Designating the IRGC as a terrorist organisation carries implications for Iran

Though the United States had threatened Iran with the designation, panellists said Tehran was still taken by surprise when the move was announced.
Monday 13/05/2019
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) decorates the newly-appointed Major General Hossein Salami (L) as head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) during an official ceremony in Tehran, April 22. (AFP)
Saving face. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) decorates the newly-appointed Major General Hossein Salami (L) as head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) during an official ceremony in Tehran, April 22. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group frees the United States for not-so-obvious steps it would not have been able to take before, experts in Washington said.

The US Defence Department can target the Islamic Revolutionary Guar Corps (IRGC) the way it targets other terrorist organisations and the US State Department can go after IRGC family members in the United States as well as hidden finances and lobbyists.

“It’s an effective tool if leadership uses it effectively,” said Mike Pregent, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, which hosted a panel discussion April 24 about the designation.

Panellists noted there had already been a shake-up in the IRGC leadership and proxy organisations have said they won’t attack the United States on Iran’s behalf.

Iran has also changed its rhetoric. They expect protests against Iran's leadership, businesses refusing to work with any Iranian entity and a return to the table to discuss the Iran nuclear deal.

The designation shouldn’t hinder diplomacy, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, because “this is a force multiplier for good, coercive diplomacy with Iran.”

Though the United States had threatened Iran with the designation, panellists said Tehran was still taken by surprise when the move was announced.

“Iran did not expect it,” said Nader Uskowi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Centre. “It caused a major upheaval within the IRGC.”

Two weeks after the designation, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced IRGC commander Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, who had held the post since 2007, with Hossein Salami, promoting Salami to major-general.

“They had to change leadership to save face,” Uskowi said.

The IRGC controls an estimated 20% of the Iranian economy. Alireza Nader, founder and CEO of New Iran, said the IRGC is known for its violence and Taleblu described Salami as “thuggish.”

Pregent said terrorist organisations supported by the IRGC’s Al Quds force have refused a request by Salami to attack US targets and Shia Iraqi clerics have told Iran to back off. Pregent said he’s waiting to hear Qais Khazali, who heads an Iran-funded militia in Iraq, to say the same.

The sanctions and designation are a message to Iran saying, “We can limit your oil production” but also to Iran’s neighbours to remove themselves from Iran’s business sphere, Pregent said.

The United States has announced that groups that work with the IRGC will not be given the terrorist designation.

Still, Taleblu said the primary war with Iran is a war of words and he called Salami “bloviated.” The rhetoric will escalate, Taleblu said, and likely include outrageous comments concerning Israel.

Between massive flooding that caused destruction in three Iranian cities, the oil sanctions and now the terrorist designation, Nader said people will not be able to feed their families and they will blame the Iranian leadership.

“There’s zero indication that Iranians have rallied around the flag. Everyone in Iran knows that the revolution has failed,” Nader said.

Recent major uprisings have been in small cities, he said, and the IRGC can no longer go into villages because they fear for their safety. The protests come from all levels of society, including rich and poor, country and city, he said.

“If [US President Donald Trump] gets re-elected, if this pressure continues and oil gets to approximate zero, the (Iranian) economy will collapse,” Uskowi said. “We’re going to see waves after waves of demonstrations.”

When that happens, “the White House needs to put their mouth where their money is” and supports the uprisings against the regime, Uskowi said. “Just making the economy collapse in and by itself will not be enough.”

Nader said the IRGC was created after the revolution as Tehran's leadership sought to control neighbourhoods and enforce religious edicts. The IRGC grew into the “biggest business actor in Iran by far” but operates like a “mafia-like” entity.

“I think it will scare a lot of businesses from working with any entity in Iran,” Nader said. “I think that ultimately what matters is making money. This is bad for business. This is the worst news I think they could have received.”

Even China will ultimately stop buying oil, which will leave 6 million people without jobs -- 28 million families unprovided for, he said.

Pregent described the situation as a “clock in the Middle East and a clock in the West,” saying the Middle East is being told to wait out the Trump administration while the United States is waiting for the sanctions to change Iran's behaviour.

“This strengthens a Republican or Democratic administration,” he said. It gives a president "more leverage than he’s ever had to renegotiate” the Iran nuclear agreement.