The United States moved Monday to list Iran’s elite military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization as the Trump administration looks for new ways to increase economic and political pressure on the regime in Tehran.
The designation marks the first time Washington has branded a foreign government entity a terrorist group and came despite warnings from U.S. military and intelligence officials that other nations could use the designation as a precedent against U.S. action abroad.
There is little doubt about the accuracy of the designation. Michael Singh of the Washington Institute tweeted: “I’ve sat through many interagency debates on whether to designate the IRGC as a [Foreign Terrorist Organization]. What was never on dispute: the IRGC is a prolific and ruthless supporter and perpetrator of terrorism.”
Michael Rubin (no relation) of the American Enterprise Institute agrees that “there’s the simple fact that the IRGC is responsible for the deaths of more than 600 Americans in Iraq, and the maiming of many times more. If the IRGC were a formal and declared combatant in Iraq, that might be one thing, but Iranian leaders with American diplomats and agreed to keep the IRGC out of Iraq. They violated that agreement by waging combat while not in uniform and while shielded by civilians.”
The issue is what comes next after the designation, and whether this is an effective strategy. On that, even among Iran hawks, there is considerable debate.
One of the biggest intelligence gaps in U.S. understanding toward Iran over the last 40 years is failure to identify the factional divisions within the IRGC. For all the talk (often inaccurate or exaggerated) of reformists, moderates, hardliners, pragmatists, and principalists in Iranian politics, there is little corollary discussion with any granularity about the factional divisions within the IRGC. While there is widespread agreement that the IRGC is not homogeneous and some Iranians only join for the privileges bestowed, especially in juxtaposition to those conscripted into the regular army, analysts do not have a very good idea about which personalities truly believe the IRGC’s rhetoric versus those who seek to reform the institution versus those who seek only to profit from it.
The problem for Washington and those who value freedom and liberty in Iran is that if Iran is ever going to change, it is going to be essential to fracture the IRGC. That requires identifying its weak points and internal disputes and exacerbating them. There can be no informal reform so long as the IRGC remains intact as a Praetorian Guard for the supreme leader, nor will the regime collapse so long as the IRGC remains in power. ...
Designating the IRGC may satiate a segment of the American audience for whom hatred of the Islamic Republic of Iran runs paramount, but it will be counterproductive if it, first, allows the IRGC to consolidate itself and, second, substitutes for the far more difficult problem of fracturing the organization and encouraging defections from within its ranks.
Singh argues in a similar vein, “The real questions to which the FTO designation gives rise are twofold: first, how will it be applied to what is essentially a state military with hundreds of thousands of members and millions of veterans?” He observes that the second issue is akin to the Obama administration’s unfulfilled declaration that “Assad must go” regarding Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The administration “having framed the designation as an unprecedented step, the U.S. must show that it will appreciably add to the pressure on Iran, or the political impact may be the opposite of what was intended.” He concludes: “In broad policy terms, it’s good the U.S. is expanding its focus beyond the nuke issue. But while sanctions are a key policy lever, they are also one on which we continue to rely too heavily. ... We need to use them in conjunction with other tools in service of realistic aims.” What those other tools are and how we can wield them without the full cooperation of our European allies who remain party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remain open questions.
Veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross says: “It is a symbolic move. Practically, it does not add to the designations by Treasury of the IRGC and its front companies.” He explains, “Given how embedded the IRGC is in the Iranian economy, the risk of being subjected to US sanctions because of the Treasury designations was already very high. And, as we have seen, this already had chilling effect on international companies that might have sought to do business in Iran.”
That doesn’t mean it has no effect. “It is likely to produce an Iranian response,” Ross warns. “Most likely in Iraq, where the Iranians will push on the vulnerability of our presence both politically and militarily. The former, by pushing in the parliament legislation forcing the US to leave; the latter, by potentially having its Shia militia proxies attack American forces and by building their rocket presence in western Iraq.” He surmises, "I don’t think the Iranians walk away from the JCPOA, but they test the limits of the agreement, knowing that the Europeans, Russians and Chinese don’t want them leaving it. "
Defenders of the JCPOA argue that this is a means of preventing the United States from reentering it. Perhaps that is part of the motivation, but the next administration is going to need to craft a policy that deals with the original JCPOA in the rearview mirror. It wasn’t necessary to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group to recognize that new reality.
One thing is clear: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is using this as a last-minute election ploy, letting it be known that he requested this step. That begs the question, however, whether it impedes or improves American leverage over Iran.
What is still missing from the administration is an overarching policy based on clear strategic objectives. Does the administration seek regime change in the short term, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo frequently suggests? If so, nothing short of war will achieve that. And if the goal is to halt Iran’s regional aggression, stop missile tests and permanently disable Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity, then sanctions alone are unlikely to produce the desired result, and actions such as bugging out of Syria directly undercut those efforts.
Eric Edelman, former undersecretary of defense for policy and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and retired Air Force Gen. Charles “Chuck” Wald, headed a task force that produced proposals for our post-JCPOA Iran policy. In essence, they argued that “it would be a mistake to expect even robust sanctions, on their own, to deter or deny Iran’s nuclear weapons progress, arrest its aspirations for Middle East dominance, and convince the regime its very survival could be at stake if its aggression persists. Instead, such economic measures should be supplemented by other forms of pressure that will maximize the coercive impact of U.S. policy against Tehran, including credible options for use of force.”
Since then, however, our efforts have been ham-handed or counterproductive. Leaving the Kurds high and dry in Syria, allowing Iran a permanent beachhead in Syria and continued erosion in American alliances do not advance the goal of containing or defanging Iran.
As with so many other grand gestures, the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group presents the question: To what end? As Aaron David Miller tells me, “We will see if anything changes where U.S. and IRGC forces are in proximity most likely in Syria and Iraq.” He points out, “We’ve just put them in same category as ISIS and al-Qaeda.” So what now?