Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) has a problem. It is less powerful than it would have us believe. In attempting to bridge the gap between its real power and the image of power it hopes to project, it makes mistakes. Big mistakes, like shooting down a civilian airliner, as happened when a member of the IRGC mistook a Ukraine International Airlines flight for an enemy missile, killing 176 passengers and crew.
The fact is that almost every time the IRGC tries to inflate its power or cover up its misdeeds, it makes such mistakes. The IRGC’s attempts to fudge the facts and manipulate the news is creating a credibility gap: a breach in trust between the people and the government. The IRGC’s constant struggle to maintain its image—for both domestic and international audiences—offers Western policymakers seeking to gain more leverage over Tehran an opportunity in our approach to Iran. But we must first try and understand events from their perspective. In fact, the effort to “save face” is perhaps the greatest variable driving IRGC decision-making, including their worst blunders.
The purported killing of CIA operative Mike D’Andrea—better known as “Ayatollah Mike” or the “Prince of Darkness”—can be seen, in part, as an attempt to repair that gap, and another opportunity for the West.
On January 28, state television and IRGC-linked media outlets reported that Ayatollah Mike, Iran’s avowed nemesis and the human face of America’s covert campaign to topple the regime, was dead. According to state media, he died when the US reconnaissance plane that carried D’Andrea, along with an unknown number of CIA agents and two pilots, crashed in the mountains of Afghanistan. The news came alongside reports that D’Andrea directed the operation that killed Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani. IRGC mouthpieces intimated that the IRGC was responsible for the missile strike that killed D’Andrea, be it directly or through its proxies in Afghanistan.
Ayatollah Mike has been a fixation of the Iranian establishment for many years, and for good reason. In 2015, the New York Times called D’Andrea a key “architect of the targeted killing program as director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC). Today, he is the head of the CIA’s Iran Mission Center. According to the Iranian government, the purpose of the Iran Mission Center is regime change. Its tactics include spying, planting false stories, aiding dissidents, spreading American culture and technology, and other measures aimed at destabilizing the nation and inflaming unrest.
The purported murder of Ayatollah Mike was set off by a series of events that began with the killing of Soleimani on January 3. The elimination of Soleimani was a blow to the IRGC and to Iran itself. Such a public blow called for a powerful and similarly public response. The IRGC believed a swift and equal retaliation was necessary for the IRGC, and arguably the entire regime to save face.
Iran’s response came relatively quickly, in the form of missile strikes on two Iraqi bases housing US personnel. Soon after the news of the strikes broke, President Donald Trump announced that the Iranian attack did little damage and that no one was injured or killed. (The Pentagon has since disclosed that 109 servicemembers suffered traumatic brain injury from the strikes).
The IRGC was most likely alarmed by the news that the missile strikes were not as damaging as intended. Its act of retribution seemingly a failure, it again felt it needed to save face. And so commenced a blundering propaganda effort to make the Iranian people believe that the missile attacks were, in fact, equal to the original sin. It circulated a forged memo from the US secretary of defense saying that the strikes had done significant damage, with 139 casualties and another 146 injured. It is unclear how effective this campaign was inside Iran within IRGC’s core constituency. Among journalists and the diaspora on social media however, it was exposed and ridiculed for the forgery it was.
Revelations that the IRGC was behind the downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane undid any sympathy it had garnered from the death of Soleimani and any prestige it had generated from the fake news of the casualties in Iraq. Rather than admit the mistake, the Iranian government spent three days trying to cover it up. But the facts came out and so did demonstrators, some calling for the end of the Islamic Republic and death to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Once again, the IRGC needed to save face. It needed to do something to rehabilitate its image eyes of its core constituency and the angry, aggrieved public. Hence the announcement of the killing of D’Andrea. Sympathetic newspapers and politicians called it revenge for Soleimani and praised the IRGC for its success. Yet the veracity of the claim was put into question in part by the portrayal of Ayatollah Mike by state news media. The photo it ran alongside images of the plane wreckage was not of D’Andrea but of Fredric Lehne from the Hollywood movie, Zero Dark Thirty. While ludicrous, the connection is not entirely random. In the film, Lehne plays “the Wolf,” a character the writer says was inspired by D’Andrea.
The significance of the claim has to do with what D’Andrea meant to the regime and the IRGC in particular. Ayatollah Mike was the personification of a larger threat to the Islamic Republic, the very thing the IRGC was created to guard against: soft war. According to this narrative, soft war—technological, economic and cultural tools to corrupt Iranian culture and undermine the efficacy and legitimacy of the government—is the main means by which Iran’s enemies seek to disrupt Iranian society and manipulate its politics. At the head of this effort was none other than D’Andrea. By killing him, the IRGC could claim a major victory.
When protests broke out in November 2019 in response to increased petroleum prices, officials on both sides of the political spectrum used the discourse of soft war to explain the roots of the unrest and divert blame from their own mismanagement and corruption. They blamed Ayatollah Mike specifically. General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri blamed the unrest on a trifecta of American, Israeli, and Saudi Arabian conspirators, with D’Andrea as the mastermind.
Mohsen Rezaei, then-Secretary of the Expediency Council, similarly pronounced that Iran’s enemies manufactured the demonstrations. Continuing the soft war narrative, he also identified D’Andrea as the mastermind, while adding new details to the story. Rezaei said that D’Andrea traveled to Erbil two months earlier to meet with Iraqi Kurdish independence leaders and the Mujahideen Khalq (MEK) to plot the unrest. Mehr News Agency ran a lengthy analysis of the protests arguing that the demonstrations were not organic, in response to policy decisions made by the Iranian government, but manufactured by Iran’s enemies in “a new phase in the soft war.”
The killing of D’Andrea—which the US government has neither confirmed nor denied—has significant implications for the IRGC’s familiar narrative of soft war. Until now, the CIA agent had served as a convenient foil for all kinds of government blunders, as well as an excuse for the ongoing unrest, and a justification for its murderous response. With its arch-nemesis and personification of soft war gone, who or what will take his place?
One thing is clear: the IRGC is extremely media conscious, covetous of its image and prestige in the eyes of its supporters, both within the establishment and in key areas of the country and the region. For this reason, the IRGC’s efforts to blur the truth, fabricate stories, and cover up and undermine evidence of its incompetence and savagery will likely continue. At the same time, its widening credibility gap and deepening crisis of legitimacy will become harder and harder to hide. This suggests that US policy should look for ways to support journalists and human rights organizations working to expose the gap between the IRGC’s statements and reality. In attacking IRGC at its center of gravity—its public image—we can support the Iranian people in their struggle for a more prosperous, democratic Iran.
Emily Blout is a professor at American University. She holds a PhD in Iranian Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyblout.
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