The US has had a turbulent relationship with Iran since its revolution in 1979. With President Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, the US classifies an entire foreign government pillar as a terrorist threat for the first time and enters into an uncertain situation with the Iranian state.
The Islamic Guard Corps was founded as a military safeguard for the new revolutionary government and supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Currently, Iran’s Guard Corps prevents internal uprisings and insulates the country from external threats to protect its national security. The Guard Corps’ influence is felt beyond maintaining political stability and currently controls anywhere from 20-40% of Iran’s economy as well as its ballistic missile program. By imposing a series of economic and travel sanctions on Iran’s elite security organization as well as on its financial partners, Trump’s administration attempts to intensify pressure on the Iranian regime on the grounds that the organization “actively participates, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft”.
Central to Iran’s military-industrial complex, the label of ‘terror group’ and heavy sanctions intend to starve the Iranian regime, but is Iran’s Guard Corps a terror group?
Wielding missile technology, asymmetric warfare expertise, an air force, navy and intelligence service, the Guard Corps has the capacity to carry out a destructive attack, and it is these operations that have raised particular concern in Washington. With its voluntary militia, the Basij, and elite members of its Al Quds force involved in violently repressing Iranian dissidents, training and arming foreign paramilitary forces (including Hezbollah in Lebanon), and even assassinating a Saudi Ambassador in Washington in 2011, the Guard Corps has proven a plausible instigator of foreign conflict.
However, unlike other ‘terror groups’, the US’ relationship with Iran’s Guard Corps has not always been hostile. In 2014, the Al Quds assisted American forces to reclaim parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS fighters. Like any other state organization, the Guard Corps has also proven capable of legitimate cooperation.
Israel and Saudi Arabia’s support for the designation, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming credit on Twitter, has raised dispute over the legitimacy of the US classification and accompanying sanctions. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif in fact counter claims that the terrorist labeling is Trump’s ‘election-eve gift’ to Netanyahu before a tight re-election campaign.
Controversy is also raised regarding the potential repercussions of Trump’s firm line with Iran. US State Department special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, downplays safety concerns for American personnel, claiming there will be no negative impact on American diplomacy amidst the blacklisting, taking effect April 15. However, former State Department official Wendy Sherman who served both the Obama and Bush administrations, reminds how she refrained from the terrorist labeling because there is no practical benefit that outweighs risks to American troops and Intelligence officers in the region. Slapping the Guard as a ‘terror organization’ also places neighbouring states, who already maintain a difficult balancing act between the US and Iran, such as Iraq, into a precarious political position.
Since pulling out of Obama’s multi-national accord seeking to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, Trump has remained steadfast in his aggressive crackdown on Iran, imposing economic isolation as a method to provoke a change in Iran’s state policy. By scrapping attempts to foster connections between Iran and the international community, Trump aggravates international antagonism and risks relations with Iran spiraling into a dangerous tit-for-tat situation. The US administration’s neglect of concerted diplomatic efforts to negotiate not only isolates Iran economically but also politically, and a cornered state could prove to be far more volatile.