Will Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Undermine the Nuclear Deal?

by Mahmoud Pargoo

Iran revealed one of its missile inventories 500 meters underground on October 16, only a few days after it tested a new medium-range ballistic missile. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, condemned the test, describing it as “a clear violation” of UN Security Council resolutions. France expressed similar concerns over the test. Given that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) runs Iran’s ballistic missile program and some of its nuclear facilities, these moves raised concerns that the IRGC will undermine the recent nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—if it is not satisfied with it. Furthermore, the IRGC’s reaction to the deal has not been welcoming. The organization has been, at best, dubious if not downright critical. As an example, the IRGC’s chief warned of “nuclear sedition” on October 8, while the semi-official Fars News Agency, with its close ties to the IRGC, is full of commentaries against the deal.

Given all of these facts, will the IRGC now set out to destroy the deal?

The straightforward answer would be a simple no, given the support of the commander-in-chief and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for the deal and the IRGC’s obedience to him. The IRGC simply will not act against the will of the Supreme Leader. On such a strategic issue, Ayatollah Khamenei likely secured the IRGC’s confirmation beforehand. Rather than a matter of simple obedience to the Supreme Leader, support for the nuclear deal emerged through a process of negotiation.

However, regardless of what Ayatollah Khamenei endorses, the IRGC would have been independently seeking such a deal. It may even have been among main advocates of the secret talks between the US and Iran in July 2012 in Oman. The reason for the IRGC’s support stems from its transformation: from a primarily militaristic organization in the early 1980s to a multi-dimensional semi-state force that commands a significant influence in the economy, domestic politics, internal security and intelligence, culture, and media.

In the economy, the IRGC owns many conglomerates ranging from telecommunications to oil and gas, trade, and construction. It has been a major player in politics, with its affiliates and former members spread throughout Iranian political institutions. The IRGC owns and operates some of Iran’s main news outlets, including Fars News and Tasnim. The IRGC also exerts influence through the high administrative positions its former members have in other institutions.

Economic sanctions immediately and adversely affected the IRGC as early as February 2010 since many of the sanctions directly targeted IRGC companies, including Khatam al-Anbya Construction, Oriental Oil Kish, and Ghorb Nooh. As a result, its economic holdings suffered drastic losses that affected its operations in all other areas. By the time sanctions started, the IRGC had already diversified its operations, so it felt the shock far earlier than if it had remained in a one-dimensional military organization. The sanctions decreased its economic power, endangered its future influence both domestically and internationally, and made it more supportive of diplomatic efforts to lift the sanctions. That’s why Reuters has named IRGC a major beneficiary of sanctions relief.

In addition, the expansion of the IRGC resulted in greater cooperation with non-ideological and non-military segments of the economy, which finally led to the leadership’s more realistic appraisal of social trends and public demands. All those years of engagement with the technical affairs of international business, domestic politics, and media and public opinion have turned many of the IRGC commanders into civil technocrats who think in commercial terms instead of ideological slogans. Trying to revolutionize other realms of the state, the IRGC ended up de-revolutionizing itself and thus became more of a conventional institution. The IRGC still uses ideological discourse to mobilize ordinary people. But it relies more and more on rational calculations.

Finally, the growing public dissatisfaction during last years of the Ahmadinejad era should have persuaded IRGC strategists that keeping on the same track on the nuclear issue might lead to irreversible mayhem that could put the very existence of the Islamic Republic at risk. No IRGC members have yet alluded to their role in starting up the secret negotiations between the US and Iran back in July 2012 in Oman. But given the organization’s influence in foreign affairs, the huge economic losses it has suffered as a result of sanctions, and the rising demand for resources in the Syrian civil war, Ayatollah Khamenei no doubt consulted with the IRGC beforehand.

So, if the IRGC desperately needs the nuclear deal, why it is not lending its full support to it? The answer lies in domestic political calculations. Although the IRGC did seek a deal and is the main benefactor of sanctions relief, it is aware that publicly hailing the deal would give Rouhani and his reformists an unbeatable political advantage that is not in line with the IRGC’s long-term agenda. So, it has precipitated a strong backlash against the deal with the aim of minimizing the political benefits that could accrue to Rouhani and his allies. It supported the critics only to the extent that they did not pose a critical risk to the very existence of the deal.

When Hussein Shariatmadri, editor-in-chief of the influential Keyhan newspaper announced that Ayatollah Khamenei “is not at all satisfied with the text of the [nuclear] agreement,” Hamid Reza Moghadam Far, the cultural-media adviser to the top commander of the IRGC harshly, criticized the Keyhan editor for attributing false statements to the Supreme Leader. Such a rapid response suggests that IRGC, for all its reservations about the larger agenda of the Rouhani administration, won’t ultimately undermine the nuclear deal.

Photo: Muhammad Ali Jafari, head of the IRGC

Mahmoud Pargoo is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University in Sydney. He writes on the Middle East and Islam.

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  1. Resolution 1929 bars development of missile with capacity to deliver of nuclear warhead . It doesn’t cover testing non nulear missile or developing long rane nonnuclear missile. That’s why UN ignore US’s claims

  2. Any analysis of struggles within the IRGC? The military wing, along with the Quds Force would be against the Nuclear Deal but the economic holdings wing(s) of the Guards will be for it, as the article states. The internal struggles will be Byzantine (sorry for the Turkish reference….) but would be worth digging into them. In the internet age, we have better sources of information than the May Day photos of the Politburo during the Cold War!

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