DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard is now in the crosshairs of U.N. penalties over Tehran's nuclear program, and it is 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 Revolutionary 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 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.
Mustafa Alani, head of security studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, said he did not see the Revolutionary Guard suffering much. "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 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 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who dismissed the new sanctions as "annoying flies."
The Guard and its paramilitary allies are expected to stage a show of force Saturday on the first anniversary of the vote.
Just that seemed enough to rattle the opposition. In a stunning joint statement, protest leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi said they were calling off plans for a rally Saturday because of fears of violence.
The government last year squashed months of largely peaceful protests against the election results by brutally cracking down on protesters, jailing dissidents and executing some activists.
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 new U.N. resolution recognizes the problem of evading sanctions and orders several specific steps to intensify efforts to promote full compliance with all Security Council measures. Most important is the establishment of a group of eight experts to gather and analyze information on what all countries are doing to implement sanctions against Iran, "in particular incidents of noncompliance."
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.
But Iran said the sanction vote may not go unanswered. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the parliament's national security 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 possible fallout, but one option could be banning U.N. inspectors from Iran's nuclear facilities.
One hard-line member of the committee, Mohammad Karamirad, suggested Iran respond to Western "bullying" by quitting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as North Korea did in 2003.
But 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.