by Ethan Azad
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) officially went into implementation on Monday, April 15. This decision is unprecedented in that it is the first time the United States government has listed a foreign nation’s military organization as a terrorist group. Potential consequences range from minimizing the opportunity for diplomacy with Iran to direct confrontation between U.S. and Iranian forces.
Critics of the move, including Pentagon and CIA officials, warn that it puts U.S. forces in danger and fails to serve American interests. To make matters more precarious, Iranian officials reciprocated the designation shortly after Secretary Pompeo’s announcement last week, adding the United States Central Command to their own list of terrorist organizations.
The FTO designation has little impact, if any, on the sanctions regime currently imposed by the United States on the IRGC. It does, however, make the Middle East more volatile. Additionally, it raises the political costs for Trump’s successor, should he have one in 2020, of re-engaging Iran after the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
While the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neoconservative think tank in Washington, D.C., has long advocated for the FTO designation, even Trump’s former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, among others, has previously stated that this decision “would put in place certain requirements where we run into one another on the battlefield, and it would trigger actions that are not necessarily in the best interests of our military actions.” It effectively lays the Middle East with a network of tripwires, where a simple miscalculation could trigger an international conflict.
The IRGC has a presence in countries that include Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and they frequently encounter U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf. In January 2016, IRGC sailors detained U.S. Navy personnel who, due to a navigation error, infringed on Iranian maritime boundaries. They were released hours later without harm because of diplomatic channels established in the years of the JCPOA. If such encounters are to occur in the future, they will not be so readily resolved.
The FTO designation is also problematic because it effectively adds criminal liability to knowingly doing business with any IRGC-affiliated entities, of whom there are many in the Iranian economy and elsewhere (Trump’s own business dealings have been involved with them). Because of Iran’s military conscription of adult males (with some exceptions) and the IRGC’s expansive position in the economy, the New York Times claims there are 11 million Iranians and organizations who are affiliated with the IRGC. Pompeo’s decision explicitly labels them as terrorists and anyone who associates with them as criminals.
The Trump administration will continue ramping up the pressure, and there are some concerns that their next move may be to utilize past legislation to preemptively strike Iran. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was passed in the days after the 9/11 attacks and allowed former president George W. Bush to launch the now 17-year-long military campaign in Afghanistan without seeking congressional approval. There is legislation in the works intended to block or limit the AUMF’s use in Iran, but this will likely not pass while Trump is in office. This administration may very well take steps to provoke conflict while they still can.
The designation occurs in the midst of catastrophic flooding in Iran that have killed 76 people and displaced thousands of families. The Trump administration’s reimposed sanctions on Iran, which have already caused immense hardship for the Iranian people by triggering rapid inflation and a devaluation of the Iranian currency, are also stifling international flood relief efforts and aid for Iran. Rather than increasing pressure in the face of such a calamitous natural disaster, a more effective strategy in getting the Iranian government to “change its behavior” would have been to offer and send humanitarian aid.
To date, American campaigns in the Middle East have cost the United States over $5.9 trillion dollars, excluding the immeasurable opportunity costs of not investing that money domestically. Most importantly, they have cost the lives of thousands of young soldiers and innocent civilians. Military campaigns of the not-so-distant past can serve as sobering reminders that interference in other countries’ affairs rarely ends well, for us or for “them.” With the recent FTO designation being another step down a too-often-trodden path and not serving as an appropriate diplomatic pressure point, the Trump administration would be wise to reevaluate what exactly they have gained from their “maximum pressure campaign.”
Image by Sayyed Shahab-o- din Vajedi