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Trump to designate Iranian military unit as a terrorist group

The U.S. declared Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization on April 8, 2019. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

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.

The announcement also comes one day before Israeli elections in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term by highlighting his close ties to the Trump administration and hawkish promises to battle threatening Iranian behavior across the ­Middle East.

“This action sends a clear message to Tehran that its support for terrorism has serious consequences,” President Trump said in a statement. “We will continue to increase financial pressure and raise the costs on the Iranian regime for its support of terrorist activity until it abandons its malign and outlaw behavior.”

Who are the Revolutionary Guards? A look at the Iranian military unit Trump has deemed terrorists.

U.S. officials have long said the IRGC’s opaque structure and far-flung responsibilities provided a mask for terrorist activities that threaten Israelis, Europeans and U.S. forces, and whether to make the designation has been debated for years. But previous administrations refrained from taking that step because of concerns that other nations could similarly target U.S. national security agencies, putting American officials and military personnel at risk of being detained while traveling abroad.

The move continues the administration’s aggressive posture toward Iran, which includes U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Trump’s critics warn that the administration is flirting with a potential military conflict in the region.

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The Iranian government immediately condemned the designation Monday and alleged that it was done to boost Netanyahu’s electoral chances.

“A(nother) misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu. A(nother) dangerous U.S. misadventure in the region,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded on Twitter in English.

IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari issued an implied threat against U.S. forces in the Middle East. “With this stupidity, the American army and security forces will no longer have today’s calm in the west Asia region,” the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency quoted him as saying.

The Supreme National Security Council of Iran responded Monday by branding “the government of the United States as a supporter of terrorism and Central Command, also known as Centcom, and all of its affiliated forces, as terrorist groups,” state news agency IRNA reported.

The terrorist designation, which takes effect April 16, will allow the Trump administration to seek criminal penalties against elements of the military agency and foreign officials deemed to be aiding it, as well as allow Washington to ban travel to the United States for individuals associated with the unit.

The IRGC is a military unit originally set up as security for Iran’s clerical rulers. It has grown to be the country’s most powerful security organization, with nearly unchecked political influence and interests in business, real estate and other areas of the economy. The United States blames the IRGC for facilitating U.S. service member deaths in Iraq and elsewhere through financing, training and weapons support to terrorist networks.

Trump called the group “the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign,” and said Iran uses the unit to promote terrorism as official state policy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the move will “deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death.”

“The IRGC masquerades as a legitimate military organization, but none of us should be fooled,” Pompeo told reporters in making the formal announcement. He said the “blood of 603 American soldiers Iran killed in Iraq” is on the hands of the IRGC.

“With this designation, the Trump administration is simply recognizing reality,” he added. “Our designation makes clear to the world that the IRGC not just supports other terrorist groups but engages in terrorism itself.”

Pompeo denied that the timing of the announcement had anything to do with Israeli elections Tuesday. “It happened today because today was the day we were ready to make the announcement,” he said on Fox News.

Matt Levitt, a former Treasury Department official who is director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the move may have unintended consequences. Among the possibilities he reeled off: that Russia and China may start designating U.S. agencies for punitive actions, or that Iraq could be caught in a double bind, as it purchases electricity from Iran, including from entities tied to the IRGC.

“When you take it all into account, the big question at the end of the day is, what does this tangibly add to our tool kit?” Levitt said. “It does add some things, but I’m not convinced they’re all that significant.”

U.S. officials said the designation is the next step in what the Trump administration calls its “maximum-pressure campaign” against Iran.

The administration had previously named the IRGC as a supporter of terrorism conducted by militias it supports, but stopped short of listing it as a foreign terrorist organization in 2017. In 2018, Trump withdrew the United States from the international nuclear deal with Iran.

Pompeo said the designation makes clear that the IRGC is not just a behind-the-scenes enabler of terrorism but is also a direct participant in planning and carrying out attacks.

Brian Hook, the State Department’s principal adviser on Iran, called the IRGC an architect and the principal enforcer of Iran’s foreign policy, ever since the 1979 revolution. He alternately compared it to the mafia and a death cult.

“I think it’s important, in this case today, we’re adding an additional layer of sanctions on the IRGC to make radioactive those sectors of Iran’s economy that are influenced or controlled by the IRGC,” he said.

The designation is likely to complicate U.S. actions in Iraq, where U.S. troops work to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State and where Shiite militias tied to the IRGC operate close by. The IRGC is also tied to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the political wing of the terrorist group is part of the government.

Netanyahu, who faces corruption allegations and a tough reelection fight against a former military chief, cast the U.S. move as a sign of his influence with the United States.

“Thank you, my dear friend, President Donald Trump, for having decided to announce Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter in Hebrew. “Thank you for the answer to another important request that serves the interests of our country and the region. We will continue to act together in any way against the Iranian regime that threatens the state of Israel, the United States and the Peace of the world.”

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In an English version, Netanyahu omitted the reference to his “request” for the U.S. action. The United States is Israel’s most important ally, and Netanyahu has told voters his close relationship with Trump has paid off with tough U.S. action against Iran. Trump also last month backed Netanyahu, and appeared to put a thumb on the Israeli election scale, by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, seized from Syria in 1967.

Since 1993, the U.S. government has used the foreign terrorist organization designation more than 60 times. It is a federal crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, to provide material support to such a group.

The designation puts further distance between Trump’s policies toward Iran and those of European allies who remain a part of the nuclear deal.

A senior German security official said that the designation is not out of bounds because the IRGC “is an organization which is committing terroristic acts” but that Europe is unlikely to follow suit because of diplomatic and business ties to Iran.

“In that matter Trump is right,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk about the subject with the media. “They do interfere severely in the Middle East, and they have also plotted terroristic acts in Europe.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, applauded the decision as a proper escalation after U.S. steps to isolate and punish just the IRGC’s Quds Force, a subset of the guard corps, “did not dissuade Iran from using its funding, weapons, and personnel to engage in deadly violence around the world.”

“This designation ends the facade that the IRGC is part of a normal military,” McCaul said in a statement. “They behave like a terrorist organization and will now be treated accordingly.”

The idea of designating the unit has carried some bipartisan support for years. U.S. officials noted Monday that in 2007, Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) signed onto a bill urging President George W. Bush to make the IRGC designation. Once elected president, however, Obama backed off that stance, concluding that the designation would create more risk than reward.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the designation is welcome.

“It is fitting that the most dangerous terrorist group in the world, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents and backed by a massive state apparatus and vast energy wealth, is being designated finally as a foreign terrorist organization,” Dubowitz said.

Souad Mekhennet in Washington and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.