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Iran's elite military is entangled in regional wars. Mission creep?

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps projects Iranian military power across the Middle East, to the alarm of critics of the nuclear deal. But it has become entangled in protracted conflicts that are testing its limits.

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    In this 2008 file photo, Iranian Revolutionary Guard members march during a parade ceremony marking the 28th anniversary of the onset of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), in front of the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran.
    Vahid Salemi/AP/File
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President Obama appears to have the votes to ensure congressional approval of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran, a key plank of which is an easing of economic sanctions. And one of the beneficiaries will be Iran’s primary tool for projecting power – the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and especially its elite Qods Force, which handles operations abroad.

But are Iran’s wizened generals, who mostly cut their military teeth in the 1980s as teenage volunteers during the brutal Iran-Iraq War, already in danger of overreach?

For decades, American military planners aimed to be capable of simultaneously fighting – and winning – two full-blown wars in different regions. It was a challenge, even for a superpower. Today, on a much smaller scale and with a sliver of the military means, Iran is attempting the same thing in the Middle East: It is deeply engaged in Syria and Iraq; waving the flag in Yemen; and very influential in Lebanon.

Never before has the Revolutionary Guard, whose 120,000-strong force is much smaller than Iran’s regular 425,000-strong armed forces, been engaged so deeply and widely abroad – yet with increasingly mixed and entangling results.

There is no shortage of commitment: at least seven IRGC generals have died on the frontlines, primarily in Syria but also in Iraq, taken down by snipers’ bullets, bombs, and even an Israeli airstrike. The Guards are relatively top heavy with generals due to their origins as an ideological militia. Still, such high-ranking losses are highly uncommon in modern warfare.

In Syria, the IRGC and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah are bolstering the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against an array of rebels and jihadists. In Iraq, Iran has mobilized Shiite militias to take on the self-described Islamic State, but at a cost of stoking more sectarian strife. While in Yemen, Iran has played a much lesser role in aiding Houthi militiamen against Saudi-backed forces.

Each conflict has now devolved largely along sectarian lines that pit Shiite Iran against its regional Sunni rivals, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states allied with the US and Israel.

The IRGC “exceeded their reach long ago.… They are at the end of their tricks [in Syria], and Hezbollah lost a lot,” says Walter Posch, a specialist on Iranian military forces at the Austrian National Defense Academy in Vienna.

“It worked well when it was low cost, but now it is high cost.… There is no Saddam Hussein who insulted the Iranian nation as a whole” as a national motivating factor, as in the 1980s, says Mr. Posch. “This is a war of their own liking, for the purpose of power projection. But they’ve been too ignorant of the fear of the small Gulf countries; too ignorant about the fears of the Saudis.”

Ideological origins

The IRGC was formed after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who wanted a more trusted and ideologically pure force than the regular Army. The grim years of the Iran-Iraq war consolidated its role – and its anything-is-possible reputation.

Embracing the religious Shiite aspects of resistance in the image of Imam Hossein, the 7th-century Shiite saint venerated as “lord of the martyrs,” the IRGC has since become an economic and political powerhouse. It runs a multi-billion dollar business empire that handles everything from oil and infrastructure projects to weapons production. In politics, active-duty guardsman play no formal role, but its generals are close to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and veterans have held cabinet and other government posts. 

“I don’t see signs of overreach; I think they’ve got leadership in depth,” says Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran now at the Chatham House think tank in London. “They are tested in difficult situations. They’ve been involved, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, or Afghanistan, for a very long period.”

“It comes back to, ‘Who wins wars?’ People who win wars and are the most effective are the ones with the greatest conviction, and the Iranians have got it,” says Amb. Dalton.

That certainly applies to Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who has often been photographed along frontlines in Iraq and elsewhere. He claimed this week that Iran’s efforts prompted the “collapse of American power in the region,” according to details of a high-level briefing published in Iran’s conservative media.

'Gobbling' or choking?

Some argue that Iran’s regional expansion is unprecedented. Addressing Congress in March, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran was “gobbling up” Mideast capitals. Yet the tide now isn’t all going Iran’s way.

In Syria, for example, Iran has been fighting to defend Mr. Assad’s regime for more than 4-½ years, spending an estimated $6 billion to $15 billion a year in a war that has claimed more than 240,000 lives. But pro-Assad forces have lost ground in recent months to rebels backed by the US, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as to the self-described Islamic State.

President Hassan Rouhani has vowed to back the Syrian government “until the end of the road.” While Assad is running short of loyalist troops, the IRGC reportedly has tried to fill the gap by finding several thousand Afghans to fight, and die, in exchange for cash, Iranian residency or passports, and sometimes for commuted jail terms, according to Germany’s Spiegel and Agence France-Presse

In May, a special event held in Tehran commemorated Afghan martyrs killed in Syria, and 65 corpses were returned in a single exchange, according to Iranian media reports. Many are buried in Iran. Officially, Iran denies enlisting Afghans to fight in Syria.

In Iraq, Soleimani was instrumental in reviving tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen to push back IS for more than a year – in concert with American airstrikes, and ironically with a similar mission as US military advisers now in Iraq. But those militias are accused of atrocities against Sunnis, and efforts to bolster the regular Iraqi military – decisive at first – have begun to stumble. 

And in Yemen, Iran has been marginally involved on the side of Houthi rebels as they advanced across the country earlier this year. In July, the critical port city of Aden was recaptured by Saudi-backed forces and troops of the United Arab Emirates. Months of Saudi-led airstrikes are imperiling the population, in a campaign explicitly aimed at rolling back Iranian influence.

“There is support for Soleimani but also high expectations,” says Posch, of the IRGC's Qods Force chief. “He has to deliver now. I don’t know how he deals with all these crises individually. He can’t go to all these battlefields in person.” 

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