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Putting Pressure on Iran

The Bush administration is preparing to declare the Iranian elite military branch, the Revolutionary Guard Corps, as a terrorist organization in the next few weeks. Some experts call the step a “smart sanction”, but others doubt it will curb Iran's nuclear program.

U.S. Department of State Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns recently signaled "increasingly tough" international action against Iran because Tehran refuses to suspend its uranium enrichment efforts. Earlier this year the United Nations Security Council tightened sanctions on Iran in response to the country's nuclear activities, which Tehran claims are for peaceful purposes only.

Now, the United States is taking its pressure up a notch by preparing to declare Iran's 125-thousand-strong Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. It would be the first time the United States has designated military forces of any sovereign government as a terrorist organization.

But most experts agree that Iranian elite military forces are involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and also provide support to extremist groups across the Middle East. The Revolutionary Guard Corps has its own navy, air force, ground forces and special forces. Its naval forces abducted 15 British sailors and marines this spring, and its special forces armed Lebanon's Hezbollah with missiles used in the 2006 war with Israel.

Richard Russell, Middle East security analyst at the National Defense University in Washington, says the Iranian elite military force has been a tool of Iranian foreign policy and a threat to American and regional interests for decades.

"When you look at the history of conflict in the Persian Gulf, the Iranians had a hand, via the Revolutionary Guard, in blowing up of the American Embassy in Beirut in the early 1980s in which 269 Marines were killed," says Russell. "The Iranian Revolutionary Guard appears too to have had a strong logistic and directional hand in the bombing of the Kobart Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, which killed 19 American airmen. So, I think it is entirely fair to identify the Revolutionary Guard as an instrument of state sponsored terrorism."

Operations Across the Middle East

The Revolutionary Guards, many intelligence experts say, have contacts with underground movements in the Persian Gulf region, where Sunni ruled countries, like Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have sizable Shi'ite communities.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps has supported the establishment of Hezbollah branches in Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan, Jordan and Palestine, and the Islamic Jihad in many other Moslem countries including Egypt, Turkey, Chechnya and in Caucasia.

National Defense University analyst Richard Russell says banning the Revolutionary Guards could put Tehran on the defensive.

"They look at the Americans and they say, 'Americans are bogged down in Iraq and we are facilitating that. The Americans too are bogged down in Afghanistan.' So, they feel comfortable that the Americans are in no position to assert a military instrument against Iran at this point over the nuclear program. Sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards might defuse some of this inflated Iranian confidence," says Russell.

Mark Fitzpatrick is an expert on military-political conflicts at The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says, "The goal is to persuade Iran that there is a price to be paid for defying the U.N. Security Council for continuing an enrichment program that would provide it the basis for being able to produce nuclear weapons."

"There will be a growing realization among the merchant class in Iran and others who do not believe that the government is on the right path to begin with,” says Fitzpatrick. “They will begin to ask, 'Is it really worth it for Iran to be isolated politically; to be suffering economically for an enrichment program that really has no economic rational to it?’”

But other analysts, including Fawaz Gerges of the Sarah Lawrence College in New York, who recently visited the Middle East, doubts that targeting the Iranian elite military corps will force Tehran to cooperate.

"The Iranian leadership instead of seeing the step by the Bush administration as a direct result of the resistance and the unwillingness of the Iranian leadership to compromise on Iraq, its nuclear program, they will likely read the step as a declaration of war by the Bush administration against the Iranian regime. We are likely to witness some very hot weeks and months ahead in the relationship between the Bush administration and Iran," says Gerges.

The Risks of Overreach

Tehran, according to Gerges, wants the United States to recognize Iran's post-Saddam pivotal role in the Middle East. "Unless the United States compromises not just vis-à-vis Iraq, but also takes Iranian vital interests into consideration they are likely not to make any concessions either on Iraq or on the nuclear issue or even vis-à-vis Hezbollah and their support for Palestinian Hamas and Palestinian Jihad," says Gerges.

John Calabrese, a regional specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, argues the planned action against the Revolutionary Guard could strengthen the hardliners in Tehran.

"Those more conservative elements, in what is clearly not a monolithic Iranian regime,” says Clalabrese. "They will take from this the lesson that the United States is not serious about the dialogue. That, those people that portrayed themselves as pragmatists, and have been more amenable to some kind of a dialogue, are engaged in some kind of fool's errand. I don't think it is effective in terms of trying to capitalize on whatever divisions there may be within the Iranian political establishment."

Calabrese says Tehran has taken advantage of U.S. difficulties in Iraq, but it would be mistaken to continue such a course. "The United States remains the world's only superpower. The United States has within its grasp separate and combined attributes of power, second to none. The risk is that the Iranian side might overreach. And the United States bruised, but certainly not diminished in terms of its power, may risk overreacting. That's where I see us in terms of power balance between Iran and the United States," says Calabrese.

Calabrese and other Middle East specialists say a balanced mix of tough sanctions and diplomatic incentives is most likely to yield results in U.S. dealings with Iran.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.