The “maximum pressure” campaign of the Trump administration against Iran has moved forward: on April 8, Washington announced it will label the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, also commonly known as the pasdaran) a terrorist organization and will add it to the list of FTOs (Foreign Terrorist Organizations). This includes foreign organizations that, according to US Department of State FAQs, engage in terrorist activities that undermine “the security of US nationals or the national security of the United States”. The decision will take force on April 15.
It is the first time we see an organization that is part of a government being considered a FTO, which is what is happening with the pasdaran. As the The New York Times stated, this decision draws on a broad interpretation of a 1996 US law that crafted this list and it sets an interesting precedent. In fact, it paves the way to the possibility that those intelligence services employing violence – such as the Israeli, Russian or Pakistani – might be in future included among FTOs as well.
While, in his official statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that the “Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government” and thus this move “will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world”, it is plausibly a political move instead.
The idea of listing the pasdaran as FTO goes back to March 2017, shortly after Donald Trump took office in the White House and as part of his rhetoric of “putting Iran on notice”, constantly warning Iran to cease its “malign actions”. This falls well within Trump’s goals of making a clean break with the previous administration, first and foremost in foreign policy, by underscoring Obama’s failure to restrain Iran and by realigning with historical allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Back then and until the present day, this measure had been hindered and somehow contained by the differing opinions within the administration itself as well as at the Pentagon. The latter warned Trump about the effects such a measure could have on the situation in Iraq, where US troops were fighting the Islamic State alongside Iranian pasdaran (specifically, the Quds force, in charge of military operations abroad).
Two years later, however, circumstances have changed; it appears the Islamic State is no longer a threat in Iraq, at least as a presence in the territory, and within the Trump administration several officials holding moderate opinions in foreign policy have been replaced with the more assertive and extremist type, well represented by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Ulterior motives behind the timing of the announcement may have been linked to providing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with extra credits to present at the polls on April 9. In fact, Netanyahu declared he was pleased with the news that the US administration had fulfilled his request.
Nonetheless, the US plan of listing the pasdaran among FTOs is easier said than done, as limiting their financial resources will be a challenge. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds force, and several other members of the IRGC are already subject to US sanctions. It is worth mentioning that the sanctions were in place long before Obama, who did not suspend them after signing the nuclear ideal. Thus, since being subject to sanctions has not hindered the pasdaran’s actions so far, it is doubtful Trump’s latest decision will.
This move might even turn out to be counterproductive, as the effect of Pompeo’s announcement has instead increased pasdaran legitimization in the eyes of Iranians. Even reformist newspapers such as Etemad or MPs such as Mahmoud Sadeghi – a reformist representative – have expressed their support for and solidarity with the IRGC. This is just another paradoxical effect of Trump’s Iranian strategy, similar to the effects obtained by Trump’s fake “empathy” policy towards Iranians. In fact, in spite of Trump’s repeated messages of solidarity with the Iranian people, mainly aimed at turning the population against its own government, the US president’s policy has had the opposite effect. As happened during the last weeks: with floods heavily affecting Iran, several remarks of solidarity arrived from the US, but they have been perceived as hypocritical, as the very US policy of sanctioning and financially isolating Iran has made it difficult for Tehran to receive international aid.
Moreover, identifying the IRGC as a terrorist organization can be perceived as an additional criminalization of the whole Iranian population. In fact, although it is true that the pasdaran presence is well rooted within the Iranian economy since they control several companies, not all their activities are illicit nor they should be seen as one body, all pursuing the same radical agenda.
Additionally, even though the Quds force has been responsible for despicable actions in both Syria and Iraq, at the same time Iranian guards fought side by side with US troops to free Iraq from the shackles of the Islamic State. During the flood emergency of recent weeks, the pasdaran were among those bringing first aid to the population. Thus, as these various factors show, they represent a complex reality, for which the US’ one-size-fits-all policy is hardly adequate.
This latest decision is instead contributing to increase tensions between Iran and the United States, since it is hindering the potential for future US administrations to dismantle the complex structure of sanctions and decisions put in place by the current administration. Furthermore, it will increase the feeling of uncertainty among Europeans who grow daily more discouraged about the possibility of maintaining their relations with a country subjected to such heavy sanctions.
US strategy might lead, if not to a dead end, to quite uncertain achievements. This decision might even decrease the chances for Iran to complete the process of adopting the anti-money laundering and counter terrorist financing (AML/CFT) legislation as demanded by the FATF (Financial Action Task Force).
Now, the ball is in Iran’s court. So far, Tehran has fought back by labelling the US CENTCOM – the US command responsible for military operations in western Asia – as terrorist. This move, although with limited practical implications, has had high media coverage and could boost and legitimize Tehran’s role as leader of the “resistance” against the US.
Instead, what several analysts have warned against is unlikely to happen, i.e. Iranian soldiers spread on different battlefields in the Middle East attacking American targets. Tehran seems well aware of the dangers of responding to Washington’s provocation and for the moment will pursue the policy of “strategic patience”, relying on the fact that despite changing Washington administrations, from the more hostile to the milder, they have not yet succeeded in undermining the 40-year relations between Iran and its allies in the region. In addition to this, it seems that Trump’s maneuvers have instead brought the country together, in a rally-round-the-flag effect.
To conclude, it seems Iran awaits the US presidential elections in 2020 far more than its own in 2021. It’s too soon to be optimistic, though, because when relations are so tense a minor incident can easily escalate, with dangerous consequences for the whole region’s stability.