TEHRAN (Reuters) - New U.S. sanctions have upped the stakes in a standoff with Iran by targetting a military force at the heart of Iran’s ruling system but Tehran is likely to respond cautiously to the move even if its rhetoric toughens.
The United States on Thursday branded the Revolutionary Guards a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, said its Qods force backed terrorists and slapped additional sanctions on Iran. Some U.S. politicians saw it as a step closer to war.
Iran dismissed the move as illegal. It has said Washington’s tactics would not stop Tehran’s civilian programme that is at the centre of the row between the two arch foes. Washington says Tehran’s real aim is to make atomic bombs, a charge Iran denies.
Iranian analysts said Washington’s move escalated the row by fingering the Guards, an independent arm of the military set up as guardians of the revolution and answering directly to Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“If somebody confronts the Revolutionary Guards, it means he would like to confront the Islamic Republic,” said Tehran University professor Hamidreza Jalaeipour.
The Guards have a special status for many Iranians because it was the core force defending Iran in the 1980s war with Iraq, analysts said. When Washington first mooted steps against the Guards, Iranians from across the political spectrum spoke out.
But analysts say Iran is likely to respond cautiously despite other signs of a toughening line in Tehran, such as changing Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator this month. The new negotiator is an ally of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“There will be a lot of strong words. But I don’t think there will be any immediate thing that Iranians will do more than just words. They will wait to see if it is something that can really bite,” said an Iranian analyst, asking not to be named.
While business executives say existing U.N. and U.S. sanctions are hurting the economy, Iran is enjoying windfall oil earnings that mean it can at least partially offset any impact.
Iranian officials also repeatedly voice confidence — in public and private — that Washington is in no position to open a new front when bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a U.S. refusal to rule out military action in the nuclear row.
In addition, Iran will want to see if the U.S. move unites world powers against Tehran or divides them. Russia and China, which have both resisted toughening U.N. sanctions on Iran, said the U.S. move could make the dispute with Iran worse.
But the Guards have become more susceptible to sanctions because of sprawling business interests, ranging from construction work to oil and gas projects. Some have also seen growing political influence of the force
“When you create a big body that does everything you make yourself vulnerable if that one body comes under pressure,” the Iranian analyst said.
Such concerns may have influenced the choice of the new Guards commander when Yahya Rahim Safavi was replaced in September after 10 years in charge.
Although many saw the timing as part of a routine rotation, Mohammad Ali Jafari has a background as a strategic planner, skills analysts said would help better coordinate the Guards’ disparate operations and mobilise resources for when needed.
“He is the man who can refocus the attention of the Revolutionary Guards on more important issues than everyday politics,” said another political analyst.
The Guards, estimated to have a 125,000-strong force, was set up in parallel to the regular army to protect the clerical system after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The Qods force was set up to handle overseas activities, in particular backing “liberation” movements in the region and beyond, analysts said. Washington accuses members of the Qods force of stoking violence in Iraq, a charge Tehran dismisses.
The president was a former Guardsman, and analysts say many of Ahmadinejad’s political appointments ranging from provincial governors to more senior posts have been from comrades in arms. Some analysts say it shows an expanding military influence.
But the Guards ultimate loyalty lies not with the president but with the supreme leader, Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state.