On April 8, 2019, the Trump administration announced their plan to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), as noted under Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. President Trump elaborated on the decision in a statement, declaring that,
“This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognizes the reality that Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft. The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign.”
The State Department released a Fact Sheet outlining the specific reasons for which they declared the IRGC an FTO. They note, for example, that they held the IRGC responsible for the deaths of at least 603 American service members in Iraq since 2003, which constitutes 17% of American personnel killed in the region from 2003-2011. The State Department singles out one unit within the IRGC for specific condemnation – the Qods Force. They argued that the Qods Force has planned to carry out terrorist attacks in countries such as Germany, Kenya, and Turkey. Additionally, the Fact Sheet asserts that the Qods Force plotted an attack against the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. in the U.S. Even though these attempted terrorist attacks in the U.S. and abroad were foiled, the Fact Sheet places great emphasis on the fact that they were plotted and nearly carried out. The State Department further criticizes the IRGC for their continued support to terrorist organizations, noting their tendency to offer groups like Hezbollah and Hamas assistance through means including financial and material support, training, and technology transfer. The Fact Sheet also points to Iran’s tendency to harbor terrorists sanctioned by states like the U.S. as a reason for the designation.
The State Department emphasizes that this designation is another step in the Trump administration’s long-term effort to maximize pressure against Iran’s present regime. Prior to the designation, the Trump administration had already sanctioned over 900 individuals, entities, aircrafts, and vessels related to Iran. Yet the State Department Fact Sheet makes clear that the Trump administration is not taking a wholly unprecedented step. Instead, they are building off of the legacy of past administrations. The Fact Sheet notes, for example, that the IRGC was previously sanctioned via Executive Order in 2007, 2011, and 2012. The organization was sanctioned in 2007 for supporting Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, and again in 2011 and 2012 for its connection to Iran’s human rights abuses.
In his statement, President Trump made clear the consequences of violating this designation:
“If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.”
As a result of the designation, the U.S. may deny entry to individuals that provided the IRGC material support, or take actions one step farther and prosecute those individuals for sanctions violations. Since many European and Asian companies deal with one of the IRGC’s numerous affiliates, this could further stress diplomatic relations between said countries and the U.S. The designation may also limit who U.S. troops and diplomats can communicate with in the Middle East, as Iraqi and Lebanese authorities are known to interact with IRGC officials or surrogates. Previous administrations have held back from making this great of a move against the IRGC for this very reason. The Pentagon, alongside U.S. intelligence agencies, have voiced concerns over how such a designation will limit their ability to interact with allies like those in Iraq and Lebanon. Shia militias associated with the Qods Force fought alongside the U.S. Air Force against the Islamic State at the Battle of Tikrit, proving key allies that helped achieve victory. Additionally, U.S.-backed Iraqi and Kurdish personnel have embraced the titanic burden of taking in the tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of refugees spawned from the recent fighting. Such cooperation will become immensely complicated, if not prohibited, when the designation takes effect on April 15.
Iran, meanwhile, has sharply condemned the Trump administration’s decision. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, has urged President Hassan Rouhani to label U.S. forces in the region as terrorists. He has specifically sought to target the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees U.S. operations across 20 states in the Middle East and parts of Asia. Iranian parliamentarians have also threatened to label portions of the U.S. military as terrorist groups.
While the decision to designate the IRGC as an FTO emphasizes how seriously the U.S. treats the threat of Iran, it further reveals the short-sighted nature of the Trump administration’s overall policy toward the Islamic Republic. By failing to adequately communicate with U.S. agencies like the Department of Defense, as well as isolating U.S. allies that have proven essential partners in military operations including the fight against ISIS, the Trump administration is set to implement a policy that leaves far too much room for collateral damage. As eager as past presidential administrations have been to punish the IRGC for their illicit, dangerous actions, those same administrations recognized that labeling the group an FTO would make an overly-complex situation nearly unmanageable. Even though this decision suits the Trump administration’s interests, it has frustrated parties within the U.S. and around the globe. Yet as this type of approach has not hindered the Trump administration’s dedication unraveling the Iran nuclear deal, it will almost certainly not hinder their approach here.