In March 2003, just weeks before the start of the war in Iraq, White House official Zalmay Khalilzad and senior diplomat Ryan Crocker secretly met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, who at the time was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations. The war in Iraq was looming. Both Washington and Tehran wanted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gone but both wanted to coordinate to prevent any accidental conflict. The meeting was a success. Zarif, who today is Iran's foreign minister and the man with whom Secretary of State John Kerry negotiates, agreed that Iran would not try to shoot down any American planes which strayed into Iranian airspace, would return any pilots who found themselves in Iran and, most importantly, Iran would not interfere in Iraq by inserting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Iranian-backed militias into the country.
Just days later, as U.S. forces invaded, Ali Nourizadeh, an Iranian journalist close to the reformist camp, reported that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Qods Force had surreptitiously inserted more than 2,000 trained agents and militiamen into Iraq to stymie U.S. plans. In other words, Zarif made a firm promise that Iran would restrict its interference and, within days, Iran blatantly violated that agreement.
So what happened? Either Zarif lied or he had no power to force the IRGC to abide by the foreign ministry's commitments. Either way, hundreds of Americans died at the hands of the IRGC or its proxies because senior diplomats trusted the Iranians.
More than a decade later, there is no evidence that the IRGC and Iranian security forces are any more willing to oblige Iranian diplomats with regard to the nuclear deal announced on July 14. Take the imprisonment of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian. To simply dismiss his incarceration as sign of hardline backlash is disingenuous, since those responsible also control the potential military dimensions of any Iranian nuclear program.
And while the agreement Kerry and Zarif hashed out promises managed inspections according to a nearly month-long process, the Iranian officials who control the gates to the military bases answer to the IRGC and not the foreign ministry.
The problem is structural. IRGC stature grew against the backdrop of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. When revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini finally accepted a ceasefire in 1988, the IRGC was loath to return to their barracks and forfeit the privileges they had acquired. Instead, they decided to seek independence from the politicians and bean counters in Tehran by creating their own independent financial base, which they called Khatam al-Anbia ("Seal of the Prophets").
To understand what Khatam al-Anbia is like, picture the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers combined with Bechtel, Halliburton, KBR, Shell, Exxon, Boeing, and Northrop-Grumman, all rolled up into one. Today, Khatam al-Anbia monopolizes heavy industry as well as import-export; all together, they might control 40 percent of the Iranian economy. It controls dam-building, highway laying and tunnel drilling, pipelines, and water system, among ordinary construction. In addition, IRGC companies build cars, computers, and manufacture telephones, scanners, and SIM cards. Add into the mix shipping and oil, and the stranglehold is complete. Anyone who visits Iran notes the plethora of mom and pop shops, but few chains. The reason is anyone who starts making too much money risks having the Revolutionary Guards muscle in on his turf.
The IRGC investments have paid off. Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Khatam al-Anbia received upwards of $50 billion in no-bid contracts in the oil industry alone. That doesn't include is control of the Karaj airport, perhaps $13 billion annually in oil smuggling, and a host of other concerns. Even if President Hassan Rouhani were to take the IRGC's official budget to zero, they would be facing less of a budget cutback proportionately than the U.S. military has through sequestration.
What this means in practice is that neither Rouhani nor Zarif can compel the IRGC to abide by diplomatic commitments. The importance for the nuclear deal is that the IRGC controls the nuclear sites suspected of involvement in the possible military dimensions of a nuclear program. Parchin, the IRGC base where Iranian nuclear scientists reportedly experimented with nuclear bomb triggers? Controlled by the IRGC. Fordow, the underground bunker dedicated to nuclear work which Obama once said no peaceful nuclear program would need? Controlled by the IRGC.
On July 14, the day Obama announced the deal, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, reiterated that inspectors would have "no access" to Iran's military sites, regardless of any agreement.
Even if Zarif were as sincere as Mother Theresa, it would be irrelevant; he simply does not have the power to bring the IRGC into compliance. He would not be upset, of course, if Iran got its $100 billion windfall before the White House and Congress figured that out.