Why the US should not attack Iran: It's what the Islamic Guards want and need

Why the US should not attack Iran: It's what the Islamic Guards want and need
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Amid the rhetoric exchanged between Iran and the United States over how most key figures do not want a direct conflict, actually one party does — Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Each time President Donald Trump or Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei escalates the crisis, the Guards are that much closer to getting perhaps a contained, limited conflict that would benefit them domestically, as opposed to a total war that would pose a risk to the regime’s survival.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE should refrain from launching an attack on Iran for this primary reason.

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It was the Guards that shot down a U.S. drone on June 20, claiming that it was in Iranian airspace. Some Guards cheered the downing of the drone and, anticipating a U.S response, IRGC commanders outfitted and placed on high alert Iran’s basij militia forces, which are under the IRGC’s command, to quell any social unrest if there were a U.S. attack, according to Iranian sources. The basij have masterfully crushed major protests in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, including the largest demonstrations in 2009 and 2010.

Since the crisis began with the United States, the IRGC has benefited the most. They and other hardliners have solidified their popular base and marginalized for the foreseeable future Iran’s pragmatists, including President Hassan Rouhani. An attack would consolidate the IRGC’s position as the preeminent faction within the state apparatus. It would validate the long-held ideological belief of the IRGC — which was against the nuclear negotiations to begin with — that the United States’ ultimate goal was never negotiations but Iran’s destruction. And it would bring the IRGC closer to being in the driver’s seat in determining how Khamenei’s successor is selected after he dies.

“The Guards are trying to have a manageable and limited conflict with the U.S.,” Saeid Golkar, an academic who has vast contacts within the IRGC and who has interviewed them for his widely published research on the topic, told me. “They know Trump will be in power at least until 2020, and the economic sanctions are biting so hard and they have to do something.” That something — a limited U.S. attack — would allow the IRGC to redirect the Iranian body politic away from grievances about state corruption and mismanagement and to place blame on the United States for Iran’s economic crisis. There have been ongoing protests in Iran since December 2017. Inflation is estimated to be 40 percent annually. And there is wide unemployment of up to 40 percent in rural areas.

A U.S. attack would allow the IRGC to declare a state of emergency in Iran — something it has already threatened to do. It would give the IRGC even more control over Iran’s economy, in which it has a 20 percent interest, according to U.S. government estimates. There are already discussions within the Guards about limiting exports. Last week, according to Persian media sources, an IRGC official who was a minister during the Iran-Iraq war said that, just as during that war, if private-sector business owners do not sell their materials to the state, they will be executed. He implied that investments should serve the state only because Iran is in “an economic war.”

To provoke an attack from the United States, the IRGC could launch limited strikes on U.S. targets and interests through its patrons, including a handful of Shi’a militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen, who already launched a missile into Saudi Arabia, presumably to punish a U.S. ally and Iran’s main rival in Yemen.

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The IRGC is planning for a U.S. attack and its commanders are saying as much. The IRGC, according to its own statements and Iranian sources close to the Guards, believe the United States would never declare war on the scale of the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. And it is likely they have convinced Khamenei of this, encouraging him to allow their smaller hits, whether against the U.S. drone or vessels in the Gulf of Oman. “We have reached a stage where we can rely on our competencies and … cut off the hands of the enemies,” said Admiral Hussein Khanzadi, a commander of the Iranian naval force, according to Arabic media.

The IRGC and Khamenei — who are often in lock-step — are ready to reap all the benefits from a U.S. attack. This would be their ultimate vindication that the nuclear deal, signed in 2015 between the United States, Iran and European powers, was simply a ploy by the United States to coerce Iran into negotiations, only to then destroy their country. Khamenei said as much after the nuclear deal was signed. He repeatedly stated that the United States cannot be trusted, and he agreed to the deal with great reluctance.

From Khamenei’s perspective, he was right all along.

Now, Iran is self-destructing, just as the Trump administration intended. Discussions in Washington, many of which are about how the U.S.-Iran crisis will affect Trump’s re-election chances, should instead focus on the fact that the IRGC and Khamenei want a limited U.S. strike in order to consolidate their power domestically. This is why the best policy is to do nothing — unless Iranians target Americans.

Geneive Abdo is a resident scholar at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank funded by Saudi interests and focused on Saudi issues, and the author of four books on the Middle East and on Muslims in America. From 1998 to 2001 she was a correspondent in Iran for Britain’s The Guardian newspaper and a contributor to The Economist and the International Herald Tribune. She has worked for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, created under former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to mediate between Western and Islamic countries.