A dispute between Iran's foreign minister and a leading regime hardliner over whether to insist on removing the paramilitary from the "terrorist" list indicates divisions in the Islamic Republic over what kind of nuclear deal it wants with the West.
It has been a sticking point in the negotiations to revive the 2015 pact regulating Iran's nuclear program: Tehran had insisted that the Revolutionary Guards, the elite military unit founded by Ayatollah Khomeini, be taken off the list of global terrorist groups. Western negotiators were told the condition was a "red line" if any deal was to be reached.
But recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian suggested the regime may not insist on the West removing the Guards from the sanctioned list, with the powerful military wing's willingness to make a "sacrifice" for the state's interests and "selflessly" aid talks to revive the pact and help end crippling sanctions on Iran.
Over the years, the Revolutionary Guards, formed soon after the 1979 revolution, have become a mix of domestic power brokers, politicized army, regional intervention force and big-business holding.
But one arch-conservative in Iran, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the Tehran paper Kayhan (not affiliated with Kayhan London) and said to be close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, says the minister's claims were so implausible that there must have been a misunderstanding.
The Revolutionary Guards' "selflessness"
Iran's Foreign Minister Amirabdollahian told state television on March 26 that negotiators were working to remove all persons and entities "including big economic holdings and states bodies and those related to the Guards" from the international terrorists list.
He said the Revolutionary guards were the regime's "most important security and defensive sector" and that their role and legal status must be recognized abroad — something about which "we have exchanged messages with the Americans."
But he said senior officers had told his ministry to "do whatever you need to, and if you reach a point where the issue is the Guards, this shouldn't be an obstacle for you." This, Amirabdollahian added, showed "a certain selflessness." He said officers had advised the ministry that the Guards should not be a priority over and above "the country's interests."
The debate indicates divisions on what a pact with the West should include.
Their activities in the Middle East have precisely become a sticking point in nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Several regional states, including Israel, are alarmed at reports the United States might back a motion to take them off the list of terrorist organizations.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and late Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)'s Qasem Soleimani in Tehran
Internal divisions over nuclear deal
Amirabdollahian stressed his diplomats would not in any case take any liberties in this matter. Even so, for Kayhan's editor Shariatmadari, such diplomatic talk was "entirely strange and unexpected," and the minister was not "sufficiently on top of his brief and prerogatives."
Why, he asked, speaking to Fars news agency, was Amirabdollahian tying the state's security to a pact with the Americans instead of relying on this veteran military force? It seemed highly unlikely, he added, that any Guards commander would make the suggestions attributed to them, so much so that there "must have been a misinterpretation."
Shariatmadari, who only months ago called Amirabdollahian a "diplomat of the resistance," now accused him of calling "surrender, selflessness, and worse still, attributing this surrender to Guards commanders."
The debate indicates divisions inside the regime, which have existed for several years, on what a pact with the West should include. Can the regime negotiate over what it deems to be vital activities — like meddling in the region to reshape its politics, backing Shia militias, or running a ballistic missiles program?
As the Guards' late general and chief regional operative, Qasem Soleimani, said before his death: Agreements like the ones sought by the West seek to emasculate the entire regime, and "desiccate the power that has arisen against the Wahhabi-Jewish version of Islam."
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