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Will Iran’s Revolutionary Guard provoke Trump into going out with a bang?

As domestic rioters offer distraction, the risk looms from overseas of a messy war to welcome Biden.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 January 2021, 12.00am
Trump’s sudden turnabout had one clear purpose |
Kleponis Chris/CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Trump’s sudden U-turn to condemn the Capitol riot, delivered by autocue through gritted teeth, was designed to serve just one purpose – prevent his cabinet from invoking the 25th Amendment. Whether that supine body would have even gone so far is doubtful, but such was the reaction to Wednesday’s events that he had to play safe.

The likely result is that Trump will survive his remaining few days in the White House, and while, for many, he may go down in history as the worst US president in more than a century, he retains a support base that is both determined and well-positioned to expand, given the many problems looming for the United States over the next four years. If he survives various legal challenges, he will be sufficiently well-placed and funded to develop a powerful focus of dissent.

That being so, will these remaining days go smoothly? While many will hope so, there is one nagging issue: Iran. And the problem may arise not in the White House, but with present-day Iranian politics and the rapid rise to ascendency in the country of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Ten days ago, the US Navy’s carrier group headed by the USS Nimitz was recalled to its home base, San Diego in California, following a long deployment to the West Pacific and the Middle East that started last June. This was welcome news for the crew, who had been on board for nine months due to a pre-deployment COVID quarantine that started last April. Then, last Sunday, the acting secretary of defence, Chris Miller, reversed the decision on Trump’s direct orders and the Nimitz carrier battle group remains on station close to the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, a heavily armed nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine, the USS Georgia, recently entered the Gulf with an arsenal that includes 154 land-attack Tomahawk cruise missiles.

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Also in the region is a powerful amphibious ready group led by the USS Makin Island and two other amphibious warships, the USS Somerset and the USS San Diego. The ships carry 2,500 Marines, many helicopters and F-35B strike aircraft from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Biden’s team was concerned that Trump was planning a useful little war with Iran that would cement his position as a powerful president

There was concern in Biden’s team that Trump may have been planning sudden confrontation with Iran – a useful little war that would cement his position as a powerful president while leaving behind yet another mess for his successor. That is still not beyond the bounds of possibility, but this fails to include recent developments in Iran and the possibility of a provocation that would, instead, present difficulties for Trump.

The background to this is the IRGC’s increasing power within Iran, which is particularly significant ahead of the presidential election on 18 June. The Corps is already in effective control of Iran’s security and intelligence organisations, as well as the nuclear programme, and in the last few days has ramped up a series of actions designed to show its power. It started with an announcement that the nuclear programme would increase production of enriched uranium from 4% to 20%, followed by the detention of a South Korean oil tanker. Then, on Wednesday, the IRGC commander, Major General Hossein Salami, warned unnamed “enemies” that the Corps was ready to defend itself against attack. It wasn’t a coincidence that he gave his warning at the opening of a new hospital in the city of Assaluyeh on the Persian Gulf coast.

As if to emphasise that readiness, this week the IRGC held a major naval exercise involving 700 “light and semi-heavy vessels”, including many of the small attack boats used for “swarm” attacks on large warships. This followed the completion and opening of a large underground missile base close to the coast, which reportedly houses a range of missiles, including what the IRGC calls “coast to sea” missiles.

Inspired by North Korea

From an IRGC perspective, much of this is intended to increase its national power base at a time of concern among hardliners that Biden’s election was not good news for them. Trump was useful as an obvious enemy to the force, whose prime function is to protect the Iranian revolution. Biden, though, will pursue a softer policy and will seek to re-engage with Tehran, not least in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action multilateral nuclear deal. That would please the three European countries involved, Germany, France and the UK, as well as moderates within Iran, but not the IRGC.

Within the Corps lies a strong view that North Korea has shown the way by going nuclear and that Iran should follow suit, as this would be the only way to protect the revolution from the US and Israel. Further provocations may therefore follow in the coming days, on the basis that Trump must either watch on the sidelines during his remaining White House tenancy or react with air and missile strikes.

That second option is not as implausible as it sounds. Many in the military would be aghast at the prospect of going to war with Iran, but by no means all. Within hours of the mob assault on the Capitol, the US Air Force mounted a B-52H demonstration “raid”, sending two B-52H strategic bombers on a 36-hour non-stop round-trip flight from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to the Middle East.

Whatever happens, the Corps wins – either Trump and the status of the United States take a knock or Iran is attacked, which would powerfully demonstrate the need for the IRGC and an accelerated nuclear programme. A nice win-win for them but bad news for the world at large.

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