FILE PHOTO: The Iranian flag flutters in front the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna, Austria July 10, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

July 19, 2021

The IRGC’s recently-acquired responsibility for securing nuclear sites may change the Iran-Israel escalation pattern and intra-regime dynamics

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is struggling to secure Iran’s nuclear infrastructure since taking responsibility for that task in early May 2021. Israel conducted a drone attack on an Iranian facility that produces aluminum blades for uranium centrifuges on June 23. The attack *caused significant damage, according to Western and Israeli media and satellite imagery, and is the latest in a larger Israeli campaign to degrade Iran’s nuclear program. Regime officials and media, especially those tied to the IRGC, have downplayed the attack in sharp contrast with their responses to previous such incidents, likely to divert blame from the Guards. Future attacks on nuclear infrastructure may change the Iran-Israel escalation pattern and strain relations between the IRGC and the incoming Ebrahim Raisi administration.

The IRGC’s rhetorical response to this latest attack differs from its reactions to previous incidents of Israeli sabotage at Iranian nuclear sites. Senior IRGC officials voiced concern over foreign infiltration in the security apparatus after Israel reportedly sabotaged the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant on April 11, and IRGC Commander Hossein Salami *threatened Israel eight days later. The IRGC’s rhetoric focused on the Hassan Rouhani administration’s failure to protect key nuclear infrastructure, seeking to use the attacks to gain control over the security mission. The IRGC conversely downplayed the June 23 attack, which occurred after it had taken responsibility for security. IRGC Deputy Commander Ali Fadavi falsely claimed on June 30 that the IRGC thwarted the operation and *prevented harm to any individuals or facilities. A hardline media outlet *chastised the sole official—a former intelligence and security minister under the reformist Mohammad Khatami administration—who *discussed foreign infiltration in the security apparatus following the June 23 attack.

The IRGC’s kinetic response to the June 23 attack was similar to its reaction to the April 11 Natanz incident, however. IRGC-affiliated media *claimed responsibility for firing a missile into Israel following the Natanz attack on April 21 (the missile was actually an errant anti-aircraft weapon). The IRGC also *attacked an Israeli-owned vessel in the United Arab Emirates’ Fujairah Port, and IRGC-affiliated media *claimed that Iranian proxies conducted an attack on an alleged Mossad center in northern Iraq on April 13. The IRGC attacked a second tanker near the Strait of Hormuz in response to the most recent Israeli sabotage.

IRGC leadership may have changed its tone because of its new role of safeguarding nuclear facilities. The Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) *transferred responsibility for nuclear infrastructure security from President Rouhani’s Intelligence and Security Ministry to the IRGC after the April sabotage at Natanz. The Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS)—Iran’s highest military body—and its subordinate Passive Defense Organization (PDO) also *established a unified command center to protect sensitive infrastructure on May 5. The PDO is a quasi-military organization responsible for civil defense and cyber activities. IRGC officers largely control the AFGS and PDO. IRGC leaders have less incentive to highlight foreign infiltration now that they have assumed greater responsibility for civil defense from the Rouhani administration. The IRGC instead likely seeks to assuage potential intra-regime concerns over the Guards’ ability to protect nuclear sites.

The Israel-Iran escalation cycle could follow several paths after the IRGC takeover of responsibility for securing the nuclear sites. The IRGC could expand and even escalate its kinetic retaliations for Israeli attacks, along with its anti-Israel rhetoric, in an attempt to redirect dismay about setbacks to the nuclear program into anger at Tel Aviv. It could alternatively continue to play down the significance of the Israeli attacks rhetorically to reduce its vulnerability to internal regime critics. It has initially chosen the second path, but continued Israeli attacks might prompt the IRGC leadership to shift to the first.

IRGC responsibility for the nuclear security portfolio could complicate relations with the incoming Raisi administration. Security bodies nominally under the control of the presidency that the IRGC blamed for allowing the Israeli sabotage may be tempted to attempt a coup on the IRGC as the Israeli attacks continue. They might even seek to reverse the IRGC’s acquisition of control over security of the nuclear program. The IRGC in turn might continue its attacks on those bodies either preemptively or defensively, thus straining relations with the new administration. IRGC leadership and incoming President Raisi likely desire a good mutual relationship and so may attempt to play down these differences. Bureaucratic habits could challenge their efforts to do so.