Iran’s Guards flex muscle in Middle East despite Trump warning

FILE PHOTO: Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran September 22, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A week after U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a blistering speech about Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful military and economic force in the Islamic Republic has shown it has no intention of curbing its activities in the Middle East.

In defiance of other world powers, Trump chose in a speech last Friday not to certify that Tehran is complying with a pact to curb Iran’s nuclear work and singled out the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), accusing Tehran of destabilizing the region.

A senior IRGC commander said after the speech Trump was “acting crazy” and was following U.S. strategy of increasing “the shadow of war in the region”.

Iran’s Shi’ite militia proxies have made formidable military gains in recent months in Syria as well as Iraq, stretching from northern Iraq to a string of smaller cities and this week, after the Trump speech, re-captured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“In the short-run clearly Trump has increased the power and aggressiveness of the IRGC,” said Abbas Milani, the director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.

“The IRGC can’t back down from a street fight. Their domestic and regional prestige is predicated on the fact that they fight a good fight and they don’t back down.”

The day after Trump spoke, the head of the Guards’ al Quds overseas operations, Major General Qassem Soleimani, traveled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He held talks about the escalating crisis between Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi government after a Kurdish independence referendum.

The niece of the late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, Alaa Talabani, told the al Hadath TV channel that Soleimani met with members of her family on Saturday. He had come to pay respects to Jalal, a former Iraqi president and founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party who died this month.

Other Iraqi and Kurdish officials told Reuters Soleimani held meetings with Kurdish leaders to persuade them to retreat from Kirkuk ahead of the Iraqi army push into the city.

“I don’t deny that Mr. Qassem Soleimani gave us the advice to find a solution to Kirkuk,” she said. “He said Kirkuk should return to the (Iraqi) law and constitution and to have an agreement about Kirkuk and give up the intransigence about the referendum which was a decision not thought out.”


Within days, Iran’s mostly Shi’ite allies in Baghdad launched a lightning assault, pushing Kurdish fighters out of disputed territories such as Kirkuk and consequently strengthening Iran’s hand in Iraq.

Commanders of the Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, have accused Iran of orchestrating the Shi’ite-led Iraqi central government’s push into areas under their control, a charge senior Iranian officials have denied.

A video posted by the Kurdish Rudaw channel online on Wednesday showed an Iraqi Shi’ite militiaman loyal to Iran hanging a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Kirkuk governorate office.

Iran, which has a large Kurdish minority, has reason to be wary of Iraqi Kurdish independence. It fears it might encourage its own Kurds, who have also pushed for separatism.

After the independence vote in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, videos posted online showed hundreds of people celebrating in the streets in the Kurdish areas of Iran.


Regional analysts say the emergence of Iran in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Lebanon, where it wields influence through its allied Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah militia, means Tehran has become a front-line player in the region which Washington could not afford to ignore.

“Trump’s stupidity should not distract us from America’s deceitfulness … If the U.S. tears up the (nuclear) deal, we will shred it,” said Khamenei. “Americans are angry because the Islamic Republic of Iran has managed to thwart their plots in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other countries in the region.”

Speaking after Trump’s speech, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards’ aerospace division, said: “From the start of the Islamic revolution … (presidents) have increased the shadow of war in the region …

“Dear brothers and sisters today Trump is acting crazy to gain concessions through this method.”

The ramping up of tension could put the two countries on a collision course in the Gulf where clashes have only been narrowly avoided in recent months.

Small boats from the Revolutionary Guards’ navy veered close to U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf at least twice this year, prompting the U.S. military to fire warning shots and flares.

In August, an unarmed Iranian drone came within 100 feet (31 meters) of a U.S. Navy warplane, risking a crash, according to a U.S. official.

Some recent naval showdowns between Iran and the United States took place near the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway where up to 30 percent of global oil exports pass annually.

During the presidential campaign last September, Trump vowed that any Iranian vessels that harassed the U.S. Navy in the Gulf would be “shot out of the water”.


The Guards could also target U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria through tens of thousands of loyal Shi’ite militia fighters without directly acknowledging a role in any attacks.

“The IRGC can claim ignorance of Shi’ite militia attacks against the U.S. military,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has done extensive research on the Guards.

In early October, an American soldier was killed in Iraq by an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, a type of roadside bomb which was often used by Iran’s Shi’ite militia proxies in Iraq, according to the U.S. military.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen it used in this area,” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman, said. Dillon said the U.S. military has not yet concluded who carried out the attack.

Dozens of American soldiers in Iraq were killed and injured by EFPs used by militia groups linked to Iran after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, according to the U.S. military.

Asked about the threat posed by Shi’ite militias allied with Iran in Iraq and Syria, particularly after Trump’s speech, Dillon said: “We’re always assessing the threats no matter where they come from. During certain announcements or certain dates or when certain events happen, we make proper adjustments.”

Trump’s new plan, observers say, will also weaken a group that had made progress in curbing the Guards’ political and economic ambitions in recent years: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the pragmatist politicians in his cabinet.

Since becoming president in 2013, Rouhani and members of his cabinet repeatedly pushed back against the Guards’ economic influence and involvement in political matters.

Now, Rouhani’s push against the Guards has been tempered because of the hardening in Trump’s approach to Tehran, regional observers said. “What this has done is that even those who were critics are now defending the Revolutionary Guards,” said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh and additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Erbil, editing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Millership)

Iran plans to buy Kazakh uranium ore, seek Russia help to make nuclear fuel

Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi attends the lecture "Iran after the agreement: Hopes & Concerns" in Vienna, Austria, September 28, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran plans to buy 950 tonnes of uranium ore from Kazakhstan over three years and expects to get Russian help in producing nuclear fuel, its top nuclear official said in remarks published on Saturday.

The acquisition would not violate Iran’s landmark 2015 deal with world powers over its disputed nuclear program as the deal did not set limits on the Islamic Republic’s supplies of uranium ore.

The report by the Iranian Students’ News Agency ISNA comes a day after the U.N. atomic watchdog said Iran’s official stock of enriched uranium had fallen by half after large amounts stuck in pipes was recategorised as unrecoverable under a process agreed with the major powers.

“About 650 tonnes is to be delivered in two shipments over two years and 300 tonnes during the third year and this shipment is to be returned to Kazakhstan (after enrichment),” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told ISNA in an interview.

Iran has asked a body overseeing its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers to approve the purchase of uranium ore and was still awaiting Britain’s agreement, Salehi said.

“Five of the members of the committee overseeing the (nuclear deal) have given their written approval, but Britain changed its mind at the last moment, considering the U.S. elections and Middle East problems,” Salehi said, without elaborating.

There was no immediate reaction from Britain to the report.

“In nuclear talks … we reached a final agreement on jointly producing nuclear fuel with Russia,” Salehi said. “We asked for their help in this regard… and it was agreed for the Russians to give us advisory help.”

The nuclear agreement brokered by Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the United States lifted sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Analysis: Trump’s hostility to help keep Iran’s Rouhani in office, but make his life harder

Iran President

By Parisa Hafezi

ANKARA (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric towards Iran now appears likely to help keep President Hassan Rouhani in office for another term, but will make it harder for the Iranian leader’s team of moderates to govern.

With an election due in three months and a hostile new administration in the White House, Iran’s hardliners seem to have backed off from trying to reclaim the presidency for their faction, at least for now.

No single candidate has emerged as a potential hardline champion to challenge the relative moderate Rouhani in the vote. Instead, officials speak of ideological rivals uniting behind him as best suited to deal with a Trump presidency.

“To protect the Islamic Republic against foreign threats we need to put aside our disputes and unite against our enemy,” said a senior official speaking on condition of anonymity like other figures within Iran contacted for this story.

“Under the current circumstances, Rouhani seems the best option for the establishment.”

Still, Rouhani’s supporters worry that even though hardliners no longer seem intent on removing him, they will take advantage of confrontation with the Trump administration to weaken the president at every turn.

“To cement their grip in power, hardliners will do whatever they can to provoke Trump. From missile tests to fiery speeches,” said a former senior official, close to Rouhani.

“By making Rouhani a lame-duck president, they will try to prevent any change in the balance of power in Iran.”

Rouhani, elected in a landslide in 2013 on a pledge to reduce Iran’s isolation, is the face of Tehran’s deal with the Obama administration to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions.

Trump and other U.S. Republicans have frequently disparaged that deal, as have hardliners in Iran.

For now, the Iranian hardliners appear to have concluded that they still need Rouhani in office, if only so Washington rather than Tehran will be blamed if the deal collapses, said Iran analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.

“With the deal in jeopardy, the system will be in vital need of Rouhani’s team of smiling diplomats and economic technocrats to shift the blame to the U.S. and keep Iran’s economy afloat,” said Vaez.

But ultimately, said analyst Meir Javedanfar, any atmosphere of heightened tension with Washington benefits the hardliners and weakens the moderates in Iran.

“Now with Trump in charge, Iran’s hardliners can sleep easy as they thrive on threats and intimidation from the U.S., it feeds their narrative,” said Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli lecturer on Iran at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.


Under Iran’s theocratic governing system, the elected president is subordinate to the unelected supreme leader, 77-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a hardliner in power since succeeding revolutionary founder Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.

A hardline watchdog body can control the elected government by vetting candidates before they stand and by vetoing policies.

Khamenei uses anti-American sentiment as the glue to hold together the faction-ridden leadership, but he will not risk a total collapse in relations with Washington that might destabilize Iran, say Iranian officials.

“The leader’s top priority has always been preserving the Islamic Republic … A hardline president might intensify tension between Tehran and America,” said an official close to Khamenei’s camp.

Rouhani’s efforts to open up Iran to less hostile relations with the West still have to be couched in the rhetoric of anti-Americanism that has been a pillar of Iranian rule since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

On Friday, hundreds of thousands marked the anniversary of the revolution, taking to the streets chanting slogans that include “Death to America”. At such events, Rouhani can strike a note that sounds as hardline as anyone. [ID:nL5N1FV1SX]

“We all are followers of our leader Khamenei,” Rouhani said in a speech that cast his own re-election bid as an opportunity for Iranians to demonstrate their defiance of Washington. “Our nation will give a proper answer to all those threats and pressures in the upcoming election.”

For his part, Khamenei said in a speech earlier this week that Trump had shown “the real face of America”, echoing the hardline Iranian criticism of the Obama administration’s comparatively accommodating stance as insincere or devious.

Khamenei dismissed a Trump administration threat to put Iran “on notice” for carrying out missile tests. But he also avoided signaling a break with the nuclear accord, and the speech was interpreted as a sign that he will stick by Rouhani for now.

“The leader’s speech showed that the leadership has agreed on a less confrontational line. They prefer to wait and see Trump’s actions and not to act based on his rhetoric,” said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leylaz.

Ordinary Iranian voters also seem inclined to keep Rouhani in power. Many complain that they have still seen few economic benefits from the lifting of sanctions, and those who hoped Rouhani would reform restrictive social policies say they are disappointed by the lack of meaningful change so far.

Nevertheless, there seems to be little appetite to reverse course at the election and restore power to a confrontational hardliner like Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“I did not want to vote. Nothing has changed under Rouhani. But now I have to choose between bad and worse in Iran. We cannot afford a hardline president when Trump is in power,” said high-school teacher Ghamze Rastgou in Tehran.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Iranian minister denies recent mid-range ballistic missile test

Iranian Defence Minister Dehghan delivers a speech as he attends 5th Moscow Conference on International Security in Moscow

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s minister of defence denied on Monday that the Revolutionary Guards had recently tested a medium-range ballistic missile but reiterated that Tehran had not stopped bolstering what it insists is a purely defensive arsenal.

Earlier, the Tasnim news agency quoted Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi as saying Iran had successfully tested a precision-guided missile two weeks ago with a range of 2,000 kms (1,240 miles).

The Islamic Republic has worked to improve the range and accuracy of its missiles over the past year, which it says will make them a more potent deterrent with conventional warheads against its enemy Israel.

“We haven’t test-fired a missile with the range media reported,” Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

The United States and some European powers have said other recent tests violate a United Nations resolution that prohibits Iran from firing any missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran says the missiles are not designed to carry nuclear warheads, which it does not possess.

Washington has imposed new sanctions on Tehran over recent tests, even after it lifted nuclear-related sanctions in January as Tehran implemented the nuclear deal it reached with world powers last year.

Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in March that missile development was key to the Islamic Republic’s future, in order to maintain its defensive power and resist threats from its enemies.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Writing by Sam Wilkin; editing by Richard Balmforth)

Iranian Leader Threatens Attack Inside America

One of the top commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard says they have already made plans to attack America from the inside.

Brigadier General Hossein Salami said in a televised interview that the “power of the Islamic Republic” will surprise the world.

“We have recognized America’s military strategy,” Salami said, “And have arranged our abilities, and have identified centers in America that will create a shock.  We will conduct a blow in which they will be destroyed from within.”

This is the second threat against America in the last two weeks from an Iranian official.  The Guard’s chief commander told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week that a direct conflict with America is the “strongest dream of the faithful and revolutionary men around the world.”

Reports say that Hezbollah terrorists sympathetic to Iran are already within the United States and likely have selected targets.