Within the myopic world of domestic U.S. politics, President Trump’s decision to place Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the list of foreign terrorist organizations won’t be very controversial. But there are good reasons that we should be concerned.
There will be little pushback to the decision from Congress or much of a public debate. And it’s vital that we take notice of several important points as we take the unprecedented step of labeling an entire branch of a sovereign nation’s military as terrorists.
Although I was a direct victim of IRGC terrorism, I believe the blanket designation is ill-advised and will do little to change Iran’s behavior. Even worse, though, it risks putting us one step closer to a military confrontation.
I have no problem with imposing sanctions on individuals and units within the IRGC who are responsible for activity that runs afoul of international law, whether those crimes are against American service men and women, human rights offenses against Iranians, or financial crimes.
Yes, it’s true that the IRGC has a presence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen that is in many ways opposed to U.S. interests. And it’s also true that the IRGC plays a major role in repression within Iran’s borders. Yet the organization is also a conventional military force that we have in fact worked with when it made sense to do so, as in the fight to eradicate the Islamic State.
This is probably why our top military commanders and intelligence officials are advocating caution.
The biggest problems the IRGC poses to the United States are its use of improvised explosive devices against Americans as well as its methods for funding its activities (which include money laundering and hostage-taking). If our government really wanted to punish bad behavior, that’s what it should target. Those activities qualify as terrorism.
Designating the whole branch, however, is shortsighted — yet another blunt and crude move in a situation that calls for more elegant solutions.
By all means, sanction and prosecute the offending officials and their families. We know who many of them are.
The listing may also put the lives of American service members at even greater risk from Iranian threats, but that’s a reality they have been facing for over a decade. The greater concern to me is that it will entrench Iran’s military elite even further, giving them few options for changing their behavior. It encourages conflict.
It should also present obvious problems to all those who claim that it’s only a matter of time before Iranian military and security forces start to abandon the regime. Hundreds of thousands of Iranian men — with practical knowledge of how the country and its defensive capabilities work — would suddenly become terrorism suspects.
Military service in Iran is mandatory (with a few exceptions) for all Iranian males. Which branch a young conscript is assigned to in order to fulfill his nearly two-year obligation is not a matter of choice. The country’s best and brightest end up in the IRGC, whether they like it or not.
What is gained by labeling hundreds of thousands of Iranian men as terrorists just because they’re fulfilling a requirement of citizenship?
As time goes on, we will no doubt hear about proposed waivers for some of those people. But one wonders if the administration will actually be able to act on such a program. (Post reporting on the waiver program for the president’s travel ban suggests we should not be too optimistic.)
I worry that this is another instance in which the U.S. government is guilty of criminalizing people simply for being Iranian.
Some have argued that this will precipitate acts of retaliation from the IRGC. Its top commander has promised a “crushing" response if the United States moves forward with the designation.
In all likelihood, though, little will change in the already fraught relationship between the U.S. military and the IRGC, who often cross paths in Iraq and Syria. The main difference now is that on issues of shared interest — such as the fight against the Islamic State — any coordination will become more complicated.
Options for de-escalation at moments of tension — as in the case of the Americans detained in Iranian waters in early 2016 — will also become harder.
The architects of this policy surely aren’t worried about such eventualities. The hubris they’ve shown in their dealings with Iran thus far make that clear.
We do not need to exonerate the IRGC for its many transgressions. Casting such a wide net, however, is a mistake.
The signs of a coordinated push to prepare the public for an unnecessary military confrontation with Iran are growing. As the 2020 election campaign starts to heat up, we should all brace ourselves for a carefully orchestrated administration threat of war with Iran. This is the first installment.