By Zak Doffman
On Monday, the U.S. government took the “historic step” to designate part of the Iranian government a terrorist organization. “The State Department intends to designate as a Foreign Terrorist Organization the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in its entirety, including the Qods Force,” read the statement. This is the first time the U.S. has taken this step against a foreign government entity.
In their own statement, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council responded by condemning the “illegal and dangerous” move by the U.S. regime as a “major threat to regional and international peace and security and a blatant violation of the compelling rules of international law and the United Nations Charter.” The Council warned that the U.S. ”will be responsible for dangerous consequences of this adventurist measure.” Later reports confirmed that Iran had reciprocated in kind, branding the U.S. a terrorist sponsor and part of its military a terrorist organization.
As the tit for tat played out, Trita Parsi the president of the National Iranian American Council, was quoted in the Financial Times saying that “the unprecedented decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization will not put any significant additional economic pressures on Iran,” but it does “close yet another potential door for peacefully resolving tensions with Iran. Once all doors are closed, and diplomacy is rendered impossible, war will essentially become inevitable.”
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel expressed support for Washington’s move against Teheran.
Rhetoric or realpolitik?
Conceived shortly after the 1979 revolution, the IRGC “protects” the country’s Islamic republic, preventing foreign or domestic “interference”. The IRGC comprises ground forces as well as naval and air capabilities and has 150,000 personnel, making it almost half as large as Iran’s more regular military. It continues to operate in both Iraq and Syria. The specialist Quds Force within the IRGC is responsible for unconventional warfare, and intelligence activities and overseas operations.
Washington’s view is that “Iran is an outlaw regime that uses terrorism as a key tool of statecraft,” and that the regime in Teheran has “been directly involved in terrorist plotting… and it has killed U.S. citizens. It is also responsible for taking hostages and wrongfully detaining numerous U.S. persons, several of whom remain in captivity in Iran today.” From April 15, “the IRGC will be added to the State Department’s FTO list, which includes 67 other terrorist organizations including Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Kata’ib Hizballah, and al-Ashtar Brigades.”
The move by Washington adds to previous sanctions on Iran, with “more than 900 Iran-related individuals, entities, aircraft, and vessels [sanctioned] by this Administration for human right abuses, censorship, ballistic missile program, malign cyber activities, support to terrorism, or associations with the Government of Iran.” The designation brings direct restrictions as well as sanctions for other organizations that would provide support and services.
Iran has been designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism since 1984, which has brought a range of sanctions. But the shift to branding the country’s core military unit a terrorist organization, in part for the support of other terrorist organizations including Hizballah and Hamas, is “a historic step to counter Iran-backed terrorism around the world.”
President Trump said in a statement: “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.”
Reading between the (military) lines
“This unwise and illegal measure is a major threat to regional and international stability and peace,” Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said as it labeled “the American regime as a supporter of terrorism.” PressTV reported Iran’s reciprocal measure, designating the U.S. government in turn as a ‘supporter of terrorism’ and American forces in West Asia, known as the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), as a ‘terrorist organization’.
The New York Times reported that “top American intelligence and military officials, including Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposed Mr. Trump’s action, which they argued would allow Iranian leaders to justify operations against Americans overseas, especially Special Operations units and paramilitary units working under the C.I.A.”
There were also some claims that the timing of the U.S. announcement was intended to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an election boost in a tight campaign ahead of Tuesday’s voting. Netanyahu thanked the U.S. President in a tweet after the designation was made, “for your decision to designate the Islamic revolutionary guards as a terrorist organization. Once again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the development “a significant step in the policy of maximizing pressure on Iran, adding that the US decision is the result of “the Iranian terror policy that is wreaking havoc in the Middle East and the entire world.”
Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz also chimed in with a statement, saying that the U.S. move against Teheran “will weaken [Iran’s] ability to promote its nuclear plan and its support for regional terrorism, and will also significantly strengthen Israel’s ability to battle Iranian aggression in Syria and elsewhere.”
The U.S. move was unsurprisingly also welcomed by Saudi Arabia. “The U.S. decision translates the Kingdom’s repeated demands to the international community of the necessity of confronting terrorism supported by Iran,” the Saudi Press Agency said, citing a foreign ministry source, adding that “an official source at the Foreign Ministry hailed the move as a ‘practical and serious’ step in countering terrorism.”
That Iran is a regional aggressor is hard to argue, notwithstanding condemnation of the U.S. decision by the likes of the Syrian regime and pro-Iranian and anti-American commentators in the west. Iran is also now flexing its muscles beyond military force and terrorist sponsorship, with forays into social media manipulation and offensive cyber campaigns.
This move raises the stakes for western allies who take a different view of Iran’s nuclear deal, of the Saudi sponsored campaign in Yemen, of the ongoing conflict in Syria, of Palestine and of the pros and cons of Iranian containment. This latest, albeit much-heralded move by the U.S., will simply amplify those debates.
An interesting side note, of course, is the ongoing Brexit situation in the U.K. and the chance that we will see opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn installed in Downing Street sometime this year. Corbyn is a fan of the Iranian regime, a staunch anti-American and has even hosted programs on Iran’s state-run PressTV.
I’ve written before that Corbyn would see ending the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. as something of a lifelong ambition. Corbyn is staunchly anti-Israel and has been accused of being supportive of both Hizbollah and Hamas. he has also railed against the U.K.’s provision of arms to Saudi Arabia. As the U.S. raises tensions with Teheran, that is all simply reinforced.
The Middle East remains a hotbed of tension with two conflicts and a major standoff in place. The news this week has not made the region any safer, whatever the rights and wrongs.