‘resistance economy’ against the US sanctions, the IRGC expanded its role as an economic actor, especially in mega projects.
The IRGC reportedly has a near monopoly in industries like construction, energy, mining, telecommunication, among others.4 Reports in 2020 noted that the IRGC controlled around one-third of the Iranian economy.5 The IRGC has been able to transform itself from an Islamist militia to one of the most powerful institutions in the country. The reformist Khatami and later moderate Rouhani administrations tried limiting the economic activities of the IRGC to expand the private sector.6
The Ahmadinejad and the current Raisi administrations, however, gave prominent roles to former IRGC generals, including Cabinet positions. For instance, Seyyed-Parviz Fatthah, Minister of Energy and Abdol-RezaMesri, Minister of Welfare and Security were among 12 out of 21 ministers appointed by Ahmadinejad who had served in the IRGC.7 President Raisi appointed former IRGC officials like Yaghubali Nazari as the Governor of Khorasan-Razavi province, Abedin Khorram as the Governor of Eastern Azerbaijan and Mohammad Sadatinejat as the Agriculture Minister.8 Supreme Leader Khamenei regards the IRGC as the sooton-e kheimeh enghlab (Main Pillar of the Islamic revolution).9
While the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) formulates Iranian nuclear policy within the broad policy framework set by the Supreme Leader, it is safe to say that the IRGC has an important say in the matter. Former President Hassan Rouhani, who was also the first Secretary of the SNSC, as well as his successors, have served in the IRGC. Most recently, on 22 May 2023, Ali Akbar Ahmadian, who was elevated to the post of SNSC Secretary, was also a veteran commander of the IRGC.10
The IRGC has maintained a hawkish stance vis-à-vis the nuclear issue and has been against giving nuclear concessions. The IRGC has long maintained that Iran should have the right to develop nuclear weapons in the face of the military threat from hostile actors as well as to safeguard the country from foreign intervention.11
The US Secretary of State designates an organisation as an FTO if it engages in terrorist activity and threatens the security of US nationals or the US national security. While the Biden administration is keen to revive the nuclear deal, there is unwillingness on delisting the IRGC from the FTOs list. On 16 August 2023, the US State Department insisted that the US was committed to ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon and that diplomacy was the best way to achieve it. The Spokesperson further stated that Iran needed to de-escalate first to create space for diplomacy.12
The IRGC is seen as perpetrator of terrorism in the region and is alleged to have had a role in the killing of US soldiers and officials in Iraq.13 In light of demands by Iran for the delisting of the IRGC, the US Senate passed a non-binding resolution in May 2022 against such a move by 62 votes to 33, with 16 Democrats also joining the Republicans in passing the measure.14 So far, there has been no change in the stand of the US that delisting the IRGC from FTO’s list is separate from JCPOA revival.15 The US State Department in May 2023 reiterated that the IRGC has been designated as an FTO and noted that the IRGC “are subject to more US sanctions than any other entity on the planet”.16
It is significant to note that after the IRGC listing as an FTO in 2019 and the killing of Hossein Soleimani in January 2020, attacks from Iran-backed groups went up by 400 per cent between 2019 and 2020.17 According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), the period saw heightened US–Iran tensions in which approximately 50 attacks took place on the US bases in Iraq.18 After the resumption of JCPOA talks in Vienna in April 2021, reports indicate that there has been a 25 per cent reduction in the attacks on the US bases in Iraq.19
The Trump administration listed the IRGC as an FTO under its maximum pressure campaign. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in May 2022 admitted that the FTO designation has had had minimal impact on curbing IRGC’s alleged destabilising activities.20 While the regional security situation has continued to deteriorate since the 2019 FTO designation, there has also not been much progress on the Iranian nuclear talks. A compromise on the IRGC issue between Iran and its interlocutors continues to be an essential part of the bargain to resume mutual compliance with the terms and obligations of the JCPOA.
- John Irish, “No Push for Nuclear Talks, US Envoy Says, Due to Protests, Drone Sales”, Reuters, 15 November 2022.
2.“Iran FM Says IRGC Sanctions Red Line for Vienna Talks”, Al-Monitor, 28 March 2022.
3.Trita Parsi, “Without the Iran Nuclear Deal, War is On the Horizon”, Responsible Statecraft, 31 March 2022.
4.Steven O’hern, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard: The Threat That Grows While America Sleeps, Potomac Books, Washington D.C., 2012, p. 107.
5.Sarah Canna, “IRGC’s Role in the Black Economy”, Virtual Think Tank Analysis, May 2020, p. 4.
6.Munqith Dagher, “The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from an Iraqi View – A Lost Role or a Bright Future”, Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 30 July 2020.
7.Ali Alfoneh, “Ahmadinejad versus the Technocrats”, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, No. 4, May 2008, p. 2.
8.“Iran’s Raisi Appoints More IRGC Commanders to Civilian Positions”, Iran International, 18 October 2021.
9.Saeid Golkar and Kasra Aarabi, “Why Khamenei is Unlikely to Pick His Son to Succeed Him as Iran’s Supreme Leader?”, Middle East Institute, 21 September 2022.
10.Mehran Shamshuddin, “New Face of National Security”, Tehran Times, 22 May 2023.
11.Nima Gerami and Mehdi Khalaji, “Iran’s Nuclear Debate: The Domestic Politics”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 26 February 2014.
12.“Department Press Briefing”, US Department of State, 16 August 2023.
13.“Statement by the Department of Defence”, US Department of Defense, 2 January 2020.
14.“Is Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal Still Possible?”, International Crisis Group, 12 September 2022.
15.“Department Press Briefing”, US Department of State, 16 August 2023.
16.“Department Press Briefing”, US Department of State, 18 May 2023.
17.“Department Press Briefing”, US Department of State, 31 March 2022.
18.“The Muqawama and Its Enemies: Shifting Patterns in Iran-Backed Shiite Militia Activity in Iraq”,ACLED, 23 May 2023.
20.Ali Harb, “How US Blacklisting of IRGC is Stalling Iran Nuclear Deal Revival”, Al-Jazeera, 13 May 2022.