Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Iran's Revolutionary Guards and "President Corleone"

The desire on the part of the Bush Administration to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization points to a growing problem we face in the 21st century--that the easy separation of organizations into distinct and classifiable categories (government vs. non-government; commercial vs. non-commercial; etc.) is becoming harder to accomplish.

What are the Guards? A state military formation? A terrorist group? A business enterprise? My colleague Ray Takeyh had this to say today:
"They are heavily involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to telecommunications and pipelines -- even the new Imam Khomeini Airport and a great deal of smuggling. 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."

Alexis Debat notes that this is not an isolated phenomenon. "When you pump gas in West Beirut," he points out, "it is almost guaranteed that at least some of the money will flow into the hands of Syrian intelligence--the same as when you buy hashish in the same area."

He and I have termed this phenomenon "President Corleone"--a situation where it become extremely difficult to neatly pry apart a state's "national interests" and the private (and in some cases criminal) interests of those who occupy the positions of government.

Last year, Ian Bremmer wrote in The National Interest that foreign policymakers needed to pay greater attention to "the geopolitical influence of large companies, corporations and state-owned enterprises. Policymakers too often think of other countries' state-owned companies as mere extensions of their government's foreign policy"--but he noted that often decisionmakers in such institutions "pursue their own interests in ways that influence" their country's "relations with other states."

Which means, coming back to the Guards, that they will wear different hats and have different lines of accountability. It raises all sorts of questions about the extent to which state power can be privatized and at the same time how the cloak of sovereign immunity can shield a variety of activities. When this designation is made, are Guardsmen who might be captured by U.S. forces in an operation who are otherwise acting and behaving as soldiers as defined by the Geneva Convention (in uniform, acting under recognized command and control) to be treated as prisoners of war? Unlawful combatants? Is the property of the Guards subject to seizure? Would sanctions be levied against companies that do business with Guards-linked firms (e.g. anyone doing business at Imam Khomeini airport)?

Things are getting a lot more complicated.

This is a good example of cost-free Foreign Policy since the expectation is that Iran will surrender. But if she does not then US has just raised the cost of future resolution of problems with Iran.

I would add that US is cheapening the "terrorist designation" currency.
Is the goal of this to convince Iranians that the only option the US will accept is regime change? IRGC activity was no secret and it's not like people didn't know and need the designation to now say, gee, that's what they were doing?

There are two issues here: one, thinking clearly about international actors; and two, doing something about the bad ones. Journalists, academics, and think tank analysts have to do something about the first one. Those guys have problems with whole regions, let alone state/quasi-state/non-state actors. My solution? Give editors an incentive. Let me give you an example. TNI pays you a hundred renminbi, or, better, a hundred US dollars every time you find, say, the word "Asia" being used to refer to Northeast Asia (with/without Russia), NE Asia + Southeast Asia, NE + SE + South Asia (actually the Indian Subcontinent with/without Sri Lanka) indiscriminately, sometimes within the same paragraph. The money comes out of the payment to the writer. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences can come up with a standard list of errors and transgressions, complete with the corresponding awards. This would work at sub-state level, and make people more careful when they throw around words like "Iran" and "Teheran" without really thinking through what they are writing about.

As for the second issue, you should be happy, just this once, that the US has plenty of laws and rules and regulations with extraterrestrial reach, as well as lawyers, legislators and bureaucracies to draft, enact and implement them. You should bring those people and you geopolitical types together to work out something to cover that wide ground of between the illicit activities of sovereign states as we traditionally understand them and those of corporations and individuals. There's a symposium and a book here, minimum.

Incidentally, President Corleone is a clever way of presenting the issue, but in the case of Iran a misleading one. I mean, where's Vito?
I find this whole move absurd...and will undermine efforts to target real terrorist groups (non-state actors). Just like the state-department's old list of state-sponsors of terrorism. You had Libya, Iran etc on that list. But the terrorists who managed to hit the United States were backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia---which went by the label of allies!

So the Iranian Revolutionary Guards run business operations, as well as sponsor terrorists. So does the Pakistani army, and the ISI. So does the People's Liberation Army of the People's Republic of China. And there's that Western country involved in the Iran contra scandal. Business interests, slush funds, funding terrorists etc.

Realists will not complain about the hypocrisy of it all. But rather, it's utility. Is it possible to do whatever that needs to be done to Iran without labeling the IRG as a terrorist organisation? I should think so. So why label them terrorists?

We are terrorists because we oppose the misguided policies of US in our area of the world. Khomeini said as much 20 years ago. Let's see how has the longer longevity - Iranian State or US Polciy in the Persian Gulf and the Levant.
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