Firing blanks

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 16/08/07):

The Bush administration’s reported intention to place Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on its list of terrorist groups is part and parcel of a wider strategy to increase Tehran’s international isolation, in particular through bilateral diplomatic, financial and commercial sanctions that other countries’ foreign ministries, banks and businesses feel obliged to emulate or observe.

But the move looks largely symbolic. It is unlikely to have any appreciable impact on terrorism in Iraq, where the US says the Iranians are assisting both Shia and Sunni insurgents, or in the wider Middle East. The Guards ideological support for Hizbullah in Lebanon – Washington says they furnish the Shia group with weapons while Tehran denies it – will not be affected by a bureaucratic notification in Washington.

Likewise, Tehran’s political and financial backing for the Hamas leadership in Gaza, its ties to rejectionist Palestinian groups in Syria, and its alleged weapons supplies to the Taliban in Afghanistan – in which the Revolutionary Guards may or may not play a role – will hardly be curtailed by a White House edict issued by a discredited president struggling to justify a failed policy that may be scrapped by Congress as early as next month.

Bush’s action, if carried through, also has a scattergun feel. The Guards number hundreds of thousands of men, with numerous bases across Iran. Most of them play no role beyond Iran’s borders. More dangerous is the organisation’s smaller, militant offshoot, the al-Quds force, blamed by western intelligence for masterminding most of Iran’s hostile actions in Iraq.

The zealots of al-Quds, to which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once belonged, are not to be put off by financial and other sanctions, the consequence of the US terrorist listing. While the Guards organisation as a whole has massive business interests in Iran, including businesses, hotels and property, the motivation of the al-Quds hardliners does not depend on material profits. They believe their reward will come in heaven. They will not care if foreign Muslim businesses think twice about dealing with the Guards.

All the same, the planned US action is significant in that it keeps the spotlight and the pressure on Iran at a time when alleged Iranian meddling in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan is at an all-time high, and when US (and British) forces are under possibly unprecedented pressure.

It is likely to precede further US-led action against Iran, on the Iraq and nuclear fronts, at the UN in September, when the General Assembly convenes. It also comes in the context of proposed $20bn US arms sales to Gulf Arab states, plus Egypt and Jordan, and Bush’s proposed grand Middle East conference in November.

Both the arms sales and the conference, ostensibly about Israel-Palestine, are part of ongoing attempts to build anti-Iranian aliances in the region in anticipation of the US withdrawal from Iraq. While Bush will delay the pullout as long as possible, US planners are attempting to minimise the diplomatic and other gains to Iran that will ensue as the American presence diminishes.

Yesterday’s monstrous attack on Yezidis in northern Iraq is another aspect of this Iraq endgame: while the US tries to create a situation in which it can retreat, militarily, with some sort of honour, its opponents, of all hues, find common cause and grow ever more determined to make the process as bloody and as humiliating as possible.