MS Risk Blog

The US labels Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a Terrorist Organisation

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On 8 April, US President Donald Trump designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. The unprecedented move against Iran’s armed forces has expectedly elicited a strong reaction, including deep apprehension and reproach from nations, organisations and analysts. It will undoubtedly rack up pre-existing tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic, sharpening the sting of Trump’s recent proclamation which recognises Golan Heights as Israeli territory.

In a statement on Monday, Donald Trump said: “This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognises 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.” He added that the decision is expected to significantly increase pressure on Iran, stating: “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.” Reuters have reported that previous administrations considered designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation but decided the risk to US forces overseas outweighed the benefit of doing so.

According to the BBC, the IRGC is Iran’s most elite military unit and was established soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the country’s Islamic system and to provide a counterweight to the country’s regular armed forces. Since then, it has evolved into a major military, political and economic force in the country, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other senior figures in the government. The IRGC is thought to consist of more than 150,000 active personnel and has its own ground forces, navy and air force. It also oversees Iran’s strategic weapons, including its ballistic missiles. It exerts influence elsewhere in the Middle East; it provides weapons, technology, training, money and advice to Iranian-aligned governments and armed groups.

The Counter Extremism Project states that the IRGC has links with Iran’s terrorist proxies. According to the non-profit NGO, within the IRGC exists the Basij militia and the Quds Force. The Basij are a paramilitary organisation which is in charge of channelling popular support for the Iranian regime; it is famous for its recruitment of volunteers. The Basij has two missions; providing defensive military training to protect the regime against foreign invasion and to suppress domestic anti-regime activity through street violence and intimidation. The Quds force on the other hand, specialise in foreign missions, providing training, funding and weapons to extremist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. They also play a key role in support of Syrian regime forces in the country’s civil war.

Since Trump’s arrival into office, he has taken a hard stance with Iran. The implementation of US sanctions, with the toughest ones targeting Iran’s financial and oil sectors in November last year, have resulted in the Islamic Republic facing economic difficulties, compounding the abysmal relationship between the two countries.

Over the past few months, tensions have been steadily building, particularly in light of Trump’s recent proclamation in March which recognised Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Towards the end of March, the US imposed new sanctions on a network of companies and individuals in Iran, Turkey and the UAE it said was transferring billions of dollars to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, further angering Iran. The targeted institutions include banks and other financial companies, including Ansar Bank, Atlas Exchange and Iranian Atlas Company.

Preluding this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened that Iran would file a legal case against the US for the sanctions, stating that Iran will pursue the case in international courts of justice. Iran have also said that they are determined to boost their defence capabilities despite pressure from the US to curb its ballistic missile programme. Earlier last month, the US accused Iran of rejecting a UN Security Council resolution in regard to their recent ballistic missile test and satellite launches, urging the Council to bring back tougher international restrictions on Tehran. The sanctions and threats have only further deepened the pre-existing rift between the countries and boosted current hatred.

Iran has unsurprisingly condemned the US move. In a direct response to the proclamation, the Iranian Supreme National Security Council have designated US military forces as a terrorist organisation, according to Iranian state-run TV. President Rouhani has criticised the US decision in a speech broadcast live on state television, accusing the US as being the “leader of world terrorism” in response. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi has named the US decision a “major strategic mistake” and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has described it as a “gift” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other leaders and organisations have additionally expressed their disapproval; Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has stated that the designation could result in detrimental consequences for Iraq and the Middle East. Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has also condemned the US decision, stating that the move “humiliates” an entire nation and reflects Trump’s “disappointment” over the strength and influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The move has garnered some concern, particularly pertaining to potential retaliatory attacks on US forces. BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus argues that the measure is likely to be ineffective as it is unlikely to have a significant impact upon the IRGC’s activities. Furthermore, it could even backfire, with the decision encouraging the organisation or its proxies to target US personnel in Iraq, spilling into open military conflict. This is a view which has been endorsed by many, including some officials in the State Department and the Pentagon. The CIA is also reported to have opposed Trump’s move.

According to reporting by Reuters, Jason Blazakis, a former State Department official who oversaw the process for labelling foreign terrorist organisations, argues that the designation was done for purely symbolic reasons. It could have however, deadly consequences for US troops. He argues that it could trigger Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, to allow IRGC-controlled Shi’ite Muslim militias to retaliate against US forces in Iraq.

The State Department have said the measure will take effect on 15 April.