The United States government has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This decision was announced in a statement on Monday and is said to be part of the “maximum pressure” campaign that the US is imposing on Iran. This is the first time that the US government has classified a government institution as an FTO, although organisations supported by the IRGC have already faced such measures. Whilst the move caused widespread discord in Washington, Tehran retaliated by declaring the US Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East a terrorist organisation and the US government a supporter of terrorism. The designation is expected to exacerbate tensions between the two countries and impede future negotiation.
According to US President Donald Trump’s statement, the IRGC “promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft [and] is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing … its global terrorist campaign.” The strategy behind US policy is to cripple the IRGC’s business infrastructure and, by extension, Iran’s economy, in order to provoke civil unrest and force the Iranian government into negotiations. But many remain skeptical of this measure’s efficacy. Emily Hawthorne from Stratfor explains that “the US is certainly hoping for a chance at negotiation, but by layering on this designation … it could actually make it more difficult later on.” There is also intense internal criticism that the move will heighten the potential for military confrontation, put the US armed forces in the region at risk, and serve to deepen IRGC influence in Iran.
This designation may be unprecedented, but it is certainly not unexpected, as the measure has long been considered. No decisive action was taken, however, as the US has previously used the IRGC as a military resource in fighting Islamic State (IS). The new move can be viewed as a historic step in pressurising the Iranian government to return to negotiations rather than seeking conflict. But Tehran, and many in Washington, have viewed the decision as an openly aggressive act which will only worsen relations between the two governments. What is clear is that the Iranian population are the main victims of this measure. Young Iranian men facing conscription to the army are forced into association with the IRGC as a branch of the Iranian military. The “maximum pressure” campaign followed by the US government will not only damage the Iranian economy, but also the livelihoods of Iranian civilians who remain only pawns in a strategy to incite civil unrest.
The IRGC formed following the 1979 revolution which saw the overthrow of the US-backed monarchy. It was then separated from the regular army as there were suspicions that some elements still supported the overthrown leadership. In the 1980s, it gained professional status to become a central force behind the new Iranian government. The Quds Force, a branch of the guard which the US has designated as an FTO since the presidency of George W. Bush, has been accused of supporting Shi’ites in Iraq, the Taliban in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Another branch, the Basij militia, is used to enforce the country’s customs and crush anti-government dissent.
Following the immediate reaction of the Iranian government, it is unclear which course will be taken either by the IRGC in retaliating against the US or by the US government in implementing the sanctions associated with the FTO classification. Waivers to the designation are likely given the complexity of the issue, something which may cushion the blow to Washington-Tehran relations. Full recognition of the human impact has yet to surface.
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