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The Revolutionary Guards: The Face of Israel's 'Iranian Threat'

by ANNIE TRACY SAMUEL in Tel Aviv

20 May 2011 20:57Comments

A "very real" threat? An "utterly irrational" perception of it? Or both?

3247233333_a74c0e9312.jpg[ comment ] "We, the Jewish people, cannot ignore the lessons learned from the Holocaust as they apply to the present day," asserted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when addressing the national ceremony that marked the beginning of Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel on May 1. "New oppressors deny the Holocaust as they call for our destruction," he continued. "Iran and its pawns, Hezbollah and Hamas, call for the annihilation of the Jewish state and openly act to that end."

Netanyahu's remarks invoke a narrative that has dominated Israeli foreign policy for nearly a decade: the Iranian Threat. According to Israeli political leaders, Iran poses an existential threat to the state of Israel and to the Jewish people. Many are familiar with this narrative, and the prime minister's declarations represent its "Holocaust edition." What few understand, however, and what Netanyahu alluded to by mentioning Iran's "pawns, Hezbollah and Hamas," is the role of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in shaping Israel's understanding of the Iranian threat.

In an examination of that narrative, the IRGC emerges as the central protagonist. The Revolutionary Guards are the potent, tangible expression of the Iranian threat. As the Islamic Republic's forward force, they are the threat embodied. They represent the mobility and proximity of the Iranian menace, the ability to strike along and within Israel's borders and a record of doing so.

In contrast to the dangers Israel sees in actual or potential Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, the dangers posed by the Revolutionary Guards are very real and very evident. Israelis can't point to any incidents of death or damage caused by an Iranian nuclear weapon. They can point to many caused by the beefed-up incarnations of Hezbollah and Hamas that have flourished in the past decade under the patronage of the IRGC. The Revolutionary Guards, in addition to being some of the primary Iranian voices calling for the annihilation of Israel, are in charge of actually bringing it about "in the immediate term," according to a report from the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a research group with ties to Israel's defense and intelligence establishments.

The Revolutionary Guards first gave life to the Iranian threat. In the beginning of 2002, Shimon Peres, then Israel's foreign minister (now its president), spoke to reporters in New York and declared that Iran had stationed Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon. According to Peres, the arrival of a fresh squadron of Guards signaled that Iran was newly determined to make good on its promise to destroy Israel. As reported by Haaretz -- a leading, generally left-wing Israeli paper associated with the International Herald Tribune -- Peres's announcement of the IRGC's presence in Lebanon, coupled with a meeting of political and defense officials to prepare a statement of Israeli policy on Iran, marked the "increasingly energetic, and vocal, diplomatic effort by Israel to focus world attention on the threat posed by Iran."

The Revolutionary Guards had first come to Lebanon in 1982, following the Israeli invasion, to organize Shia militias in the Bekaa Valley into a robust armed resistance against the Zionist regime. That project advanced two of Iran's goals: exporting the Islamic Revolution and destroying Israel. Hezbollah turned out to be the IRGC's greatest success. In the words of an Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) statement,

The Revolutionary Guard force in Lebanon is the spearhead of Iran in its campaign against Israel. It expresses an Iranian strategy that sees Lebanon as a beach-head, and so cultivates Hizbullah and its strategic abilities as a means of reacting to Israel, to wear Israel down with the ultimate aim of destroying [it], and meanwhile maintaining a balanced deterrent against it.

Following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, the weapons and money flowing from the IRGC to Hezbollah swelled. The Revolutionary Guards "built up Hizbullah as a semi-military body, readying it for confrontation along [Israel's] northern border." Peres's 2002 assertion that the Revolutionary Guards had come to Lebanon with rockets that could "hit the heart of Israel" was resoundingly borne out four years later in the Second Lebanon War of July-August 2006.

Like Peres, Israeli journalist Yaakov Lappin, whose articles reflect the conservative strain of Israeli commentary and politics, traced the rise of the Iranian threat and the origins of the Second Lebanon War to the sending of Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon following Israel's 2000 withdrawal. "Since Israel evacuated southern Lebanon," wrote Lappin, Iran "has sent in its Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps to provide Hizbullah with tens of thousands of rockets, missiles, and automatic weapons." The war, which began days before Lappin wrote his op-ed for Yedinot Ahronot, the most popular newspaper in Israel at the time, was in his view evidence that Israel was fighting an Iranian "mini-state," part of "an irrational and belligerent Islamist alliance bent on destroying [the Israeli people]."

Lappin's description of Iran's relationship with Hezbollah reflects Israel's concern that the IRGC has made Iran the definitive, all-powerful force surrounding Israel. According to a research brief prepared by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, the IRGC "turned Hezbollah into an organization with the military capabilities of a state, arming it more like an Iranian division than a terrorist organization." IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani "was the main person responsible for equipping Hezbullah with missiles and long-range rockets, and he served as the moving spirit in formulating the doctrine to be used...against Israel," wrote Haaretz columnist Yossi Melman. Though Hezbollah could use some of those weapons independently, others "required Iranian consent before use," according to the MFA.

Ze'ev Schiff, a well-respected and -connected Israeli journalist, wrote that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) shared the view that the IRGC maintained control over Hezbollah. "The Israeli defense establishment, which regards Hezbollah as a frontal commando unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, certainly saw" the Second Lebanon War as one "between Israel and Iran." Though the incident that ignited the war -- Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers -- was carried out without Iranian authorization, Israelis saw the face of the IRGC, literally, in the conflict when the IDF raided a Hezbollah outpost in Lebanon and identified its residents as Revolutionary Guards.

Hezbollah's mistakes in executing the war prompted the IRGC to assume even tighter control of the organization, leaving Guards on the ground in Lebanon to oversee Hezbollah's rehabilitation and to coordinate the transfer of weapons. Since the end of 2006, reports based on IDF intelligence have appeared in Israeli media claiming that "hundreds" of Revolutionary Guards are "manning key positions in Hezbollah's ranks" as part of Iran's "comprehensive and significant" involvement in and influence over Hezbollah. As recently as January 2011, Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a Middle East analyst at the Jersualem Center for Public Affairs, wrote, "it should be emphasized that currently, the Iranians exercise more control than ever over Hizbullah." That control is enforced by "General Hassan Madavi, Commander of the Lebanon Corps of the Revolutionary Guards, [who] sits in Beirut alongside scores of Iranian officers and experts."

Though IRGC influence over Hamas is less direct, it is still seen in Israel as definitive. According to a research brief prepared by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after the violence along the Israel-Gaza border in 2008-9 that culminated in Israel's Operation Cast Lead, it could "be seen that without the massive support provided by Iran, it would have been extremely difficult for Hamas to engage in its military buildup." Official and media reports before and after the operation cited the IRGC as responsible for the training of combatants and the provision of weapons that constituted that buildup.

More recently, Israeli leaders fear that the IRGC is taking advantage of instability in the region to implement its threat against Israel. This March 15, the IDF intercepted the cargo ship Victoria in the Mediterranean carrying Iranian weapons likely headed for the Gaza Strip. A Persian-language manual emblazoned with the IRGC logo was found among the arms and served as a useful prop for Prime Minister Netanyahu when he described how the materiel's "final objective was Israeli citizens." For Netanyahu, the weapons found on the Victoria are evidence of how the "Arab Spring" of 2011 is "likely to turn into the Iranian winter."

Revolutionary Guard commanders and other Iranian leaders have repeatedly asserted that the popular protests in the region will result in a Middle East free from the Zionist regime. On February 26, Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the IRGC's Basij Force, declared that "the siege of the Zionists is getting tighter" as a result of the "Islamic awakening" sweeping the region. "I hope [the Zionists] leave [Palestine] soon," he continued, "because after the siege gets tighter, their remains will be thrown into the sea. This revolution will continue until achieving final victory and the defeat of the United States and Israel." At the end of April, Deputy IRGC Commander Hossein Salami said that Israel had become "so weak" that it could "no longer attack Hamas and Hezbollah or threaten Iran."

Israeli academics and retired members of the defense establishment have argued that such statements should not be taken at face value. Brigadier General (ret.) Shlomo Brom described Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric as "strictly for internal consumption." Prof. Haggai Ram of Ben Gurion University has termed Israel's narrative "Iranophobia." He believes "there is something utterly irrational and exceedingly disproportionate in Israeli understandings of the Iranian threat -- even if that threat is, in certain respects, very real."

When looking at the Iranian threat, the IRGC emerges as the "very real" part of it. Trita Parsi, who has written extensively on Israeli-Iranian relations, says, "Israelis tend to view the Iranian government and its IRGC arm with a mixture of disdain, respect, and exaggerated belief in their mythical capabilities. In spite of the high rhetoric of Israeli officials that the Iranians are irrational, messianic, and suicidal, privately they admit that their challenge with the IRGC is that it is precisely the opposite -- methodological, calculating, and disciplined. This has made the IRGC a far greater challenge than any of the previous foes Israel has faced."

Therefore, as exaggerated or far-fetched as rhetoric calling for the destruction of Israel may be, those responsible for the nation's security feel they don't have the luxury of disregarding it.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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