The Trump administration has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation.
“Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but…the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft,” said President Trump in his statement on Monday’s designation. “This designation will be the first time that the United States has ever named a part of another government as a FTO.”
Iran is one of four countries considered state sponsors of terrorism by the US government. Under President Obama, the US saw heightened tensions with North Korea and a relaxing of hostilities with Iran. His successor, however, has reached out to the North Korean leadership whilst isolating the Islamic republic.
Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria are currently designated as state sponsors of terrorism. There are preparations to add Venezuela to the list.
President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal was followed by a wave of sanctions. The terrorist designation is the latest in a series of steps designed to pressure and undermine the country’s regime.
“The move is largely symbolic. The Trump administration wants to signal that it is particularly tough on Iran, given the expanding influence of the country in the region and beyond. This is a part of an effort to try to push back countries such as Iran, Venezuela or Cuba, that have forged and successfully implemented foreign policies that are independent of US influence,” says Dr Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, Professor in Global Thought and Comparative Philosophies at SOAS.
“The second aspect is US domestic politics, as most democratic presidential candidates have signalled that they would reinstate the nuclear agreement with Iran – the JCPOA that the Trump administration breached.”
Iran hardliners in the Trump administration were jubilant at the latest action. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that it was an “important step”, adding: “We must help the people of Iran get back their freedom.” National Security Adviser John Bolton called it “the rightful decision”. However, some military and intelligence officers expressed concern that the designation could further threaten the safety of US troops based in the Middle East.
“It will further alienate Iran as a potential partner in the future as the hardliners in the country will present this designation as yet another indicator of endemic US hostility towards the country. It will also blur the lines, in terms of international law, between viciously violent non-state actors such as ISIS that deliberately target civilians and the IRCG which is a military wing of a sovereign country,” says Dr Adib-Moghaddam.
“In my opinion, the world is already viewing this move as yet another extremist initiative by a reckless administration – even the UK and Europe haven’t agreed with this step. The only leader that welcomed the designation was Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel – a country that is marginal to the dynamics in the region that it is embedded in.”
The move was also backed by longtime foe Saudi Arabia, according to Saudi state media. The kingdom has been Iran’s geopolitical and religious rival since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The two have been involved in a struggle for influence in the Middle East and wider region ever since. President Trump is a close ally of both the Israeli PM and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
“The latest news out of the Trump administration on Iran is hypocritical and politically motivated to influence the presidential elections in Israel and drive up the oil price for Saudi Arabia,” according to a UK-based Iranian citizen, who preferred to remain anonymous. The move seems to have paid off, with Netanyahu set for a fifth term following Israel’s election.
What is the IRGC?
The IRGC is the most elite branch of Iran’s armed forces, numbering an estimated 150,000 or more members. Its mission is to protect the country’s Islamic system. However, it has a role in nearly every aspect of Iranian society. It oversees the republic’s controversial ballistic missiles and it advises, arms and bankrolls regional allies through its extraterritorial operations unit, the Quds Force.
The designation is not expected to limit the IRGC’s activities, though it will theoretically make it easier for the US Justice Department to prosecute people for providing material support to the corps. Despite the announcement, the IRGC remains powerful and commands the support of powerful state allies.
In response to the designation, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council responded in kind, labelling the United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, as a terrorist organisation. Despite the bellicose rhetoric, most doubt the tit-for-tat pronouncements will escalate into military conflict, at least for the time being.