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Opinion On Iran, Biden should reverse Trump’s imaginary statecraft

Members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps attend a rally marking the annual Quds Day in Tehran on April 29. (Wana News Agency via Reuters)
5 min

Daniel Benjamin is president of the American Academy in Berlin. He served as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and was director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Finance and Designations Office in the Bureau of Counterterrorism from 2008 to 2018.

After countless ups, downs and near-death scrapes, the negotiations to restart the Iran nuclear deal appear to be hung up on one final disagreement: an end-of-game demand by Tehran to have the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps removed from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

On this question likely hangs the last opportunity to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

The Biden administration has rightly objected that the Iran deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), by design deals solely with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. It does not address Iranian subversion of other nations in the region, its longtime support for terrorism or any other contentious issues. The JCPOA was always meant to address the foremost threat to stability posed by the Islamic republic: its ambition to achieve a nuclear weapons capability. Because that threat is the most likely to trigger a regional, and possibly nuclear, conflict — and because an omnibus agreement dealing with all of Iran’s malign activities was judged to be too difficult to achieve — the negotiations have always been limited in focus.

Though the issue has become politically supercharged, with Iran hawks in both parties ready to pounce if the Biden administration does anything that suggests weakness on terrorism, a sober long-term view is needed here. Iranian-backed terrorism is a serious issue, but the designation of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization was a stupendously unserious move in the first place, a sanction that brought no discernible pressure on the group or Iran more broadly.

Instead, it is an artifact of the bizarre approach of the last administration, marked chiefly by empty symbolism, tantrums and puerile demonstrations of resentment meant to communicate maximal antipathy. It had nothing to do with advancing U.S. interests.

This was evident in other contexts: Cutting off nearly all aid to the Palestinians because they didn’t welcome President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Or reducing assistance to Central American countries that couldn’t stop the flow of migrants heading north. The terrorist designation of the Revolutionary Guard was another in this series of amateurish efforts to punish a hated opponent.

Indeed, the practical value of the 2019 designation has been nil; the move constrained Iranian action in no material way because Iran has been under sanctions as a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1984. In fact, since 2007 the IRGC’s Quds Force was sanctioned for the aid it has provided to groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This designation — as well as the state sponsorship listing — make it a criminal act to support the IRGC and block any assets the group might have that are held by U.S. financial institutions. The 2019 terrorist designation does the same — nothing more, nothing less.

The Treasury Department’s reporting tells the story well. In 2019, the year the Trump administration announced the Foreign Terrorist Organization designation, the total IRGC assets blocked were $1,121,760. According to Treasury’s reporting, blocked IRGC assets actually dropped the following year to $1,049,801. (The report is silent on the basis for the decline.) At the time of the designation, State Department official Brian Hook boasted that it would lead to prosecutions of those who were providing material support to the IRGC. But the designation has resulted in no successful prosecutions. While the administration promised a campaign of maximum pressure against Iran, the designation was just more Trump imaginary statecraft.

It is fair to ask: If the latest terrorist designation isn’t having an impact, why is Iran insisting on having it lifted? There is no simple answer. The Iranian regime might believe IRGC’s leaders and Iranian businesses will benefit financially, though that will not be the case if the United States maintains the strict enforcement policy of other existing sanctions. Tehran, no doubt, wants to win every iota of sanctions relief it can get before a possible 180-degree turn in U.S. policy should a Trump-leaning Republican win the White House in 2024. Or perhaps it is just another inexplicable test set up by Iran’s insulated, ideology-addled leadership.

Whatever the case, Iran’s negotiating tactics threaten to keep it from getting sanctions relief for most of its legitimate businesses — the ones not controlled by the Revolutionary Guard — which in turn might revitalize an economy that has been damaged by the wall-to-wall reimposition of sanctions after the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA. But the story of the U.S.-Iran relationship has been bedeviled by misunderstandings and missed signals for decades.

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, the removal of the Revolutionary Guard from the terrorist list would surely be wielded as a cudgel against Democrats. This threat is among the reasons the Biden administration is refusing the Iranian demand. The decision makes near-term political sense.

But the final decision — one with serious implications for the future of the Middle East — must embrace a longer view. Trump, after all, said U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA was the first step toward ending Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, it achieved the opposite. Iran has raced ahead and greatly reduced the time it will need to put together a bomb.

If Iran doesn’t budge in the talks, we should not allow ourselves to be held hostage by the illusion Trump created that this terrorism designation matters. It does not. But an Iran that continues its march toward a nuclear capability matters in the biggest possible way.