President Donald Trump said Monday the U.S. has designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a “foreign terrorist organization” as part of an effort to increase international pressure on the country.
It’s an unprecedented move, because the U.S. has never before used the designation for an entire foreign government entity.
Trump said in a statement that the move “recognizes the reality” that Iran is a state-sponsored supporter of terrorism and that the Guard is an active participant.
The move is expected to further isolate Iran and could have widespread implications for U.S. personnel and policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have taken up the call and have in recent months spoken stridently about Iran and its “malign activities” in the region.
“This designation is a direct response to an outlaw regime and should surprise no one,” Pompeo said Monday.
He has made clear in public comments that pressure on Tehran will only increase until it changes its behaviour.
Pompeo repeated the allegation made last week by his special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, accusing Iran and its proxies of being responsible for the death of 608 U.S. troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Hook had cited newly declassified Defense Department information for the claim.
Portions of the Guard, notably its elite Quds Force, have been targeted previously by the United States. The Quds Force has also been listed as a terrorist entity by the Canadian government since 2012.
Concerns over retaliatory actions
Iran’s state-run TV said it considered the declaration illegal.
“No other country has the legal right to designate as terrorist another country’s armed forces…. Iran’s influence in the Middle East and its success in fighting against Islamic State are reasons behind this designation,” state TV said, without quoting a specific official.
Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, according to the Fars news agency, said it was designating the United States Central Command, also known as CENTCOM, and all its forces as terrorist, and labelled the U.S. a “supporter of terrorism.”
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seemed to anticipate the U.S. action, saying in a tweet Sunday that Trump “should know better than to be conned into another US disaster.”
It’s the latest move by the Trump administration to isolate Iran. Trump withdrew from the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 and, in the months that followed, re-imposed punishing sanctions including those targeting Iran’s oil, shipping and banking sectors.
The Revolutionary Guard designation, planning for which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, comes with sanctions, including freezes on assets the Guard may have in U.S. jurisdictions and a ban on Americans doing business with it or providing material support for its activities.
Although the Guard has broad control and influence over the Iranian economy, such penalties from the U.S. may have limited impact. The designation, however, could significantly complicate U.S. military and diplomatic work, notably in Iraq, where many Shia militias and Iraqi political parties have close ties to the Guard. And in Lebanon, where the Guard has close ties to Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government.
Without exclusions or waivers to the designation, U.S. troops and diplomats could be barred from contact with Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who interact with Guard officials or surrogates.
The Pentagon and U.S. 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. Those concerns have in part dissuaded previous administrations from taking the step, which has been considered for more than a decade.
It was not immediately clear whether the designation would include such carve-outs.
State Department counterterrorism co-ordinator Nathan Sales said it was impossible to answer hypothetical cases but that entities should “think long and hard” over whether it makes sense to communicate with the IRGC.
Trump, however, was unequivocal in his statement: “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.”
In addition to those complications, there is concern that the designation may prompt Iran to retaliate against U.S. forces in the region. Aside from Iraq, where some 5,200 American troops are stationed, and Syria, where some U.S. 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.
Pompeo said Monday that Iranian actors “ought to think more than twice about” targeting U.S. troops.
Despite the risks, Iran hard-liners on Capitol Hill, such as Republican senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Tom Cotton (Arkansas), and elsewhere have long advocated for the designation. They say it will send an important message to Iran as well as deal it a further blow after Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and re-imposed economic sanctions.
The State Department currently designates 60 groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their various affiliates, Hezbollah and numerous militant Palestinian factions, as “foreign terrorist organizations.” But none of them is a state-run military.
Once a designation is announced by the secretary of state in co-ordination with the Treasury secretary, Congress has seven days to review it. If there are no objections, it then will take effect.