Bush’s risky strategy on Iran

The Bush administration is taking a calculated risk with its plans to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a global terrorist organization. Tehran is certain to see it as a direct challenge to the clerical regime since it’s the Guards who keep it in power and indeed produced Iran’s current president..

The administration hopes that upping the ante and a stronger U.N. resolution banning travel by Iran’s leaders and cutting off access to the international financial system will persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear-weapons ambitions.

However, additional sanctions may only harden the regime in its isolation and convince it that having a nuclear-weapons capacity is even more essential. Iran has been under one form of sanctions or another since 1979 without loosening the deeply disliked clerics’ grip on power.

However, the Revolutionary Guards are hardly a benign force. It is a separate military branch, believed to be about 125,000 strong, with its own air and naval capabilities. It is also a coercive commercial venture, exploiting its privileged status to operate many businesses of its own and to hold shares of others.

The Guards have been supplying the Shiia militias in Iraq, the Taliban holdouts in Afghanistan and the anti-Israeli Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The Guards are also believed to be the suppliers of explosively formed penetraters used to deadly effect against U.S. forces in Iraq.

The terrorist designation will have little immediate effect because the Guards no longer do business or hold assets in the United States, but it gives the Treasury and State departments leverage to convince foreign firms and financial institutions not to do business with the Guards or invest in their enterprises.

Whatever effect designating the Guards as terrorists has on the Iranians, it eases demands from Congress for the administration to take a much tougher line and from a bellicose faction on the right that wants to see military action.