Last week the leading Iranian opposition group held a press conference in Westminster to highlight some aspects of the ever-growing commercial empire being maintained by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as the ways in which the paramilitary's wealth contributes to the ongoing operations of terrorist groups throughout the region.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) specifically identified the sites of some 90 docks operated exclusively by the IRGC within Iranian ports. The information was obtained from the network of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), which has assets within the clerical regime and the IRGC itself and made international headlines in 2002 when it revealed key details about the regime's nuclear program.
The NCRI pointed out that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei specifically ordered docks whose operations have been granted to the IRGC should be subject to no oversight. The notably hard line paramilitary organization has free rein to smuggle black market goods into the Islamic Republic and most disturbingly, to smuggle weapons, financial resources and personnel to spread the regime's influence into the wider regions of the Middle East, including Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.
For those who have been following the activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout its 38 years of existence, one should understand that both of these IRGC operations have a long history. The financial enrichment of the organization and the development of its status as the foremost supporter of terrorism in the Middle East and the world at large has now become very apparent. Naturally, these two trends feed into one another with increasing levels of wealth securing greater levels of domestic and international power for one of Iran's most hard line institutions.
The West has seemed reluctant to confront the IRGC's activities. They have targeted the IRGC for sanctions and have focused solely on its special foreign operations wing, the Quds Force. The main body of the IRGC has so far remained untouched. The logic behind this decision is the assumption that the IRGC's terrorist activities can be dealt with separately from its contributions to international smuggling and to human rights violations within the Islamic Republic.
Of course this is absurd. Even if the Quds Force could be completely isolated and degraded, there is no real separation between it and its parent organisation, either in terms of their stated missions or the legal status within the Islamic Republic. With that being the case, a greatly enriched IRGC will surely find other outlets for its insidious activities. Indeed, it is already deeply engaged in the process of doing so through its training of proxy militias and terrorist operatives drawn from refugee communities and the populations of other regional countries.
This is precisely the mission that is being financed by the IRGC's earnings at its docks, which have been estimated at approximately $12 billion annually. One must emphasize that this is only a portion of the IRGC's financial income. The ownership and operation of trade and industrial giants such as Khatam al-Anbia and the partial ownership of enough smaller Iranian companies gives the IRGC control over more than half of the Iranian GDP.
What's more, all of this comes in addition to the budget allocated to the IRGC from the national purse – an allocation that has grown repeatedly under the tenure of the supposedly moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and now encompasses nearly two thirds of the total budget for the Iranian armed forces.
This alone should be cause for concern among Western policymakers because it plainly indicates the entire regime's endorsement of the exceptionally hard line foreign policy activities and rhetoric of the IRGC. These phenomena have occurred since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers and they have been equally indifferent to the previous US administration's policy on Iran and its current tough stance.
Only recently, the IRGC's naval forces dispatched several fast-attack vessels to an American surveillance ship that was being accompanied by three British Royal Navy ships. It highlights the latest in a series of highly provocative moves that included the very close approach of American warships by these same fast-attack vessels, some of which refused to disengage until warning shots were fired.
If Western powers wish to avoid such hostilities, they will have to adopt a strong policy towards Iran and the IRGC which they have avoided for so long.
Iran's destabilizing regional influence and its subversive activities will only be diminished if the domestic and international power of the IRGC is confronted and constrained, first through the rightful designation of the organisation as a terrorist organisation and then through the sanctioning of all its economic activities followed by financing regional conflicts and threats against the West.
Fortunately, the new administration in the U.S. has shown willingness to renew pressure on the regime. However, it will require support and emulation by the U.K. and a wide range of European powers to guarantee that the most hard line Iranian forces does not gain any more influence from a regime that is already repressive and dangerous.
Sir David Amess, Conservative MP for Southend West in the UK House of Commons and co-chair of the British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF),www.iran-freedom.org
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