Quds v. Revolutionary Guards: Why U.S. Sees Iran's Two "Terrorist" Forces Differently
Is there calculated diplomacy or just confusion behind the Biden administration's ambivalent positions on what can only be defined as 'terrorism' of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards?
For weeks now there has been talk of removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from the West's list of international terrorists, to meet one of Iran's conditions for renewing the 2015 pact on its nuclear program, or agreeing on a similar pact. Tehran says removing the terrorist label from the Guards and lifting all sanctions on this key military force constitute a 'red line' that must be included in any deal in ongoing, though stalled, talks on its program.
Recently U.S. President Joe Biden and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, voiced opposition, without specifically citing the Revolutionary Guards, to ending the terrorist label for one particular unit of the Guards, the Quds Force. This is a regional task force suspected of meddling in the affairs of several neighboring states, and the previous U.S. administration of President Donald Trump took out its powerful leader Qassem Soleimani in 2020, saying he was a threat to U.S. forces.
The problem with Washington's comments and thinking is the idea that the Guards and the Quds Force are two distinct institutions, when in fact they are part of a single entity.
On Khamenei's orders
The Quds Force or Quds Army (Sepah-e quds) takes its name from Jerusalem (Quds), a city that the Islamic Republic of Iran boasts it will recover for the Muslims. The force emerged from departments created after the 1979 revolution to back operations and Islamist movements outside Iran.
The directorates' names, and their heads, changed through the years of war with Iraq (1980-88), but it was clear they effectively functioned under the aegis of the Revolutionary Guards. After the end of the war, the country's new supreme leader Ali Khamenei, ordered the creation of the Quds Force as one of the five branches of the Revolutionary Guards, alongside their infantry, air force, navy and the Basij (city militias). Thus the operations of the Quds force cannot be considered as independent of the Guards.
The declarations of U.S. officials on the Guards are ambivalent
U.S. officials have not explained why they have separated the two. Some analysts in the United States argue that the Revolutionary Guards operate inside Iran, in contrast with the Quds force, but this again is inaccurate. The Quds force helps arm regional militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza or the Hasht al-Shaabi in Iraq. All the arms it channels to these groups are made in Iran by the defense ministry and the Guards' own arms factories. The Quds force is merely tasked with ensuring they reach the recipients.
A young boy wearing an IRGC uniform and portrait of Qasem Soleimani
Why is the United States quiet?
The declarations of U.S. officials on the Guards are ambivalent, if not confusing. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Guards terrorists, speaking to the broadcaster NBC, but would not say whether or not they would remain subject to sanctions.
The Guards, it should be noted, are listed as terrorists for backing several regional militias, but also Syria's brutal regime. The Quds force however is listed more specifically for its activities in Iraq and consequent role in the deaths of more than 600 U.S. military personnel.
The Biden administration's desire to delist the Guards is no surprise, as it has already done this with Yemen's Houthis, who have targeted civilian sites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That happened very soon after Biden entered the White House, and is just one reason why the two monarchies have curbed their ties with the United States.
Guards' deadly threats
The head of the Revolutionary Guards land forces, Muhammad Khakpur, recently said that if "all of America's leaders were to die, it wouldn't compensate for Soleimani's blood," referring to Qasem Soleimani, the Quds force general killed in a U.S. drone strike. He said the regime would continue to seek revenge "by other means."
Even Iran cannot understand the distinction.
The Biden administration's response to such threats is feeble, consisting merely in feeding doubts on the Guards' terrorist status and sanctions. Nor is it clear why Washington insists on separating the Guards and the Quds force, when they are more tightly intertwined than the Hezbollah's political and military wings. They are in the same command structure and subject to the Revolutionary Guards' charter.
Even the Iranian regime itself cannot understand the distinction. Dozens of documents published in the United States in past years have linked the Revolutionary Guards to terrorist activity in the Middle East and worldwide. One of the most notorious incidents it is accused of — before the Quds force was created — was the 1983 truck attacks on a U.S. Marine base in Beirut, which killed 241 American service personnel. The Guards began practicing terrorism soon after 1979. The Quds force is simply the department formed to run the mischief carried out abroad.
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