US slaps terrorist label on Iran’s IRGC amid rising tensions

One of the countries that could be affected by the US move is Iraq, which has been trying to have good relations with both Tehran and Washington.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps march during a ceremony in Tehran, last February. (AP)
Heightened pressure. Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps march during a ceremony in Tehran, last February. (AP)

ISTANBUL - The decision by the United States to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organisation raised tensions in the Gulf region and could lead to a military confrontation, analysts said.

The move by US President Donald Trump, announced April 8, marks the first time Washington has branded part of a foreign government a terrorist group, meaning anyone who deals with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could face prosecution in US courts.

“The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign,” Trump said in a statement.

Washington has long seen al-Quds force, the IRGC’s foreign arm, as a terrorist outfit but the latest action to widen the designation to the entire IRGC marks another step fuelling hostility between the two countries.

The United States withdrew from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran under Trump and has pressured Tehran with crippling economic sanctions. The United States said its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran was designed to force Iran to end its aggressive policies in the Middle East. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate committee “that President Trump will continue to ratchet up the pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran so that [its] behaviour will change.” Critics said the administration’s real aim is regime change.

Arash Azizi, a writer on Iranian affairs, said neither Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei nor Trump was looking for a military escalation but “Trump seems to be playing a dangerous

game of brinksmanship, aimed at bringing Iran to some sort of a negotiating table, just as he did with North Korea,” Azizi added via e-mail.

He pointed to “elements in the Trump administration, chiefly [national security adviser] John Bolton, who have always sought a violent regime change in Iran, including via military attacks. They seem to be getting the upper hand as the terrorist designation of IRGC has long been one of their demands.”

Maysam Behravesh, an Iran expert at Lund University in Sweden, said he did not expect a “major confrontation” between the Iran and the United States because of the IRGC designation. “Since it fuels already heightened tensions, it can trigger small-scale clashes that could lead to military confrontation,” Behravesh wrote in response to questions. “Another risk at a more systemic level comes from the increasingly closing windows of diplomacy, which helps set both sides on a collision course in the future.”

News reports said US military leaders advised against Trump’s decision to put the terrorist label on the IRGC because of concerns over retaliatory attacks by Iranian forces against US troops in the Middle East. However, the White House decided there was no real risk, Politico, a Washington publication, quoted a former administration official as saying.

Behravesh agreed with Azizi in that hard-line presidential aides in the United States were after an escalation with Iran. “Trump doesn’t seem to be adequately aware of all the consequences of some of his decisions other than its impact on his domestic electoral profile and relations with allies but his hawkish advisers, such as Bolton and Pompeo, are well aware of the implications and war with Iran seems to be what they’re seeking,” he wrote.

IRGC commanders have repeatedly said US bases in the Middle East and US aircraft carriers in the Gulf, a crucial shipping route for global oil trade, are within range of Iranian missiles. Tehran has also threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if the United States tries to strangle Iran’s economy by halting its oil exports.

The United States has a considerable military presence in Gulf countries near Iran, with an estimated 46,000 US troops as well as air force and naval units in the region from Iraq to the United Arab Emirates. The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis arrived in the Persian Gulf in April. US troops are also active in Afghanistan, Iran’s eastern neighbour.

Tehran responded to the US decision against the IRGC by naming the US Central Command (CENTCOM) a terrorist organisation and the US government a sponsor of terror. The Iranian armed forces’ general staff, Iran’s most senior military body that also oversees the IRGC, said it would “use all its means to fight” CENTCOM.

An IRGC commander warned the US Navy to keep its distance. “Mr Trump, tell your warships not to pass near [IRGC] boats,” ISNA news agency reported a tweet from Mohsen Rezaei as saying. Khamenei said America’s “vicious move” against the IRGC would fail.

One of the countries that could be affected by the US move is Iran’s western neighbour Iraq, which has been trying to have good relations with both Tehran and Washington and which hosts US troops as well as Iran-backed militias.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said he had tried to prevent Washington from condemning the IRGC. The decision “could have negative repercussions on Iraq and the region,” he said. Any escalation “would make us all losers.”

Azizi said the Iranian leadership would probably try to avoid provoking the United States. “At the same time, elements in the IRGC will be clamouring for at least some punitive attacks on US forces in the region,” he wrote.

Iraq was a place where such attacks could happen. “Such moves would be much more dangerous in the Gulf, where things could escalate quickly,” Azizi said.

Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States and a partner of Iran and Russia in the Syrian conflict, was also critical of the US decision but Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia applauded Trump’s move.