Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard is now in the cross-hairs of U.N. penalties over Tehran's nuclear program, and it's an elusive target — a master at the sanctions-busting strategies long used by the Islamic Republic.
Iran has used a combination of third-party companies, deals with deep-pocket allies such as China, and the financial cushion of its oil exports to get around sanctions. The Guard is the muscle behind the clerical rulers and has its hand in every level of the country's economic, military, foreign policy and nuclear planning. It also is at the center of evasive strategies.
Even with two of Iran's lifelines — Russia and China — backing the latest Security Council measures, Iran denied being boxed in. Commerce Minister Mahdi Ghazanfari said Thursday in Beijing that Iran would find "new ways" to overcome the U.N. action.
These could include simply setting up new companies to funnel equipment to Iran's nuclear and defense programs or leaning more on friendly states such as Venezuela and perhaps even neighboring Turkey to keep money channels open, experts said.
Analyst predicts no suffering
Mustafa Alani, head of security studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said he did not see the Revolutionary Guard suffering a lot.
"The Revolutionary Guard has developed an elaborate system to circumvent the embargo, maneuver illegal trade, bypass restrictions," he said.
The Revolutionary Guard — as a pillar of Iran's Islamic ruling clerics — has been caught up in previous sanctions. But the latest steps take particular aim at the Guard, whose reach would be like bringing the CIA, Pentagon and Homeland Security under one roof.
The Guard also has overseen the withering attacks on opposition groups after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who dismissed Wednesday's sanctions as "annoying flies." The Guard and its paramilitary allies are expected to stage a significant show of force Saturday on the first anniversary of the vote.
Rally called off
Just that seemed enough to rattle the opposition. A joint statement by protest leaders Mahdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, carried by the reformist website Sahamnews, said they were calling off plans for a rally Saturday because of fears of violence.
The leader of the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, was quoted Thursday by Iranian media saying that the postelection turmoil posed more of a threat to Iran's rulers than the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
Jafari said the risks were greater because of support for the opposition by the "international community," which has been one of the pretexts for waves of arrests and attacks on marchers.
Firms linked to Guard
At least 15 of the companies and groups named in the new sanctions list are linked to the Guard. Nearly all the rest have connections to nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which are directly under the Guard's control. The Security Council also banned Iran from buying certain categories of military equipment that are under the Guard's grip, including attack helicopters.
The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran's Esfahan Nuclear Technology Center has been added to a list of 40 people subject to both an asset freeze and travel ban.
The measures seek to punish Iran for rejecting proposals to halt uranium enrichment and take its nuclear fuel from abroad. The West and its allies fear Iran could be on the path toward nuclear weapons. Iran says it only seeks nuclear power for energy and medical research.
Iran to answer sanctions
Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of parliament's influential National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, described the sanctions as "political, illegal and illogical" and said lawmakers would review Iran's relations with the U.N. nuclear watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency. He offered no details of the possible fallout, but one option could be banning U.N. inspectors from Iran's nuclear facilities.
One hard-line member of the parliamentary committee, Mohammad Karamirad, suggested Iran should respond to Western "bullying" by quitting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — as North Korea did in 2003.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said imposing new sanctions "is not constructive and will destroy the grounds for solving the current crisis" with the West.
The new sanctions do not affect oil exports, the lifeblood of Iran's economy, because targeting them would have cost the U.S. essential support from veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, which have strong economic ties with Tehran.
Russia and China nixed any ban on gasoline imports, which would have struck a serious blow since Iran's refineries cannot keep up with domestic demand.
Diplomatic push aids Guard
Iran also has room for more international jockeying even though its diplomatic push failed to block the sanctions. The resolution urges — but doesn't require — measures such as inspections of Iran-bound cargo and bans of financial transactions and other dealings.
This should give the Revolutionary Guard room to plan, said William O. Beeman, an expert on Iranian affairs at the University of Minnesota.
He pointed out the Revolutionary Guard and the ruling clerics must be seen as a single entity — with the Guard having all the tools to try to beat the penalties by shifting to banks not on the sanctions list or by being allowed to set up new shell companies.
"This is like a game of Whac-a-Mole," he said. "You hit them and they will just pop up in another place. It's like reflagging a vessel. You cannot really control something like the Guard."
A potential break for Iran came quickly from Moscow.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told journalists that the U.N. resolution does not block Russia from selling Iran its S-300 air-defense missile system. Israel and the U.S. have urged Russia not to supply the missile systems, which would substantially increase Iran's defense capability.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the sanctions should not block efforts for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.
Iran gets around sanctions
The years of various U.S. sanctions — going back to freezing assets after the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979 — offer a case study in Iran's networks. Third-party firms have been used to bring in parts for Boeing aircraft and other U.S. equipment from before the Islamic Revolution. American consumer products, including those from Gillette and Coca-Cola, make it to store shelves through licenses with franchises in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere.
Iran also has significantly widened its economic footprint in recent years with oil and energy deals across Asia, including a planned gas pipeline to Pakistan and a growing export drive into the former Soviet republics. Record oil prices in recent years have provided a steady flow of foreign currency into Iran — one of OPEC's major producers — but many analysts believe Iran could suffer if prices stay below $80 a barrel.
Iran, meanwhile, had to become a quick study in self-sufficiency with state money. A standout has been the automaker Iran Khodro Co., which exports to Central Asia and other markets.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said new sanctions will pave the way for tougher measures by the U.S. and its allies. France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said European Union foreign ministers will be meeting Monday. While France would like tougher EU measures, all bloc countries must agree.