Iran’s Elite Defense Force Finds New Funding as Tension Rises With U.S.

Iran’s top paramilitary force is maintaining support for armed groups in the Middle East and finding new sources of funding, defying U.S. efforts to weaken its activities abroad as tensions between Washington and Tehran soar following fresh attacks in the Gulf of Oman, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Tehran has struggled to support an economy under pressure from U.S. sanctions, but its elite defense force has found new sources of revenue, including recently-signed infrastructure contracts in Syria and Iraq as well as expanded smuggling networks, according to advisers to the Guard and the U.S. government.

The clout of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group founded to protect the nation’s security but which has expanded to include construction, banking and smuggling, appears to be growing in Iran as it helps to prop up the economy and keeps more powerful adversaries off balance.

“Everything you see today contributing to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defense power has been achieved under sanctions,” the group’s commander, Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, then a brigadier general, said in December, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported.

The risk of a bigger conflict has come into sharp relief, as the Trump administration blames the Guard for explosions that crippled Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers on Thursday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the weekend sought to build international support for Washington’s claim, saying “it’s unmistakable what happened” and that more evidence would be forthcoming. “The intelligence committee has lots of data, lots of evidence. The world will come to see much of it,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday.”

Tehran has denied involvement in these and previous attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf last month. Iranian officials have accused the U.S. and its allies in the region of trying to create a false pretext to drag Iran into war, the Journal added.

The U.S. has rolled out an unprecedented array of sanctions, designating the Guard a terrorist organization to prevent foreign companies from doing business with it, and making it illegal for Iran’s oil buyers to import its crude.

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