Last week President Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. It is the first time an entire branch of a nation’s military has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States although other smaller groups within Iran’s military establishment have previously been given similar designations. Critics to the move went into overdrive to castigate the move as an unnecessary act that only serves a strategic purpose if the end goal of the Trump administration is war with Iran.
Who is the IRGC and What the Designation Actually Does
According to the President’s statement, “This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognizes 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.”
The IRGC was initially established during the Islamic Revolution along with the new Iranian military. During the Iran-Iraq War, it was the special defender of the religious establishment in Iran where the IRGC grew in influence and scope as the people of Iran struggled over the course of the war. It grew to become one of the three main branches of Iran’s armed forces. Because the IRGC reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader its power is not easily checked by other Iranian institutions.
- This infographic explains the history of the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran
The most elite unit of the IRGC is the al Quds Force. Al Quds translates literally to “the holy one” and is the Arabic name for Jerusalem. The al Quds Force was designated a terrorist organization along with the Taliban more than a decade ago.
By designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization anyone who supports this powerful branch of Iran’s military could be subject to prosecution for supporting a terrorist organization. This is specifically problematic because the tentacles of the IRGC stretch far and wide throughout Iranian society. They are heavily involved in the military, economy, business, and politics.
Businesses associated with the IRGC in Iran are involved in construction, road building, disaster relief, communications networks and even laser eye surgery. The reach of the IRGC in Iran is so vast that as recently as last year, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered that some of the groups businesses be privatized. Iran’s President Rouhani has also tried to reduce the influence of the IRGC within Iran.
One immediate effect of the US government’s designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization was to create a united front within the government of Iran. The frequently divided and bickering government and politicians who make up the Iranian parliament wore olive green clothing in a show of solidarity with the IRGC and chanted “Death to America” in a parliament meeting shortly after the announcement according to a report from the Washington Post.
The Supreme Leader Khamenei held his own special event to commemorate the IRGC and their families for “defending the country and the revolution.” He further warned that this decision will come back to haunt President Trump.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister warned this designation would raise the potential for conflicts in the Persian Gulf where Iran’s and the United States’ navies often confront one another.
The Confusion About the Designation
The designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization presents a new level of confusion regarding terrorism and official responses to terrorism. When comparing America and its allies’ records of activity in the Middle East to the allegations and accusations of terrorist activity being made against Iran, we find little separating them.
According to the US State Department, the IRGC taught Iraqi insurgents how to build roadside bombs to be used against US soldiers following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iran, of course, denies this. The US State Department recently declassified a report that attributed 17% of all US deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 to Iranian forces. This announcement has been greeted with less than enthusiastic support from the wider American public and think tanks because it stands on rather shaky ground.
We have to remember that America’s basis for invading and bombing Iraq with shock and awe tactics beginning in 2003 ended up being dubious. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The State Department is now asserting new events, hidden from the public until now, that suggest Iran was a great enemy in Iraq during the US war years there.
While evidence of IRGC training and targeting of violence against US forces can hardly be doubted, does this equal terrorism when it is used against an invading country? Surely the US bombing of Baghdad might be considered as great an act of terror as roadside bombs on American forces.
The al Quds Force, a division of the IRGC, is reported to have trained non-state actors in foreign countries such as Hamas in Palestine and Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq. They have also carried out assassinations and are reputed to be experts in asymmetric warfare.
Meanwhile, Israel has carried out assassinations against Hamas and Iranian targets, with the support of US arms, money and policy, but their actions are not considered terrorism.
The IRGC backs a number of Shiite militias throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan. The most prominent among these is Hezbollah in Lebanon. In 2013 Hezbollah joined the fighting in the Syrian Civil War as a proxy to Iran and a supporter of Bashir al Assad. Hezballah’s part in the fighting was instrumental in strengthening and stabilizing Assad’s rule in Syria. The IRGC is also supporting fighters in Afghanistan against the Taliban. IRGC support of rebels in Yemen is so extensive that most view the Yemen war as really a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Once again, the US and Saudi Arabia are both supporting Sunni troops with training and weapons in Yemen and Afghanistan but when Iran does the same thing it is classified as a terrorist action.
President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both assert this recent designation sends a clear message to Iran. They are likely correct but that message being sent to Iran and the rest of the world is not the message they intended. The message being sent is that terrorism, once again, is not real. It is a political label put on the enemies of powerful states like the United States.
The timing of the President’s announcement was uniquely helpful to the reelection efforts of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Netanyahu even publicly thanked the US President for the move. Many believe this was the point of the announcement all along – not to mention how pleasing it is to the President’s base.
And while the new designation of foreign terrorist organization to the IRGC officially went into effect yesterday there has still been no clarification of what its implementation will look like.
President Trump is not the only politician guilty of leveraging the buzzwords of terrorism to push hype and fear. President Bush did it for the invasion of Iraq. President Obama did it for the Iran nuclear agreements and to justify the drone programs.
The problem is as that we are quickly eroding any real meaning behind the word terrorism. While deadly terrorist groups are thriving in various locales from West and North Africa to the Philippines today the US government continues to erode the word terrorism to simply mean our enemies.