Reporting from Beirut — Bluntly warning that Iran is sliding into military dictatorship, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an audience in Qatar on Monday that economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic should be increasingly aimed at its elite Revolutionary Guard.
Clinton, who was in Doha, the capital, for a conference on relations between the U.S. and the Islamic world, appeared to suggest that such a strategy could help rein in the ideologically motivated branch of the Iranian military by widening rifts within Iran's domestic political establishment."We are planning to try to bring the world community together in applying pressure to Iran through sanctions adopted by the United Nations that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran," she said during a visit with students at Carnegie Mellon University's campus in Qatar, according to news agencies
"We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship," she said.
The Revolutionary Guard was created after Islamic clerics toppled the U.S.-backed monarch and took control of Iran during a 1979 revolution. Since that time, Iran's government has been a blend of an authoritarian theocracy and a republic.
In recent years, though, members of the Guard have risen to positions of political and economic power, and have been accused by Iranian opposition figures of staging an electoral "coup d'etat" last year. If the Revolutionary Guard is taking control, it could require a different -- and perhaps more drastic -- response from Washington.
Clinton's analysis of Iran's political dynamics, which jibes with the latest assessments by Washington think tanks, suggests a U.S. attempt to use economic pressure to widen the divisions between hard-liners in the Guard and the rest of the Iranian political establishment, as well as with the opposition.
"The idea is to apply pressure on the Revolutionary Guard in order to force a wedge between the opposition movement and the guards, and to affect the guards' decision-making on the nuclear program," said Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp. "It might be an encouragement of the opposition movement in Iran, which also faces Revolutionary Guard repression."
Even within the Guard, there are differences of opinion and priority. "There are some who are concerned about the economy and making money," Nader said. "Sanctions might apply enough pressure on the guards to realize that the nuclear program is very costly."
George Perkovitch, a proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that some in the Guard might see the nuclear program as key to their own control of the government.
"This would be a big change, with a lot of implications that people will need time to think about," he said. "There's nothing good about it."
An Iranian official dismissed America's threat of further sanctions, saying that even if they were applied they would only help make Iran more self-sufficient.
"The international economic embargo that they always waved as a threat and applied against us is a failing policy," Abolfazl Zohrevand, an advisor to Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told Iran's state-owned Arabic-language Al Alam news channel. "This threat might cause some complications, but we may also welcome it because it is a reason for our remarkable scientific progress."
Iran has so far counted on Russia and China, which have U.N. Security Council veto power as well as strong economic and political ties to Tehran, to prevent the harshest sanctions advocated by the West from gaining the clout of international law.
U.S. government officials have imposed their own sanctions on individuals and organizations connected to the Guard, and are trying to enlist U.N. allies to add more levels of punishments. Clinton's comments signal a move by the Obama administration to mobilize its allies as well as the Iranian opposition.
Clinton, in her visit to Doha, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran's southern coast, acknowledged in a talk Sunday that relations had yet to improve between the U.S. and the Islamic world since President Obama's speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last year. On Monday, she addressed the widespread view that prospects for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians had dimmed, saying she was hopeful of a breakthrough.
But most of her attention during the visit was focused on Iran and its nuclear activities, which Tehran insists are focused solely on civilian purposes.
Though Clinton denied that the U.S. plans military action against Iran, she raised concerns about whether Tehran intends to build a nuclear bomb.
"The evidence is accumulating that that's exactly what they are trying to do," she said Sunday. She did not offer specifics.