BREAKING: Iran is threatening retaliation over Syria, if by “Iran” you mean this one Iranian guy

Always thinking one war ahead of the rest of America, our media is breathlessly reporting on communiques that have been issued by “Iran” to Shiʿi militias in Iraq, ordering them to strike at American interests in retaliation for any US strike against Syria. Take The Wall Street Journal (please!), whose story is headlined “Iran Plots Revenge, U.S. Says”:

The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region.

On, their story (based on the WSJ story, because why do your own reporting?) is called “Report: Iran message orders Iraqi militias to retaliate if U.S. strikes Syria”:

An Iranian order intercepted by the United States instructs Shiite militia groups in Iraq to attack the American Embassy in Baghdad should the U.S. strike Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

Just to show I’m not picking on the media heavyweights, Raw Story went with “Iran reportedly pushing for revenge strikes if U.S. attacks Syria”:

The leader of a paramilitary arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has allegedly ordered militia groups in Iraq to strike U.S. interests in the event of an American military incursion into Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported.

So clearly Iran is prepared to–wait, what did that last lede say? “The leader of a paramilitary arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards”? Is that the same thing as “Iran”?

(I’m writing from my own knowledge of Iranian politics, but a lot of what you’re about to read can also be found here)

No, it really isn’t. The order, or instructions, came from General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, which is the special forces arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard was formed by Ayatollah Khomeini immediately following the 1979 Islamic Revolution as the military wing of the revolution, whose commanders reported directly to him at a time when it still wasn’t clear what kind of state apparatus was going to emerge from the revolution and the the loyalty of the regular army to Khomeini’s cause wasn’t assured. Now it exists alongside the regular army on paper, complementary to it in terms of external threats but also primarily responsible for suppressing internal threats. The Quds Force is its special forces unit and its primary external conduit, so to the extent that the Revolutionary Guard operated in Iraq, operated or operates in Syria, and supplies and trains irregular militias/terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas, that work is run by the Quds Force.

That’s great, you’re thinking, but the Revolutionary Guard’s generals still report to the Supreme Leader, right? So they wouldn’t say something that isn’t official policy, right? I’m sorry to say that it’s much more complicated than that. Despite reporting Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guard has established its own base of power. In practice, the direct control that the Supreme Leader is supposed to have over the Guard works out to more of a partnership of equals or near-equals, since if the Guard decided to stop supporting a particular Supreme Leader, or even had a mind to topple him themselves, there’s very little that the Supreme Leader could do to stop them (at least in the short term). Moreover, when Iranian politics tilted left with the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, Ayatollah Khamenei turned to the Guard to bolster his traditionalist position against the popular reformer Khatami, and so the Guard’s overt political role began to grow. It grew faster throughout the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who during the Iran-Iraq War was either in the Guard or served in the Guard’s volunteer Basij militia depending on who you ask, and faster still after the Guard was crucial in suppressing the Green Revolution in 2009. During Ahmadinejad’s presidency, when Khamenei and Ahmadinejad started clashing in the latter’s second term, and Khamenei had to be sure the Guard would support him and not Ahmadinejad if push came to shove, he appointed a number of Guard veterans to very high political offices.

The Revolutionary Guard isn’t just a political force to be reckoned with, it’s also a financial one. It allegedly runs construction and black market rackets all over the country, and has legitimate ownership interests in dozens of Iranian companies. These range from defense contractors to construction firms to energy concerns. The devastation that Iran’s economy suffered under Ahmadinejad, both due to sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program and Ahmadinejad’s general incompetence, have hit the Guard in a big way, and there is reason to believe that Khamenei needs to tack away from religious conservatives and back toward moderate technocrats (like, say, new president Hassan Rouhani) to try to stabilize the economy so as not to lose the Guard’s backing.

So the Revolutionary Guard has a great deal of practical autonomy from the Supreme Leader, although it’s unlikely to act overtly against him because it wouldn’t have popular backing and because the Guard itself is too factionalized (traditionalists v. reformers, religious conservatives v. capitalists) to attempt something like that. When the commander of its Quds Force instructs allied Iraqi militias to threaten American interests we should take that threat seriously, because it is a serious threat, but it is not the same thing as “Iran” threatening American interests. For one thing, “Iran” is a country, full of millions of people, while “the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force” is, you know, one person.

Dear US American media: I know it's hard to tell the difference, but the one on the left is Iran, and the one on the right is one Iranian dude.
Dear US American media: I know it’s hard to tell the difference, but the one on the left is Iran, and the one on the right is one Iranian dude.

For another thing, the commander of the Quds Force can pretty much say what he wants without having to run it by the political establishment first, so he’s most likely acting on his own, or on behalf of the Revolutionary Guard, but not on behalf of the nation as a whole.

But internal Iranian politics aside, for our media (or worse, our government) to take the words of a single Iranian general as indicative of official Iranian policy would be like Iran taking the words of General William “I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol” Boykin (who was, at the time, not only a special forces general but also a deputy under-secretary of defense), like such as:

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declined to criticise a senior army officer who told audiences the war on terrorism is a battle with Satan.

Evangelical Christian Lieutenant-General William G Boykin was also quoted as saying a Muslim warlord in Somalia had an “idol” for a God.

as though they represented official US government policy towards Islam. Except if Iran were to do that, our government would be beside itself at the gross and unfair distortion, taking one man’s words and applying them to an entire country’s foreign policy, and our media would rightly echo that same point. But when an Iranian general says something provocative, it’s not one Iranian general who said it, it’s “Iran.” I wonder why that is?


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