Mr Blair gave this speech at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York on 4 February 2020. The speech was followed by a conversation between Mr Blair and CFR President Richard Haass, which can be viewed at the CFR website. The Institute released a report on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ on the same day.
When speaking about Iran always start with a clear disclaimer. The Iranian people are a great people, rich in history and civilisation. Iran without doubt should be a power in its region and the world. Neither the people nor the country should be defined by the present leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And anyone British speaking about Iran should do so with some proper humility about our past actions there.
My Institute has been researching the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps long before the killing of Qassem Suleimani in January this year. But that event and its aftermath – not yet certain in its consequence – gives added relevance to this work.
The document we publish today is a detailed examination of the ideology of the IRGC. And it draws upon documents in Farsi, translated we believe for the first time, which shows the nature of this ideology.
What it shows, in summary, is that the IRGC is an organisation steeped in revolutionary Islamist ideas and practice. Were it not an arm of the Iranian State, there is little doubt it would be treated in the same way as al-Qaeda, or any of the other myriad of Sunni terrorist non-State actors.
"The IRGC is an organisation steeped in revolutionary Islamist ideas and practice. Were it not an arm of the Iranian State, there is little doubt it would be treated in the same way as al-Qaeda, or any of the other myriad of Sunni terrorist non-State actors."
That is why we advocate that countries follow the example of the United States and designate it as such. And we spell out how that would inhibit some of its activities.
Because the Islamic Republic of Iran has been with us for over 40 years now, we can forget that it began as a revolution based on a revolutionary ideology which very quickly disposed of its partners – communist and Liberal – after removing the Shah, and established a clerical-run State committed to the export of that revolution.
We tend to see its actions as governed by a primary attachment to national interest – which is something we can more easily relate to – and a conventional desire for regional hegemony.
We miss in this superficial and Western-oriented analysis the core motivator which is, was and forever will be, the promulgation of an ideology rooted in an extreme version of Shia Islam which is the Shia equivalent of the more radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Salafi jihadism.
"We miss in this superficial and Western-oriented analysis, the core motivator which is, was and forever will be, the promulgation of an ideology rooted in an extreme version of Shia Islam which is the Shia equivalent of the more radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Salafi jihadism."
The internal IRGC documents which we analyse are explicit: the organisation is committed to the ‘ideological-political’ training of recruits; they proclaim an existential threat to Shiism from a ‘[Sunni] Arab-Zionist-Western axis’; they mandate on religious grounds the expansion of the revolution to other nations; they authorise the killing of Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians and pressure to make them give up their ‘devious’ beliefs; and they share the same litany of extremist views on social issues including the status of women, hostility to gay people, and the sanctity of their image of Islamic society.
Since 1979, their influence on the region has been balefully destructive. Some of this is obvious, as in their interference in Lebanon, and of course more recently in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Some of it is less obvious, as in their support of extreme groups all over the region, and their work to de-stabilise existing Arab States.
Least noticed was the impact of the Iranian Revolution on Saudi Arabia. Now, with the preparedness of the new leadership in Saudi to admit what happened following the Iranian Revolution, we can see the degree to which the storming of Mecca in late 1979 resulted in a lurch towards conservativism in the Kingdom, which stunted that country’s modernisation and exported that conservativism around the world with profound consequences.
Western policy towards Iran has not covered itself with glory, not before nor after 1979. Since the Revolution, we have oscillated between wanting to destroy the regime and to contain it. It can't be said that anything has worked particularly well.
At first, we backed those who would fight it, most notably Saddam Hussein, out of which came the Iran-Iraq war, with a million casualties and the birth of the present regime’s nuclear programme.
After the removal of Saddam, we thought the regime would be disposed to reform and engagement and indeed for a time it appeared a new Presidential leadership might be open to that. But that soon gave way to Iran’s determination to wreck the idea of an independent Iraq and the mobilisation against coalition forces and in favour of sectarian government.
Then the Obama administration concluded the JCPOA, a deal to curb the nuclear programme. It is hard these days this side of the Atlantic or for that matter on my side of it, to have a rational political debate. For what it is worth, I think the deal was a well-intentioned and painstaking attempt to deal with a hugely difficult threat. In its own terms, it succeeded.
But even its architects would recognise that hopes that relaxation of sanctions would result in changed behaviour in the region turned out to be misplaced, which further highlighted anxiety about the sunset clauses.
If anything, the IRGC doubled down.
When President Trump re-imposed sanctions, the effect on the Iranian economy was immediate and severe. The last year has seen a 60% devaluation of the currency, contracting GDP and protests, which attacked not just the regime’s economic record but its ideological and authoritarian nature, menacing its existence.
It therefore decided to externalise the problem, attacking US allies, including an audacious attack on Saudi oil facilities, and testing the region’s and the USA’s appetite for conflict.
The result was not what they expected. They indeed found the region did not have appetite for conflict; but they also found that though the Americans did not want anything resembling a war, they were willing to retaliate in a very direct, but also very unpredictable way.
This has – possibly only temporarily – unbalanced them.
We are now in this position: the regime is internally vulnerable; has discovered that there is no desire for a war; but [has] no risk-free options in taking steps towards one in order to force a change of strategy.
"We are now in this position: the regime is internally vulnerable; has discovered that there is no desire for a war; but [has] no risk-free options in taking steps towards one in order to force a change of strategy."
There remains on all sides a danger of miscalculation.
But the regime can't afford the status quo; they need sanctions relief. The USA and the region might want a change of regime but they're not going to force one or make regime change a policy. On the contrary, if Iran is prepared to mitigate its actions, they're prepared to go back to containment; and allow any change to come from the people not outside agency.
So, a possible way forward would be:
1. For Iran to enter into new commitments in respect of its nuclear programme;
2. To buttress that with commitments on ballistic missiles and de-stabilising activities in the region including threats to erase Israel from the map;
3. For the USA to accept that if these commitments are implemented, that Iran should be part of the discussion about the region and resolution of its challenges;
4. That sanctions relief should follow such changes; and
5. That the West and the region should continue to support the cause of transformational change in Iran and leave the door open for a genuine movement in Iran to bring about a wholly new relationship with them; but without steps actively taken to undermine the regime from outside.
This would amount effectively to a broader strategy of containment and one that does not mean abandoning those in Iran who want a new future.
It would give the regime a way out; but one designed so that they genuinely change behaviour; and across the piece not just on the nuclear side.
The threats including those against the development of nuclear weapons capability would remain in place.
The IRGC is critical to this. If it continues as under Suleimani, it will make impossible any such discussion with Iran. The Iranian regime therefore has a fundamental choice. The West should be united in making it choose wisely.