Is Iranian Guard Corps’ terror designation a trap for Tehran?

The designation may be an attempt by the Trump administration to provoke Iran to withdraw from the nuclear deal.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Iranian lawmakers wear uniforms of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during a parliamentary session in Tehran, April 9. (AFP)
Keeping the rhetoric alive. Iranian lawmakers wear uniforms of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during a parliamentary session in Tehran, April 9. (AFP)

As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the State Department’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its extraterritorial operations al-Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organisation, he found himself at loss explaining what exact changes the designation bring about.

“Will you treat them like [the Islamic State] ISIS and al-Qaeda,” Al Arabiya TV’s Nadia Bilbassy wanted to know. Pompeo refused to comment and deferred to the US Defence Department.

Pompeo’s evasive answer is understandable. For all his and US President Donald Trump’s talk of coercing Iran to change its behaviour and forcing third parties to abide by US sanctions, it is not obvious how the designation can add to the existing body of sanctions in a meaningful way.

On October 25, 2007, the US Treasury Department designated al-Quds Force for providing material support to US-designated terrorist organisations. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2010 imposed sanctions against Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Those sanctions were reimposed in May 2018, following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

If the United States believes the existing body of sanctions was unable to coerce Tehran to abandon “its malign and outlaw behaviour,” as expressed by Trump, why should the designation bring about such a change in the regime’s behaviour?

In the same vein, why should third parties not deterred from engaging in business relations with Iran under existing sanctions be deterred by the designation?

There is no obvious answer to those questions but the designation may reflect a struggle over Iran policy in the White House and policy objectives not expressed by the president and his secretary of state.

On July 30, 2018, Trump declared his readiness to meet Iranian President Hassan Rohani “anytime they want to” without preconditions. The designation effectively closes the path of negotiations and indicates the victory of the likes of Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who have long advocated a tougher line towards Tehran.

The designation may also be an attempt by the Trump administration to provoke Iran to withdraw from the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Should the Iranian regime, in an angry reaction to the designation, declare the nuclear deal null and void and restart its nuclear activities, the gap between Iran and other parties adhering to the JCPOA would widen. This leaves Tehran isolated and more vulnerable to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy.

In its first reaction to the designation, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council designated the US Central Command a terrorist entity. It is yet to be seen if the IRGC will act on this designation but the risk of a military confrontation between Tehran and Washington, which the IRGC is bound to lose, has increased.

In this light, the designation may be a provocation by the White House and not necessarily as an attempt to change the behaviour of the regime in Tehran.

The designation is not without unintended consequences for Washington. Prior to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, CIA and IRGC representatives met in Geneva to exchange intelligence about Taliban positions on the ground in Afghanistan. The US Air Force bombed coordinates provided by the IRGC.

In the battle of Tikrit against ISIS in 2015, the US Air Force, with the Iraqi military as intermediary, provided air support to al-Quds Force and Iraqi Shia militias under the direct or indirect command of the IRGC. In doing so, the Air Force provided material support to an organisation designated by the US Treasury Department in 2007.

That scenario may repeat itself and, before long, the US government may find itself once again cooperating with the IRGC, a US-designated terrorist organisation, to fight a more immediate threat in the Middle East. How does the US administration intend to explain that to the public?