Iranian elites rally behind IRGC after US terrorist designation

Iranian elites from across the fray expressed solidarity with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps after the US administration branded the military organization a terrorist organization.

al-monitor Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), in Tehran, Sept. 22, 2011.  Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Apr 9, 2019

A day after being designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the Donald Trump administration, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is receiving a wave of support from home. The widespread backing from a commonly fractured elite notably came even from those who traditionally harbor striking differences with the powerful organization.

In an unprecedented gesture of solidarity, parliamentarians including speaker Ali Larijani and Reformist majority leader Mohammad Reza Aref appeared in the IRGC's green uniforms in an early morning session March 9. Of particular note, outspoken IRGC critic Mahmoud Sadeghi — another Reformist parliament member — also joined the gesture by donning IRGC fatigues.

"Despite all the differences over domestic issues, we stand united in solidarity with our armed forces against the irrational foreign enemy," tweeted Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, a senior Reformist figure, signaling that support for the IRGC under current conditions goes well beyond the partisan divide.

The Iranian parliament's reaction to the FTO designation does not appear limited to the symbolic move of showing up in uniform. Lawmakers also passed an urgent motion to "strengthen" the IRGC's position. But it was not immediately clear what the motion included. Similarly, only hours after the FTO designation, the Supreme National Security Council in a tit-for-tat measure designated the United States as a "state sponsor of terrorism." It also branded as terrorists US Central Command (CENTCOM) and its affiliated forces.

In his first public appearance following the US decision, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei downplayed the measure, predicting that it will only backfire against the Trump administration. Khamenei praised the IRGC for taking the "fight against the enemies thousands of kilometers beyond Iran's borders," referring to the Islamic Republic’s rising doctrine of “forward defense” over the past decade.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also echoed this stance. "The United States made the decision to vent its anger at the IRGC's victories in ousting terrorists from the region," said Rouhani, referring to the Iranian military’s role in fighting the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Rouhani made the comments at an event marking Iran's National Day of Nuclear Technology, where he unveiled new nuclear achievements. "You [US government] used to be worried about our [1970s era] IR-1 centrifuges. Today, we inaugurated [the initiation of the construction of] a cascade of IR-6 [centrifuges], and if your tyranny continues, you will witness IR-8 centrifuges as well," Rouhani said in a boastful message to Washington.

Of note, the apparent move to develop far more advanced centrifuges reportedly falls within the confines of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Meanwhile, Iran's leading papers reflected the same cross-partisan mood of solidarity. Reformist Ebtekar described the US decision "as twisting the lion's tail," while the government’s official Iran daily called it an "adventurist move." But hard-line Kayhan had even harsher words: "With his stupid move, Trump issued the permit for the killing of American forces," the paper's editorial read, suggesting that now that they are branded terrorists by Iran, US soldiers in the region will effectively be within the target range of Iranian forces. The new terrorist label for US troops was in a way officially inaugurated by Iran's state TV as it reported that "four American terrorists were killed in Afghanistan," marking a significant change of terminology as it covered a deadly roadside bomb attack against American soldiers on April 8.

On his official Instagram page followed by millions of Iranians, the IRGC's perhaps most prominent commander Qasem Soleimani, who leads the force's overseas activities, reposted one of his older speeches in a video clip featuring footage of coffins of foreign soldiers slain in the Middle East, in which he reminded the US government of the "fruitlessness" of its mission there.

While opinions on the FTO designation varied on social media, multiple hashtags in solidarity were rapidly trending, such as "I am a Guard too" — which was the headline of the Reformist Etemaad daily. Users also highlighted the current relief operations conducted by IRGC forces in several Iranian provinces grappling with deadly flooding. "The US hurry to announce this decision at a time when the IRGC is aiding the flood-stricken with full force was but a gift to Netanyahu ahead of the Israeli elections," wrote Iran's Ambassador to Britain Hamid Baeidinejad.

The full implications of the US decision have yet to emerge as US-Iran tensions are likely to enter a fresh level. But immediate impacts on Iranian markets are already out there. Iran's national currency lost 7.5% of its value against the greenback in the 24 hours since the US measure was announced. Politically, however, the move could boomerang against the Trump administration. "The US passed the ball to the IRGC to score the goal and further boosted the Guards' position in international relations," said Reformist commentator Hassan Assadi Zeidabadi.

Militarily, Washington's decision could see the IRGC in a more confrontational posture. Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami has warned that if the US move becomes operational, "Iran will respond in kind with firmness." The warning was rephrased in a tougher tone by ultraconservative IRGC member and parliamentarian Javad Karimi Ghoddousi: "Trump must look forward to receiving coffins of American terrorists [soldiers] back home."

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