FeaturedInternationalVolume 14 Issue # 18

The US terror designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

The designation of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign “terrorist organisation” is the first time the US has formally labelled another country’s military a “terrorist group”. Aimed at further sanctions on Iran, the move has not only closed another potential door for peacefully resolving tensions with Iran but also heightened risks to US troops stationed in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Qatar and the Persian Gulf.


Iran immediately responded to the designation with its Supreme National Security Council designating the US Central Command, also known as CENTCOM, and all its forces as terrorist, and labeling the US a “supporter of terrorism.” After Iran’s stern response, the American military commanders have warned US troops in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region of the possibility of retaliation. Aside from Iraq, where some 5,200 American troops are stationed, and Syria, where some US 2,000 troops remain, the U.S. 5th Fleet, which operates in the Persian Gulf from its base in Bahrain, and the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, are potentially at risk. Experts say the US action also raises the question of whether a non-US company or individual could be prosecuted for engaging in commercial transactions with an Iranian company controlled by the IRGC. They say the US has effectively closed all doors for peace negotiations with Iran and once all doors are closed, and diplomacy is rendered impossible, war will essentially become inevitable. The designation could also open hundreds of foreign companies and business executives to US travel bans and possible prosecution for sanctions violations.


Labelling the Guards as a terrorist organisation will allow the US to impose further sanctions, particularly affecting the business sector, given the IRGC’s involvement in Iran’s economy. A number of IRGC and affiliated entities have already been targeted by US sanctions for alleged proliferation activities, support for terrorism and human rights abuses. However, experts say the designation may have limited impact on Iran as it is already facing the toughest possible sanctions. According to the Aljazeera, the designation allows the US to deny entry to people found to have provided the IRGC with material support or prosecute them for sanctions violations. That could include European and Asian companies and businesspeople who deal with the IRGC’s many affiliates. It also may complicate diplomacy. Without exclusions or waivers to the designation, US troops and diplomats could be barred from contact with Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who interact with IRGC officials or surrogates. The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have raised concerns about what effect the designation will have if the move does not allow contact with foreign officials who might have met or communicated with IRGC personnel. Those concerns have in part dissuaded previous administrations from taking the step, which has been considered for more than a decade. The IRGC, Iran’s most powerful security organisation, was set up to protect the country’s Shia clerical ruling system after its 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the Western-allied secular monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and led to the formation of the Islamic Republic. The force is in charge of Iran’s ballistic missiles and nuclear programmes, and answers directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is estimated to have 125,000 personnel, comprised of army, navy and air units. After the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq war, the IRGC also became heavily involved in reconstruction and has expanded its economic interests to include a vast network of businesses, ranging from oil and gas projects to construction and telecommunication.


The designation could significantly complicate US military and diplomatic work, notably in Iraq, where many Shiite militias and Iraqi political parties have close ties to the Guard, noted the Time. In Lebanon, the designation could further restrict with whom US officials can interact. The Guard has close ties to Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government. Hezbollah is already designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US. Its presence in Lebanon’s parliament and executive branch have forced the US to avoid any contact with Hezbollah members even as the US continues to provide assistance to and works with the Lebanese army. Without exclusions or waivers to the designation, US troops and diplomats could be barred from contact with Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who interact with Guard officials or surrogates. The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have raised concerns about the impact of the designation if the move does not allow contact with foreign officials who may have met with or communicated with Guard personnel.


However, critics point out that every time the US takes action against Iran, the Iranian government digs in. According to the CNBC, there are no off-ramps or face-saving measures on the table that would allow Iran’s leaders to save face if they chose to reverse course– and no indication they plan to do so any time soon. The New York Times observed the timing of Trump’s announcement appeared aimed at giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel a final boost in a tight re-election campaign before a vote. Quoting Wendy R. Sherman, a former top State Department official, it said the Obama administration had considered designating the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization, but decided against it because there would be no practical payoff given the risks to Americans and the fact the group was already under other sanctions. “By designating a foreign military as a foreign terrorist organization, we were putting our troops at risk, particularly our troops in Iraq, next door to Iran,” she said.


BBC’s defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus said some officials in the State Department and the Pentagon feared the step could simply backfire as it could encourage the IRGC or its proxies to take action against US personnel or other targets in places where they might be vulnerable, for example in Iraq. The Washington Post, quoting security experts, said it would put US troops at risk while jeopardizing the 2015 nuclear accord with which Iran is still complying. “We need to call out the move for what it is: another dangerous and self-defeating tactic that endangers our troops and serves nothing but the Trump administration’s goal of destroying the Iran deal,” it noted. China’s official news agency Xinhua observed the US action would further complicate the Middle East conflict.


Experts say the US move could endanger peace and stability in the Middle East and the world. The decision also raises the question: whether the US could also include intelligence agencies of rival countries in the list? It has a long list of countries, which are not toeing its line. The Russian secret service must be on top of its list. However, the question is whether it will include Israeli and Indian armies in the terrorist list for killing innocent people? The answer is obvious. It wants a free hand for itself and allies in the world and aims to suppress countries which resist its hegemonic designs.