In an unprecedented statement on April 8, 2019, the Trump administration announced its intention to label the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite force in Iran answerable only to the Supreme Leader and designed to protect the values of the Islamic Revolution, as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). One week later, the statement went into full effect. This maneuver comes just under a year after President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. In the defense of this move, Trump “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.” This is the first time in history that the American government has accused a part of another government as an active advocator for terrorism, and many worry that this plan, with its vague terms, may backfire on the United States.
What is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)?
The IRGC’s mission is to uphold the Iran ideals of the 1979 revolution, which replaced the American-backed absolutist regime of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi with a government based on the Revolutionary Shiism advocated for by revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati, the ideologue of the revolution, and former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the movement. Before the revolution, the IRGC was a body loyal only to Khomeini, vowing to preserve and “spread the sovereignty of God’s law.” Though it remains under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, the organization has gained much power in and of itself. Further, in the 2013 presidential elections, it made incredibly clear that it would only support a president who agrees, respects, and practically worships Khomeini.
Since its establishment, the IRGC has augmented its power and possesses a commercial arm, which includes shipping, media, industry, and intelligence gathering. It now controls factories to establish moavenat khodkafaee (headquarters of self-sufficiency) and moavenat bassazi (headquarters of reconstruction). With these headquarters, the IRGC created companies in the agricultural, transportation, and communication fields. Reportedly, the IRGC owns “51.18% of Iran Marine Industrial Company... and has 812 affiliate companies”—a testament to its true extension of power over dams, roads, pipelines, agriculture, and oil, among many other infrastructures in Iranian society. But most importantly, it controls the Iranian ballistic missile program and much of Iran’s international relations through its expeditionary Quds Force (IRGC-QF), including proxy forces (Shi’a militias) in Iraq and certain aspects of relations with the Assad government in Syria. With its own navy, army, and air force, it can forcefully control, as then-CIA director Mike Pompeo estimated, about 20 percent of the Iranian economy.
Hostile against Western influence, especially after then president George W. Bush called Iran part of “the axis of evil,” the IRGC also ensures that dissent against the Islamic Republic does not become popularized, both via its own internal arm and a volunteer paramilitary force called the Basij, or “mobilization,” whose members (estimates of the size of the group range from 1 to 11.2 million, with about ninety thousand members currently uniformed and active) view dissent against the Islamic Republic as a domestic threat and thus trains regime supporters to suppress opposition through violent intimidation.
The Khatam al-Anbia is the engineering branch of the IRGC, employing around forty thousand people in the maintenance of the nation’s nuclear infrastructure and having around 750 governmental contracts for oil and gas projects. The IRGC-QF is the secretive force within IRGC that provide training and weaponry to Iranian proxy forces in the region, such as Lebanese Hezbollah. The current leader of the Quds force is the emissary of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Major General Qasem Soleimani, who exercises military might to sway the politics of countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Soleimani is acknowledged as one of the most powerful men in the Middle East—or perhaps the most powerful.
The IRGC, thus, is not just a military group that serves its leader. It is a group of tremendous power, with its hands clasping the economy through control of commercial services, the world of politics through its steel grip on revolutionary Islam, and the advocacy of an export and maintenance of the revolution, abroad and at home, respectively. Its at times violent tactics have caught the attention of quite a few nations, including Argentina, Austria, India, Israel, Mexico, and the United States—countries that condemn the institution on the grounds that it sacrifices human rights for the sake of extreme religious fervor.
How does the United States define a foreign terrorist organization (FTO)? Does Trump’s accusation change this in any way?
The U.S. Department of State defines an FTO based on three main criteria: “It must be a foreign organization (1); It must meet the definition of terrorism in section 212 (a)(3)(B) of the INA (8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(3)(B)),* or in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Authorization Act (2); The activities of the organization must pose a threat to the United States, including its nationals, foreign relations, and economic interests (3).”
The Trump administration’s decision to formally label a part of another government a terrorist organization might be a step in a new direction, but it is nothing new in terms of meeting the FTO criteria. Already, the United States has accused the Mexican cartel Los Zetas of making deals with the Quds force in 2011 to blow up the Israeli embassy in D.C. In Yemen, US officials have reported and suspected the IRGC in training insurgents with advanced weaponry. And, the New York Police Department believed that the IRGC have been involved in nine foiled plots against Israeli and Jewish targets globally. These three accusations—which have been denied by the IRGC—have marked each point off the list: foreign, threatening to the United States, and hostile with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury.
What do other countries think?
The Iranian government, of course, is outraged. The Supreme National Security Council has lashed out at the United States, calling CENTCOM a supporter of terrorism on Iranian soil. President Hassan Rouhani angrily spoke on television, questioning Trump, “Who are you to label revolutionary institutions as terrorists?” He even went so far as to accuse America of propagating international terrorism, citing the death of women and children in the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 by the US Navy, which killed almost 300 civilians.
The United States has unsurprisingly found a supporter in the Israeli government, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has praised Trump for his bold move, thanking him for serving “the interests of [the] countries.” Israel has had hostile relations with Iran since the revolution, weary of its nuclear program, harsh rhetoric, and anti-Israeli mentality. It would make sense that the United States would find an supporter in Israel, but this support comes in contrast to what a myriad other nations, the Pentagon, and CIA intelligence officials think about the situation. The CIA and the Pentagon, for instance, warned that the military personnel in Iraq would now be threatened. The Pentagon in particularly voiced a strong opinion, an opposition rooted in Joints Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, policy official John Rood, and Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant defense secretary for international security affairs.
Is this a good precedent?
Obviously, Iran hawks are enthused by the Trump administration’s decision to categorize the IRGC as an FTO. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter, “The use of terrorism is central to the Iran regime’s foreign policy. The designation of IRGC, incl. [Quds] force, will help starve the regime of the means to execute this destructive policy. Maximum pressure will be unrelenting until Iran’s regime abandons its deadly ambitions.” In comparison to former president Barack Obama’s strategic patience, Trump has tried to implement what is called “maximum pressure”—the imposition of severe sanctions and military threats to coax an adversary to comply with the United States’ political desires. Although the United States has bolstered its reputation as an aggressive, pressing leader in the fight against terrorism, it is too early to determine whether or not this decision will be a good or bad precedent. For starters, without exceptions to the FSO policy, any American who communicates with the IRGC in any way will face harsh backlash and punishment—even representatives who negotiate with Iraqi authorities linked to the IRGC can spiral into deep trouble with the government, a complication in diplomatic affairs. However, economically, the chances of an enormous detriment in Iran is unlikely, with heavy sanctions already harshly affecting the country, with the economy shrinking 1.5 percent last year and oil exports dropping to 1 million barrels a day from the pre-sanction 2.5 million.
Other politicians are not so confident about this precedent. Former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes criticized the imposition, calling it an alarming “step toward conflict.” Others question its effectiveness—would a label really improve the efficacy of the US war against terrorism, especially with sanctions already crippling Iran? Critics would say no—it only provokes the Iranian government and encourages anti-US sentiment in the country, even among its people, whom the United States views as vital in challenging the regime. In an eternal loop of finger-pointing, the opposition only sees this as an escalation that could lead to war.
Nevertheless, the symbolism that this label creates still stands. Typical FSOs, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, now stand among governments, lowering the integrity of entire nations. Washington has extended its power, augmenting it so that businesses, financial institutions, and immigration offices have to remain extra wary of whom they handle deals with in order to evade harsh retaliation from the American government, although some exceptions have been granted to humanitarian groups and foreign business executives. And, particularly, the United States has proven to be unflinching in readily making an enemy of another government via maximum pressure. The results of this strategy—whether it is able to increase pressure on Iran, whether it further alienates the Iranian people, or whether it is inconsequential—remains to be seen.Alina Kim is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons 4.0. The license can be found here. No changes to the image were made, and the original, posted to khamenei.ir, can be found here.