In a bid to double down on Tehran’s nuclear, economic and foreign policies, the US administration on Monday designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation — the first time it has done so to a state-run military.
“This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognizes 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,” a statement from US President Donald Trump’s press secretary said.
What does this move help US achieve?
The designation is not merely a symbolic one; it comes with sanctions on the IRGC, freezing of their assets in US jurisdictions if any and a ban on Americans from doing business or lending material support in any form.
It further hands US a new set of tools to stigmatise and isolate the IRGC which will impact Iran’s economy further. Political observers also believe that the US can use this as leverage to turn up the pressure on Tehran to make crucial compromises and amendments to the Iran Nuclear Deal that to impress Trump last year, leading to further deterioration of US-Iran ties.
With the sanctions this branding brings, the US may just be able to get off with a new, better, more comprehensive and agreeable nuclear deal.
The plot thickens
Interestingly, just a day after it designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group, Trump’s business ties with them re-emerged with reports alleging that the Trump Organization participated in a scheme that likely helped the IRGC launder money to fund its interests abroad.
According to a 2017 report by the New Yorker, the president’s firm entered into a partnership with ‘notoriously corrupt’ oligarchs tied to IRGC to build Trump Tower Baku.
Iran’s response takes the cake
In an oddly satisfying yet farcically bizarre move, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council in retaliation applied its own terrorist designation to US forces and the Central Command (CENTCOM) the very next day, further labelling the US a “state sponsor of terrorism.”
According to Al Jazeera, the government, incensed by the move, has threatened to produce more advanced nuclear centrifuges.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif lashed out on Twitter, calling this designation another “dangerous US misadventure” in the region and a “misguided election-eve gift to [Benjamin] Netanyahu.” The Israeli Prime Minister who won presidency for the fifth term this week is noted for his anti-Iranian policies and statements.
Overview of the Guards’ career in the Middle-east
Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, believes ” it is very important to expose the IRGC for what it is: It has all the attributes of a terrorist organization.”
To examine the influence this elite armed force has in the middle-east one must revisit how the IRGC has executed its self-proclaimed mission to protect the Shiite clerical regime from internal and external threats so far.
It is true that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are not your regular military troops; often referred to as the “Guardians of the Islamic Revolution,” their power extends beyond Iran and into major conflicts across the Middle East.
Ayatollah Khomeini, who notably described the US as “the Great Satan”, established the IRGC as a sort of Praetorian Guard at the end of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, to quell the fears of a counter-coup by an army that had served under the Shah. It has now grown into a 125,000-man force that is believed to comprise Iran’s true rulers, suggesting the existence of a deep state.
Initially restricted to domestic operations, the IRGC became a formidable force to be reckoned with after the Iraqi invasion in 1980 led by Saddam Hussein. It was then that Khomeini gave the group its own ground, naval and air forces.
Powers it holds
According to a paper by US-based Belfer Centre, the IRGC narrative is shaped by several key features that shed light on how the Revolutionary Guards view Iran’s security including the role of the West in the “Imposed War”, the continuation of the Holy Defense of the Islamic regime and Islam itself after the formal end of the Iran-Iraq War, and the expansion of Iranian power as a result of the war.
Now, the IRGC’s network effectively runs Iran’s military and intelligence complexes – it also controls the paramilitary (Basij militia) which has about 90,000 active members, and runs the special overseas operations (Quds force) with about 2,000-5,000 members.
It also holds sway over the country’s conventional military, many of whose leaders are believed to be loyal to the exiled Shah. The group notably oversees Iran’s ballistic missile programme, and has conducted several tests for ballistic missiles that can and has reached Israel.
The Iranian constitution gives it legitimacy over a range of political, religious and legal powers and the IRGC now answers only to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini in 1989.
The group is believed to have a large stake in the Iranian economy as well, both in legal and illegal entities, and involvement in lucrative cross-border smuggling.
But of their most egregious activities which may have earned them this designation, is lending of military support to Hezbollah and Hamas. The Quds force, founded as a substitute for the Shah’s Imperial Guards and headed by Major General Qassem Soleimani, is engaged in a violent offensive against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Quds work with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
Why this matters
Until now, the US had refrained from labelling the IRGC as a terror group, despite openly calling Iran a state sponsor of terrorism, over concern that move could lead to attacks on US forces in the region. With the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration may have found the hook to finally carry out a long-cherish intention.
But this begs certain essential questions: Is this the first of many state-run armies to be blacklisted and paralysed, simply because their extensive power worries the US? And will the US be repeating this strategy when rival nations don’t oblige Trump his demands, while keeping a tight lid on deep states in allied nations?
In Venezuela, for example, the army’s support of beleaguered president Nicolas Maduro is the only thing keeping the political crisis from deepening. But Trump’s plan, according to Vox, is to economically squeeze Venezuela’s military leadership (sound familiar?) until they have no choice but to abandon Maduro by letting the blocked humanitarian aid into Venezuela and distributing it around the country. (Maduro has ordered the military to block the aid, saying that the foreign assistance is tantamount to foreign intervention.)
Now let’s shift the attention closer home, to Pakistan, where scores of studies have suggested the possibility of a deep state, with the military pulling both political and economic strings for the government.
A report by Observer Research Foundation published after Imran Khan’s victory claims, “The participation of a multitude of religious and extremist groups, including those considered as global terrorists, into the poll process, supported and created by the deep state was intentional and part of the deep state’s strategy. The groups included Hafiz Saeed, a known global terrorist, led Milli Muslim League, standing on the platform of the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, the political wing of the TTLY, which had launched an agitation at the behest of the army in Islamabad” in 2017.
“The rejection of ‘terrorist groups turned political parties’ by the local populace has compelled Imran Khan to seek support of other individuals or parties to form the government. He is, however, assured of the backing of the deep state and its supported terrorist and religious groups and hence for the present, he would neither be criticised nor agitations be launched against his government,” it says adding, “The army got the government it desired at the centre.”
Will the US then move on banning the Pakistani military next? Judging by their lukewarm response to brokering peace with India during the Pulwama aftermath, that seems unlikely.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius