By Riad Kahwaji*
The U.S. Administration decision to brand the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as a terrorist organization appears to be a pre-determined step in line with the ongoing escalatory policy of the White House aimed as subjecting Tehran to unprecedented pressure that would prompt it to either concede to Washington’s demands or to react in a violent manner that would ignite a war sought by hardliners on both sides. Tehran’s reaction by regarding U.S. troops as terrorists indicates that Tehran is keeping all options on the table, including a military option of targeting American forces in the region either directly or via its proxy groups operating in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
Although the timing of the U.S. action might have been to give a push to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s general elections on April 9, nevertheless it seemed in sync with President Donald Trump’s policy towards Iran, which has been marked by steady escalation for the past year. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heightened his rhetoric against Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah in his visit to Beirut in late March 2019. He repeated his threats to Hezbollah and the IRGC in his press conference April 8 announcing the latest actions by his administration against Iran.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized the U.S. decision and warned Washington that Iran has managed in the past year to build “weapons and missiles that they could not imagine.” He also threatened that if U.S. maintains its current pressure on his country, Tehran would resume uranium enrichment at much higher paste using more advanced centrifuges. Iran certainly has many cards up its sleeves, but many of them might lead to adverse consequences. However, Tehran has for many years mastered the policy of walking the edge of the cliff. As Secretary Pompeo indicated in his April 8 statement, Tehran did not hesitate over the past years to use its proxy forces to attack and kill hundreds of American troops in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Hence, many observers and U.S. defense officials fear that the IRGC could get its proxy militias in the region to target U.S. troops and interests in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s Houthi militiamen in Yemen had targeted last year U.S. warships off Bab al-Mandeb strait with surface-to-surface missiles.
Now that the U.S. regards the IRGC as a terrorist organization, how far will Washington go in enforcing the economic and financial sanctions on entities affiliated with the IRGC or on countries dealing with them? What will be the new rules of engagement with respect to IRGC assets and their proxy militias in the region? IRGC gunboats have frequently harassed U.S. warships in the Arabian Gulf waters, and on one occasion even captured American sailors for a day. In the past the American warships either ignored the harassments or fired warning shots. Now they are branded as terrorists how will the U.S. Navy react to any provocations by IRGC Navy? What about the possibility of attacks by Iran’s proxy militias against U.S. troops in Iraq or Syria? Before U.S. military pullout from Iraq in 2011, American troops there retaliated against Iranian proxy militias directly when they came under attack. Now American forces are back in Iraq and their bases are within reach of thousands of Iraqi militias trained and armed by IRGC, how will Washington react to an attack on them by Iranian proxies? Will rules of engagement be as they were before 2011, or the U.S. will retaliate against IRGC directly in Iran?
The logic of realpolitik dictates that Washington has done its calculations well and would be willing to go all the way in implementing its Iran policies and not count on simple verbal threats and posturing. Bluffing policies do not work with an adversary like Iran that has always shown readiness to push things to the edge. Unless Washington has the readiness and willingness to retaliate forcefully and directly against any military actions or provocations by Iran, its current policies will not yield any results and will likely backfire against the U.S. Tehran perceives itself as a global power and a peer to the United States, and has for long tried to sell its people and the region that it is an equal military power to the U.S. Thus, the IRGC will likely provoke the U.S. directly or through its proxy militias to promote itself as a powerful player equal to the U.S. The only way for Washington to avoid falling hostage to its current anti-Iran policies is for it to impose its own rules of engagement vis-a-vis the IRGC and gain the momentum from the very first day and not allow American troops and interests in the region to become easy targets to Iran and its allies.
The IRGC has been getting ready for a possible showdown with the U.S. for many years, and it has improved its positioning in the region considerably. It has many ballistic missiles based throughout the Levant – in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – placing U.S. targets as far as Eastern Europe within range. It even has surface to surface anti-ship missiles based in Lebanon and possibly Syria threatening U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean. It already has anti-ship cruise missiles and big arsenal of ballistic missiles locked on targets around Iran, especially the Arabian Gulf waters. Hence, the IRGC has the ability to wage massive surprise attacks against U.S. bases and forces in the Arabian Gulf and the Levant and as far as Afghanistan, inflicting sever losses. Although the military balance of power is by far in U.S. favor, Washington would still find itself in a difficult war that the American public might not be eager to enter or sustain. Tehran will likely be betting on the vulnerability of the U.S. home front in withstanding big losses in a possible lengthy war with Iran.
Therefore, escalation against Iran must be well calculated and prepared for politically and militarily because any misstep could lead to a disastrous long regional war that might empower the IRGC and its proxies rather than weaken them. It is widely hoped by U.S. allies in the region that current American policies towards Iran do not turn out to be political stunts to serve limited political gains by Israel or serve U.S. electoral ambitions. America’s allies also hope that Washington is taking solid steps with robust preparations and good calculations to ensure swift success with minimal losses, and hopefully short of a regional war.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 30 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.