Iran and the shifting battlefield.

Joshua Goodman at ThreatsWatch:
In recent meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iran made “guarantees” to stop supplying explosively formed penetrators (EFPs). While these guarantees and those before them were met with skepticism, Major General James Simmons, the deputy commanding general of Multinational Corps-Iraq, sees reason to be optimistic: “I’m hopeful… What I see is a diplomatic effort being undertaken by the United States government – and I see a positive response from the Iranian government and that’s good.” A few weeks later, Simmons once again noted additional signs of Iranian cooperation: “We have not seen any recent evidence that weapons continue to come across the border into Iraq.” Simmons’ comments echo an early November statement by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that Iran was playing some role in the reduction of bombings by Shi’a militias. Gates did acknowledge, though, that it was difficult to quantify exactly how much of a positive influence Iran was playing in this matter. Nevertheless, there was a clear recognition that positive steps were being taken.

Similarly, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari noted Iran’s effort to “rein in” Shi’a militias. In a November 6 interview with Ross Colvin of Reuters, Zebari clearly stated that “Iran has been instrumental in reining in the militias and the Mehdi Army by using its influence.” As such, “Part of the security improvement was their [Iran’s] control of the militias. We see this as a positive development.”

For its part, the United States is making a few overtures to Iran as a gesture of goodwill. On November 6, Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith announced that the U.S. military would release 9 of the 20 Iranians they have captured in Iraq. And while the 9 released Iranians do not include the highest ranking or “most troubling” of the detainees, the U.S. is clearly offering Iran a carrot in the hopes of continuing the cooperation.

Some of these developments were noted in this site's November 18 Morning Report, which cited a Reuters story indicating a perception by the Iraqi government of a "thaw" in US/Iranian relations. That post also cited the NYT article stating that
The Iraqi government on Saturday credited Iran with helping to rein in Shiite militias and stemming the flow of weapons into Iraq, helping to improve the security situation noticeably. The Iraqi government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, speaking at a lunch for reporters, also said that the Shiite-dominated government was making renewed efforts to bring back Sunni Arab ministers who have been boycotting the government for more than four months.

American Future speculated on the possibility of a behind-the-scenes deal between the US and the IRI. Here, Goodman raises another possibility:
The motives for Iran’s temporary shift in strategy with regards to Iraq are unclear, although a number of dynamics are likely to have factored into the equation. For one, with al-Qaeda in Iraq becoming weaker everyday, the focus of the U.S. military was shifting to Iran’s Shi’a network. In fact, the coalition forces have already taken a number of steps in combating the Shi’a threat with notable success – particularly in Baghdad. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that Iran’s involvement in Iraq seemed on the verge of spiraling to direct conflict with the U.S. By following through on its promise to stop the flow of weapons and fighters, Iran seems to have temporarily brought calm to an almost certain clash.

If I'm understanding Goodman correctly, he believes that it is the Iranian regime, and not the US government, that has been pressured to cut its losses in Iraq - specifically, in order to avoid a disastrous confrontation with the US and save its own resources for its number one priority, the nuclear program. Goodman's concluding paragraph words it this way:
While Iran has grand ambitions for regional hegemony, it views its nuclear program as a basic necessity to achieve all ends. Iran’s support of Shi’a militias in Iraq was, for the time being, endangering its nuclear endeavors. Although Iran is currently quite secure on the nuclear issue, it is unlikely to take any action in the near future to jeopardize its current position. Thus, in the interim, Iran’s behavior in Iraq will likely continue to foil its actions on the nuclear front.

Now I'm going to zoom back to the beginning of Goodman's article to take a look at the other entity he mentions: the IRGC.
The United States government’s October 25, 2007 “Designation of Iranian Entities and Individuals for Proliferation Activities and Support for Terrorism,” was a clear indication of where the administration’s Iran policy will focus on in the near future: namely curbing the threat Iran poses to American forces in Iraq and ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. At the center of both of these issues is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops (IRGC), the elite Iranian military organization that was singled out as a terrorist entity under Executive Order 13382. As my colleague Steve Schippert rightly noted back in August before the formal State Department designation, “the intent in the President’s Executive Order to specifically designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist entity may be to increase international pressure to divest from the Iranian regime and injure the elite IRGC.”

The IRGC plays a central role in Iran’s activities in Iraq, where the Quds force and the Iranian-proxy Hizballah have been actively training and arming Shi’a militias, and in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, as past United Nations Security Council resolutions have suggested. By targeting the IRGC, a military body whose business operations make it susceptible to economic pressure, the administration may well be trying to pressure those elements close to the source of the problem in the hopes of forcing Iran to cooperate.

He's talking about the recently enacted sanctions, which I previously noted in this October 25 post on new Iran sanctions. I quoted the Treasury Department's press release at some length, and cited Walid Phares at the Counterterrorism Blog, who called it "a master strategic strike into the financial web of the major power centers of the Iranian regime". Phares' CTB colleague Andy Cochran expressed similar enthusiasm:
In my opinion, the broad scope of this sweeping announcement signals a decisive foreign policy decision, in concert with other countries, to significantly ratchet up sanctions against Iran to avoid a more dangerous confrontation (the Associated Press characterizes them as "the harshest since the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979").

And this view would appear to be supported by Goodman's analysis of today's post. Here, though, Cochran's reference to a "more dangerous confrontation" invites the question: Dangerous for whom? In general, a confrontation is more "dangerous" for the side that expects to lose. The way I'm reading this is that both the US and the IRI have decided against coming to blows over Iraq, each party for its own reasons: Iran because it cannot win such a battle and because it needs to conserve its resources for its nuclear program; and the US because the battle, even if won, would prove costly and a Pyrrhic victory.

So it looks as if what's happening is that the arena of confrontation is being narrowed. Neither the US nor the Iranian regime seems to think a conflict over (or in) Iraq is worth the cost. Where we go from here is anybody's guess, but while I'm on the subject of the IRGC, I want to return to The Spirit of Man's post citing Amir Taheri:
A very well written piece on WSJ by Amir Taheri about the nature and goals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards:

"A few IRGC commanders, including some at the top, do not relish a conflict with the U.S. that could destroy their business empires without offering Iran victory on the battlefield. Indeed, there is no guarantee that, in case of a major war, all parts of the IRGC would show the same degree of commitment to the system. IRGC commanders may be prepared to kill unarmed Iranians or hire Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi radicals to kill others. However, it is not certain they would be prepared to die for President Ahmadinejad's glory."

And this is what I have always thought to happen in case of a foreign military intervention. No body will die for this corrupt and monstrous regime and many will not sacrifice their lives for the mullahs. Many many Iranians are willing to take the risk of being bombed if their evil rulers get what they deserve which is what happened to Saddam and Milosevic.

Now read this:

"While many Iranians see it as a monster protecting an evil regime, others believe that, when the crunch comes, it will side with the people against an increasingly repressive and unpopular regime."

And this is exactly what concerns me. A limited bombing strike against the command and control sectors of the Iranian regime will eventually help accelerate the fall of the clerical establishment.

In Taheri's and Winston's view, then, the IRGC is not a monolithic mass but a structure which, with the application of the right kind and degree of pressure, may at least in part be turned to ends other than those which it was originally created to serve.

And if this view is correct, then the application of targeted economic pressure may serve as a means of testing the organization's response to that pressure - and a possible prelude to further action in the future.

But this leads to the other important question, and the one that Winston asks: Who, in the event of the Mullahs' fall, would take over in Iran?