August 21, 2007

The economic war on terror

This week there's been the news that the administration is considering designating Iran's Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. In her initial report on the subject, the Washington Post's Robin Wright gives some background on the Guards.

Formed in 1979 and originally tasked with protecting the world's only modern theocracy, the Revolutionary Guard took the lead in battling Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq war waged from 1980 to 1988. The Guard, also known as the Pasdaran, has since become a powerful political and economic force in Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard and came to power with support from its network of veterans. Its leaders are linked to many mainstream businesses in Iran.

"They are heavily involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to telecommunications and pipelines -- even the new Imam Khomeini Airport and a great deal of smuggling," said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Many of the front companies engaged in procuring nuclear technology are owned and run by the Revolutionary Guards. They're developing along the lines of the Chinese military, which is involved in many business enterprises. It's a huge business conglomeration."

The Revolutionary Guard Corps -- with its own navy, air force, ground forces and special forces units -- is a rival to Iran's conventional troops. Its naval forces abducted 15 British sailors and marines this spring, sparking an international crisis, and its special forces armed Lebanon's Hezbollah with missiles used against Israel in the 2006 war. The corps also plays a key role in Iran's military industries, including the attempted acquisition of nuclear weapons and surface-to-surface missiles, according to Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

At the end of the article, though, Wright quotes a source who's against the proposed action.

The administration's move could hurt diplomatic efforts, some analysts said. "It would greatly complicate our efforts to solve the nuclear issue," said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Center for American Progress. "It would tie an end to Iran's nuclear program to an end to its support of allies in Hezbollah and Hamas. The only way you could get a nuclear deal is as part of a grand bargain, which at this point is completely out of reach."

Such sanctions can work only alongside diplomatic efforts, Cirincione added.

"Sanctions can serve as a prod, but they have very rarely forced a country to capitulate or collapse," he said. "All of us want to back Iran into a corner, but we want to give them a way out, too. [The designation] will convince many in Iran's elite that there's no point in talking with us and that the only thing that will satisfy us is regime change."

Roger L Simon jumped on this
and criticized the reporting
What interests me here is how the article came to be. The prose is sprinkled with the usual journo-blather: "according to US officials... sources said... analysts said," etc. But which officials and which sources and which analysts, nadie sabe. Meaning, I write what I want to write. Or perhaps I should say I Wright what I Wright. That's not to say this is wrong or it's not happening but my best guess is that someone at the State Department leaked this to the reporter because he/she knew the reporter would be cooperative,be the right mouthpiece. And he/she was correct. That's modern journalism. Or perhaps more accurately, "Scoop" lives.

This initial Post article, though, really isn't bad. Most of it provides the background for the administration's decision including an overview of the financial activities of the Revolutionary Guards. The end was a bit disappointing, but overall the article conveyed important information without really judging the program.

Unfortunately, Wright followed up that report with another one, As U.S. Steps Up Pressure on Iran, Aftereffects Worry Allies.

America's allies are increasingly concerned about the Bush administration's plans to unilaterally escalate pressure on Iran, fearing that an evolving strategy may also set in motion a process that could lead to military action if Iran does not back down, according to diplomats and officials of foreign countries.

Although they share deep concern about Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, European and Arab governments are particularly alarmed about new U.S. moves, including plans to cite Iran's entire Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "specially designated global terrorist." The move would block the elite unit's assets and pressure foreign companies doing business with its vast commercial network.

Allies are less concerned about that step than they are about the new momentum behind it, and the potential for spillover in a region reeling with multiple conflicts. "If the region is strewn with crises, then there's potential for real disaster. There's a fear that they will all merge into a super-emergency bigger than any one country can deal with," a leading Arab envoy said.

The problem is that this article, rather than dealing with the possible effects of sanctions seemingly is addressing the fear that the administration has more than just sanctions on its mind. Other than reporting that there's "momentum" Wright provides no reason for us to believe the fears of the administration's critics. An article ostensibly about a specific and sensible plan takes on a tone of skepticism and fear of the administration because of what else it might do. I can't disagree with Roger L Simon that the followup is worse than the original.

Roger L Simon follows his criticisms of Wright with noting how the Revolutionary Guards responded to the threat (via BBC).

In a statement published by Iran's Mehr news agency, the IRGC condemned the plan as "worthless resolutions" issued "dauntlessly and under baseless pretexts... to damage this holy institution".

"Those who are enchanted by the material world fail to realise the depth of the spiritual power and iron determination of the devoted members of the IRGC, which have roots in the religious beliefs of the people, and will witness the definite victory of the children of Islam against global infidelity," the statement said.

It's good that the Guards don't like the administration's plan to attack them economically. If they are our enemy, and we are looking to weaken them, this statement reflects fear. (By bringing up spiritual as opposed to material "power" the Guards are seemingly acknowledging that they realize that a boycott would harm them in a material sense.)

Interestingly, despite some of Wright's reporting, the administration does have an ally. They would be the editors of the Washington Post who argued today in Tougher on Iran:

The designation could cause banks and exporters in Europe and Asia that do business with Guard affiliates to pull back. So what's the objection? Some European diplomats say they fear that an escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran will end in war. But sanctions are the alternative to war -- Iran already rejected initiatives aimed at ending its nuclear program by offering economic concessions and other carrots.

Others suggest that the administration's labeling of a principal arm of the Iranian regime as a terrorist group would contradict its recent embrace of bilateral talks with Tehran about Iraq. Yet that contradiction, if it exists, seems puny compared with that of a regime that participates in those discussions while escalating its surrogate war against American troops. If Iran chooses to fight as well as talk, the United States should not shrink from fighting back with all the economic weapons it can muster.

I would guess that most of those opposed to fighting the Revolutionary Guards economically are certainly opposed to fighting them militarily. And yet failing to rein in the guards economically will almost certainly make a military confrontation with them - however ill advised it is - more likely.

It is possible that had those opposed to the sanctions against Saddam had observed them instead of enriching themselves by continuing to do business with him, that Saddam might have been contained. Or at least constrained.

One has to wonder if those opposed to the possible sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards are enjoying the benefits of doing business with them. Still if they are opposed to military action why don't they subscribe to weakening the Guards economically?


Posted by SoccerDad at August 21, 2007 5:49 AM
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