Trump’s Iran strategy will fail. Here’s why.

The New York Times | Narges Bajoghli: ‘Maximum pressure’ will only strengthen the Revolutionary Guards, which has recast itself as the defender of a new, nationalist narrative.

As tensions with Tehran escalate, Washington has been struggling to understand the internal thinking of the Iranian government, and especially that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The organization, which functions as an elite military branch and a bulwark of the country’s revolution, is today the most powerful force within Iran’s complicated political structure. Understand the Revolutionary Guards, and you understand a good part of what makes modern Iranian politics tick.

To many outsiders, the organization is little more than a cartoonish Praetorian Guard that oppresses dissent at home and supports a broad range of aggressive military ventures abroad. It is true that it is a major sponsor of groups like Hezbollah, and it played a central role in the violent clampdown against the reformist Green Movement in 2009.

Things look different inside Iran. Having conducted ethnographic research among the Revolutionary Guards over a span of 10 years, including multiple years doing fieldwork with its media producers, I have watched it try to rebrand itself as the defender of a new, nationalist narrative about Iran as the regime enters its fifth decade.

Understanding this shift is key to making sense of the current international tensions and how they are interpreted in Iran. The Trump administration’s dual goals of its “maximum pressure” strategy — using sanctions to bring Iran to the table and to foment dissent in the pursuit of regime change — are in fundamental tension. Pressure from abroad makes it easier for the regime to build domestic solidarity at home. The Revolutionary Guards understands this, and thanks to its rebranding, is perfectly positioned to exploit it.

It is easy to forget that the 1979 revolution in Iran was as much about an anti-imperialist nationalism as it was about religious ideology; for most Iranians, the rallying cry “Neither East nor West” resonated just as loud as the call for Islamic piety.

Especially since the early Cold War, when the Americans and British backed a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, Iranians chaffed at what they saw as Western meddling, including continued support for the shah, whom many considered a foreign puppet. The post-revolution government was so concerned about a repeat coup that it created the Revolutionary Guards to protect itself.

The corps plays a military function, but it operates largely outside the traditional military structure — Ayatollah Khomeini, the main leader of the revolution, did not trust the establishment Iranian armed forces, known as the Artesh, which he believed remained loyal to the shah. He charged the Revolutionary Guards with protecting the revolution domestically, while the Artesh would protect the nation’s borders.

In its first few years, the Revolutionary Guards suppressed internal uprisings in Kurdistan and among the country’s Turkmen minority. Following the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980, the Revolutionary Guards joined the Artesh on the front lines. In the ensuing eight-year war, it mushroomed into a parallel military force, with its own ground, naval and air forces.

It blossomed politically as well: Even though Ayatollah Khomeini’s will had banned the guards and the Artesh from politics, shortly after Khomeini’s death in 1989, the leaders of the Islamic Republic began to grant lucrative contracts to the Revolutionary Guards for rebuilding the postwar infrastructure of the country. By the 1990s it was the wealthiest independent institution in Iran, the powerful and much-feared bastion of the republic’s founding revolutionary orthodoxy.

In the decades after the revolution, the regime’s robust media operations sought to cast the history of the revolution and the subsequent war with Iraq in an anti-imperialist language imbued with Shia Islamic imagery. But the explosion of the Green Movement in 2009 — the largest street demonstrations against the regime since the revolution, in which calls for an “Iranian Republic” to replace the Islamic Republic rang loud — showed that an emphasis on religious ideology was no longer viable.

‘This youngest generation doesn’t understand our revolutionary language anymore,’ said a media producer for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. ‘We’re wasting our time with the media we make.’
Soon after the protests, one media producer for the guards told his colleagues in a private meeting in which I was present: “This youngest generation doesn’t understand our revolutionary language anymore. We’re wasting our time with the media we make.”

Rather than seeing the protests as an attack on the regime, he argued that the Revolutionary Guards should see them as an opportunity. “The protesters are not to blame,” he told his colleagues. His own daughters and wife had joined the Green Movement, a story I heard repeatedly throughout my research. “We’re the ones that need to adapt to the realities of our country,” he said. “We need to tell better stories. The stories we’ve told the past 30 years … you need a Shia dictionary to understand them. No wonder young people don’t watch what we make.”

Iran had changed dramatically in the 30 years since the revolution. It became not only better educated and more urban, but younger: 70 percent of Iran’s population of 80 million is under the age of 40. The Revolutionary Guards realized that a sizable number of Iranians were tired of the state’s propaganda, and they blamed the guards and its paramilitary Basij force for the suppression of internal dissent.

At the same time, the regime’s propaganda efforts were tanking — few people shopped at the regime’s bookstores, visited its museums, watched its TV programs or bought tickets to its movies. In short, the guardians of the Islamic Republic faced the classic paradox of any successful revolutionary movement: how to transmit the commitment to their revolutionary project from one generation to the next.

The solution, they realized, was there all along. Nationalism is a powerful force, in Iran as much as anywhere else, and it had long united Iranians across the ideological spectrum. Another Revolutionary Guards media producer told his colleagues in a closed-door meeting shortly after the Green Movement, “We have to show young people that we’re here to protect Iran as a nation, not just the Islamic Republic as an idea.”