May 25, 2019

The U.S. designates Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist organization

By Guido Lanfranchi.

In an unprecedented move, the United States designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Such move is part of the “maximum pressure campaign” applied by the U.S. administration on Iran and aimed at curbing Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Over the last two decades, the United States has designated approximately seventy organizations as FTO, that is, Foreign Terrorist Organizations. While FTO designations are nothing new, the most recent designation has a distinctive feature: it targets Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of a sovereign state’s military. Expectedly, the move has been strongly condemned inside Iran, notably by the country’s Supreme Leader, the government, as well as the Parliament. International observers have also largely debated the move, with diplomats and analysts exposing different views on its potential effects.

In the midst of such debate, the U.S. State Department has sought to clarify the rationale behind its choice. Taking questions from the press, Mr. Nathan Sales, Ambassador at Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and Mr. Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran, exposed the views of the U.S. administration on the IRGC, which is considered by the U.S. as an arm of Iran’s expansionist foreign policy. Mr. Hook accused the IRGC not only of sowing instability across the region, but also of being responsible for the death of over 600 U.S. soldiers in the context of the Iraq War. These considerations – the speakers stressed – have led the U.S. to take such a crucial step.

The FTO designation of the IRGC is part of a much broader campaign initiated by the U.S. administration under the Presidency of Mr. Trump. The declared aim of this campaign is to deny sources of revenue to the Iranian government, in order to stop its influence in other countries across the Middle East. In this framework, the IRGC’s designation aims at applying extra pressure to one of Iran’s most relevant foreign policy tools – Ambassador Sales stressed, noting that the measure’s focus will be on issues related to law enforcement, immigration, and especially financial flows. 

Analysts have largely debated the rationale behind the designation’s timing, hypothesizing links with the elections in Israel, as well as with the end of the fight against the Islamic State. Questioned by the press, Ambassador Sales firmly denied any such links, explaining how the move “was just the next logical step in our increasingly robust sanctions measures”. 

As for the measure’s consequences, Ambassador Sales stressed that increased U.S. pressure on the IRGC is aimed at protecting countries across the Middle East from Iran’s influence. “For our Sunni Arab partners in the region, this is a welcome designation” – Special Representative Hook noted, at the same time stressing that such designation is not supposed to hamper U.S. diplomatic relations with its regional partners. However – Ambassador Sales noted – countries will have to make choices: “they can engage with Iran and take the consequences that follow, or they can engage with the United States and our allies and take the beneficial consequences that follow”.

The speakers also touched upon the complex relations with the European Union on the Iranian issue. The areas of agreement between the U.S. and the EU are far more than those of disagreement – both speakers stressed – and disagreements are generally confined to the Iranian Nuclear Deal only. While the EU has sought to shield its companies from the effect of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions, Mr. Hook underlined that such efforts do not seem to be enough to convince large European companies to keep p their ties with Iran.

The designation of the IRGC as an FTO will have a significant further impact on the decision of foreign companies to engage with Iran. As the IRGC has vast stakes in the country’s economy, foreign companies will face high risks when engaging with organizations inside Iran – Ambassador Sales noted, stressing that the aim of the U.S. measures is to “render radioactive the IRGC”.

Finally, Mr. Hook addressed observers’ worries about potential retaliations by Iran. Outlining the administration’s view, he noted that peace and security in the Middle East cannot be achieved without curbing the IRGC’s influence. Failing to do so because of the threats coming from inside Iran – Mr. Hook repeatedly stressed – would be “playing by their rules” and it would not help in tackling the issue.

Far from decreasing, the confrontation between the United States and Iran seems to be moving to an even higher level. 

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