The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, has long been in Washington’s crosshairs. Following the advent of the Islamic Republic, the IRGC emerged in May 1979 as a parallel military institution to Iran’s standing army, the loyalty of which the Islamic revolution’s proponents doubted at the time. In the tumultuous years that followed, as historian Abbas Amanat writes, the IRGC evolved from an inexperienced band of hotheads into “the single most effective guarantor of the regime’s survival.” It now wields unparalleled influence within Iran and is enmeshed in virtually every major sector of the Iranian economy. Some estimates place its membership above 10 million people within the country.
Iran’s adversaries — chiefly the United States, Israel and the kingdoms of the Persian Gulf — view the IRGC as the main vehicle for the regime’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East, what President Trump, in a statement, described as a “global terrorist campaign.” The Quds Force, the IRGC’s overseas special operations arm, tacitly or openly supports a constellation of proxy groups in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The United States also pins on the organization the deaths of close to 260 Americans — killed in separate bombings on U.S. compounds in Beirut in 1983 and 1984.
Administration officials and hawks in Washington have long cited the IRGC’s actions when justifying other confrontational moves against Iran, including Trump’s decision to scrap American commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal forged between Tehran and the world powers.
“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,” Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington that pushes an anti-Iran agenda, told my colleagues.
In retaliation, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council on Monday declared the United States a supporter of terrorism and labeled Central Command, which conducts U.S. military operations in the Middle East, as a terrorist group.
While boosters trumpet the clarity of conviction behind the designation, others point to all the new problems it raises. Trump said this “action will significantly expand the scope and scale of our maximum pressure on the Iranian regime,” adding clear “risks” for any person or entity that conducts business with the IRGC. Yet the organization’s vast network of business interests and political operations encompass countless people with little or no connection to the IRGC’s military campaigns abroad. The Trump Organization — the real estate and property empire run by the president’s family — itself is alleged to have had a business partnership with a company in Azerbaijan that laundered IRGC money.
“This so-called ‘maximum pressure’ strategy demonstrates that not a lot of thought was given about the complexities involved in the designation, such as the fact that the IRGC is not a monolith and is also made up of conscripts who have no choice but to serve,” Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said to Today’s WorldView. She added that this was part of the reason the national security establishment in Washington long resisted making the move.
The White House’s targeting of Iran also betrays its deep ideological animus toward Tehran. It has entertained no similar measures for the military intelligence services in Pakistan or the Persian Gulf monarchies, which, at various points, have maintained their own networks of support for a host of extremist groups with blood on their hands. Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, argued that the latest decision was “championed by the lurid duo of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo” — Trump’s national security adviser and secretary of state, respectively — neoconservatives who are leading the president “willy-nilly, to a fresh conflict in the Middle East.”
At minimum, the U.S. designation forecloses the remote prospect of rapprochement between the Trump administration and the Islamic Republic, goads the Iranians into taking provocative action, and would make returning to the nuclear deal — something some Democrats have vowed to do should they win in 2020 — a more complicated and difficult exercise.
The decision “will close yet another potential door for peacefully resolving tensions with Iran,” tweeted Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council, which pushes for better ties between the two countries. “Once all doors are closed, and diplomacy is rendered impossible, war will essentially become inevitable.”
The Trump administration maintains that it doesn’t want war, but instead wants Iran to change its behavior in the region. Mohammad Ali Shabani, a researcher at SOAS University in London, said the White House will be sorely disappointed if it expects IRGC-linked politicians and organizations with real influence in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon to suddenly shut up shop.
“If anyone is aware of Iran’s long game, it is indeed those in power in Beirut and Baghdad today, many of whom have been in partnership with the Islamic Republic for almost 40 years,” he told Today’s WorldView. “Those who believe ‘maximum pressure’ over two — and if Trump gets reelected, even six — years will decide, let alone unravel, these relationships only display utter cluelessness about how the region works.”
But perhaps policy nuance isn’t really the point. “The IRGC is already one of the most heavily sanctioned entities in the world, and this designation will impose no practical new limitations on them,” Jarrett Blanc, a former Obama administration official, said in a statement for advocacy organization Foreign Policy for America. “At best, it absurdly dares Tehran to be the more temperate party and avoid escalation. At worst, it is a reckless attempt to provoke a crisis that the Trump administration is woefully unprepared to handle.”