In 1979, journalists and diplomats reported from Iran on a revolution against the shah. They were mistaken. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers were thinking bigger. Their goal was a global revolution — a revolution against the United States and other “oppressor” powers.
The ayatollah famously called America the Great Satan. This, too, was misunderstood. His intention was less to insult than to describe: He knew that freedom, the rule of (man-made) law, peace, and equal rights for both the servants and enemies of Allah are seductive ideas that could subvert the truths and laws revealed by the Prophet as interpreted by him. Promoting such ideas is what makes America Satanic.
With this in mind, Khomeini moved quickly to establish a militia, the Sepah-e Pasdaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, also known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It was designed to be the clerical regime’s “sword and shield against domestic opposition forces,” writes Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the policy institute I head) in his timely new book, The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Owing allegiance only to Khomeini — who assumed the title of Supreme Leader, “God’s shadow on earth” — the IRGC grew into “a vital instrument of Iranian foreign policy,” promoting Islamic Revolution beyond Iran’s borders. The Quds Force, its “special branch dedicated to operations abroad,” became the point of the spear — organizing the assassination of the regime’s enemies; financing, training, and sponsoring terrorist groups including Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy, Shiite militias in Iraq, and Hamas in Gaza; and providing assistance to both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The Guards and their subsidiaries, Ottolenghi notes, are “directly involved in all phases of the oil supply chain.” They run legitimate businesses and front companies that enable the regime “to gain access to foreign technology that Iran cannot yet produce indigenously.” They are involved in international drug trafficking, particularly out of Afghanistan, and they collaborate with organized crime, not least in Latin America.
Increasingly, former IRGC commanders have moved into powerful political positions within Iran. Most ominously, this military-industrial-terrorist-criminal-political complex now supervises Iran’s nuclear-weapons development and ballistic-missile programs.
Last week, the Revolutionary Guards were implicated in a terrorist plot targeting the Saudi ambassador and anyone else who happened to be in or near a posh Washington, D.C., restaurant that was to be bombed while he was dining. Among the key characters involved are Mansour Arbabsiyar, an Iran-born American citizen, his cousin, senior Quds commander Abdul Reza Shahlai, his deputy, Col. Gholam Shakuri, and a Mexican drug trafficker who, it turned out, was working undercover for U.S. authorities.
Had the plan succeeded, it would have appeared to be the work of a Mexican drug cartel — though Iran’s rulers, their friends, and some of their enemies, would have known better.
Instead, the operation failed and, as Iran’s terrorist masters undoubtedly expected, many experts have been quick to voice skepticism about whether the Quds Force could be behind such “recklessness,” and to suggest that perhaps this was a “rogue operation” lacking approval from Khomeini’s successor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ottolenghi considers that nonsense, emphasizing that the Guards “respond to the leader’s orders, and do not take such daring initiatives to undermine him.”
Those who say this operation was clumsy are also wrong, but even if they were right it would be no cause for complacency. Recall that in 1993, one of the terrorists involved in the first bombing of the World Trade Center, which failed to collapse the North Tower onto the South Tower because the explosives-filled van was parked in the wrong place, returned to the van-rental company to retrieve his deposit and was promptly arrested. However, those ultimately responsible for the bombing were not brought to justice, and, eight years later, Osama bin Laden was able to field a more skillful team to complete the mission. In other words: Al-Qaeda learned from its mistakes. Tragically, we did not.
What do we need to learn from the latest terrorist plot? That Iran’s rulers are not open to engagement no matter what mix of carrots and sticks are offered; that Iran’s rulers view peaceful co-existence with the Great Satan as ideologically and theologically unacceptable; and that Iran’s rulers, despite the erroneous reports written from Iran 32 years ago and many misguided analyses since, continue to have grand and global ambitions — not just grievances and fears.
It’s time, also, to acknowledge that the fiction that America’s enemy is “violent extremism” is leading us astray — as it did last week when President Obama announced he was sending troops to central Africa to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army, a weird, brutal, cultish guerrilla force. Obama said he was taking this step not for humanitarian reasons — that would be understandable and perhaps even justifiable — but in the interest of America’s national security. Can he really believe that? Is he not listening to his advisers, or are they biting their tongues?
The hard fact is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader they serve represent the most critical threat confronting America and the West. Terrorism is one of their weapons. Nuclear devices will be another — unless effective measures, finally and belatedly, are taken to prevent the Islamic Revolution from advancing.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.