Sanctions fail to hit Iran's elite Quds Force
Within weeks of Iranian troops arriving into Syria to bolster Bashar al-Assad's battle-weary army, an elite general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) has been killed fighting the Islamic State group.
General Hamedani had been active in Syria for a number of years, and had returned in March to organise the "Sacred Defence Units", demonstrating the intensity of Iran's involvement in the Syrian quagmire.
In the week following Hamedani's death, Hamid Mokhtarband and Brigadier-General Farshad Hassounizadeh, two more of Tehran's veteran generals, were also killed fighting IS. In the weeks previous, Russian leader Vladimir Putin had dedicated air support and military hardware to Moscow's erstwhile ally in Damascus.
The menacing proximity of rebel groups to Russia's Tartous naval port compelled Putin to act. However, the Kremlin is also sending a clear message to Russia's allies that it will remain steadfast with them, despite transgressions.
It is within this context that Tehran seems to be pivoting towards Moscow, in order to supplement the new diplomatic edge the nuclear deal has brought them.
|Tehran seems to be pivoting towards Moscow, in order to supplement the new diplomatic edge the nuclear deal has brought them|
General Qassem Souleimani is the powerful and enigmatic leader of the Quds Force, the "external" wing of the IRGC. He travelled to Moscow in August to inform his Russian hosts of Assad's losses, and the extent to which their strategic toehold in the Mediterranean was under threat.
This week, Souleimani was photographed giving a speech to Iranian, Hizballah and other foreign fighters in Latakia province. His presence in Syria and the deaths of three top IRGC generals in the space of a week suggest that the Quds Force is a key component of Syria's fightback against rebel groups in northern Syria - and Russian airstrikes indicate a clear division of labour in the pursuit of shoring up Assad’s embattled regime.
Souleimani has also reportedly been the mastermind in organising Iraq's fight back against IS in Anbar province and Kirkuk. Meanwhile, in Yemen, Iran has been reported to be sending increased funds to the Houthis, with several weapon-laden ships being seized en route to the Zaydi rebels.
This is all despite major sanctions, travel bans, and the freezing of assets by two of the world's most powerful economies; the US and the EU.
The straightjacket of sanctions
The IRGC was placed on the list of targets for US sanctions in 2010, which included travel restrictions and the freezing of assets, accompanied by UN Security Council sanctions in the same year.
In 2012, the EU also froze the assets of a number of IRGC members, including Souleimani, in addition to placing the organisation itself on its sanctions list.
Of all of the wings of the IRGC, it was the Quds Force that was granted specific attention by the US and EU.
Successive US State Department country reports on terrorism designate the Quds Forces as a key supplier of arms and funding to proxies, and is reportedly "the regime's primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting terrorism abroad".
The Quds Force was also linked to Iran's nuclear programme. As a designated "terror organisation", the Quds Force faces additional constraints on its operations, which include further layers of sanctions through foreign treasury regulations, as well as intensified CIA and Mossad surveillance.
Avoiding the bite
The comprehensive application of sanctions against the IRGC has not prohibited it from reaping huge financial rewards during the years of sanctions against Iran as a whole.
Its ability to dominate the Iranian economy due to the absence of foreign firms means the IRGC recorded an annual turnover for its business activities at around $10 billion to 12 billion; around a sixth of Iran's GDP.
In 2010, a consortium affiliated with the IRGC cooperative bought a majority shares of the Telecommunications Company of Iran. This block of shares amounted to 8 billion dollars and is considered the largest financial purchase in the history of Iran's stock exchange.
Back in business, or aggressive expansion?
The selective easing of the crippling sanctions levelled against Iran by the US and EU signals an economic détente. However, comments that this will bring a windfall worth as much as $150 billion to Tehran's treasury is grossly exaggerated.
However, with planned gas pipelines delving into the Gulf, the IRGC's construction branch, Khatam Al-Anbia, will certainly benefit from access to new markets.
Furthermore, and to the ire of US and Israeli hawks, a number of IRGC figures have been removed from the sanctions lists, including Qassem Souleimani himself.
This points towards two agreements behind the scenes: the first being that the US has come to terms with the Quds Force being an actor in tackling IS, the second that the IGRC wields huge political power within Iran and the passage of any deal would require overtures to them.
United in defence of Assad
Despite an apparent differing of tack between Souleimani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, a major schism in direction between the Quds Force and the foreign ministry is not imminent.
Rouhani knows that any solution in Syria will be through diplomatic channels, whereas Souleimani, who is instead accountable to Supreme Leader Khamenei, understands that any confrontation with the emerging "Sunni bloc" will come through proxies in Syria and Yemen.
|The clunking of Iran's iron fist in Syria may sound louder in coming weeks, as Russia enters the fray|
Carving out a narrative of a reformed, cordial Iran on the international platforms has been Zarif's mission. Consolidating Iranian strategy on the ground in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has been Souleimani's. Both are in pursuit of the defence of Iranian strategic interests.
The clunking of Iran's iron fist in Syria may sound louder in coming weeks, as Russia enters the fray, but the velvet glove will be there when the dust settles.
Obama's handshake with Zarif in Washington, and Souleimani's unfurling of battle plans to Russian officials in Moscow represent two sides of the same strategy of reserving a seat at any Geneva III talks - which cannot come soon enough for the Syrian people.
Nick Rodrigo is a freelance researcher working for the Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg. He holds an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights from the University of Essex, and has previously worked with Iranian and Palestinian human rights organisations.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.