This week, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval unit said Tehran will not stop trying to avenge the elimination of Qassem Soleimani, describing such a notion as “pure fantasy.” Soleimani was the regime’s top terrorist mastermind. The IRGC commander, Alireza Tangsiri, was responding to reported American demands that Tehran should not avenge Soleimani’s death in exchange for the IRGC’s removal from the US list of terrorist organizations.
Soleimani, the former commander of the Quds Force, was killed by a US drone strike at the Baghdad airport in January 2020. Days later, the regime fired a volley of ballistic missiles into eastern Iraq, targeting military bases where US servicemen were housed. More than 100 soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries, and Tehran soon began to insist that this was only the first reprisal.
Iranian regime forces and their regional proxies then carried out drone strikes on at least two other military bases where American personnel was stationed. More recently, it was reported that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among other Americans, had received credible threats of an assassination plot hatched by the IRGC.
Tangsiri stated that the high commander of the IRGC itself “has said that revenge is inevitable and that we will choose the time and place for it.” These remarks reinforce the sentiment expressed earlier in the week by Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
The regime previously called for Pompeo and former President Donald Trump to be tried by an “Islamic court,” but added that if Western authorities would not accept that demand, then Tehran and its supporters would pursue “justice” via their own extrajudicial mechanisms. One senior IRGC commander declared last week that even killing all current US leaders would be insufficient to avenge Soleimani’s death.
Ironically, the growth of this rhetoric does not appear to have affected Tehran’s public expressions of confidence regarding prospective resolutions regarding the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Negotiations for a mutual return to compliance with that deal began more than a year ago and are still ongoing.
For the past several weeks, figures on both sides of the Vienna talks have been insisting that the issues underlying most of those demands have been resolved. Mohammad Eslami, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, has reiterated Tehran’s official position that the discussion of “technical issues” has concluded and that the regime is now waiting for the US to make “political decisions” that could lead directly to the signing of a new agreement.
Media reports indicate that the White House is increasingly determined to keep the IRGC on the terror list in spite of Iran’s insistence that this constitutes a “red line” in the regime’s negotiating position.
By most accounts, the IRGC’s potential delisting is the last sticking point in the negotiations over the restoration of the JCPOA. But it is likely irresolvable, especially given that political figures on both sides of the dispute appear to be publicly hardening their respective positions.
In Tehran’s case, this trend reflects a hardline consolidation of power that began in earnest with tightly-controlled parliamentary elections in February 2020, then continued with a similarly undemocratic presidential election in June 2021. Conversely, the White House’s refusal to acquiesce to Iran’s last demand is contrary to what many observers expected following the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who had said that he would promptly reverse his predecessor’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal.
But Biden has faced mounting pressure over that issue and specifically over the prospect of delisting the IRGC, with statements of concern coming not just from traditional Republican adversaries but also from within the ranks of his own Democratic Party. And his apparent sensitivity to that criticism has not stopped political commentators from continual warnings that a new agreement with Tehran could end up channeling money directly into the IRGC’s hands, especially in the wake of delisting.
“If Iran wants sanctions lifting that goes beyond the JCPOA, they’ll need to address concerns of ours that go beyond the JCPOA,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said when asked about the Revolutionary Guards blacklisting.
“If they do not want to use these talks to resolve other bilateral issues, then we are confident we can very quickly reach an understanding on the JCPOA and begin to reimplement the deal itself,” Price told reporters.
In Tehran, the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is also not having a good time deciding whether to waive beyond-JCPOA to secure some sanctions relief or not. Sealing the nuclear program for the second time, despite all the rhetoric and all the mobilizing of his own base on that very project, will cost him more than his own image this time.
Whether Tehran will blink first or Washington, the question remains to dominate many heads and strategy planning rooms around the world. With a Khamenei-ally waging war in Ukraine, rising oil prices fueling his ambitions for more extortion, and US midterm elections on the horizon, it’s certain that giving in to the Iranian regime’s demands is not going to be the best of options.