Memo on Trump Administration’s Decision to Name IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization

The Trump administration designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is a dangerous and unprecedented escalatory move that could set the stage for a catastrophic conflict with Iran. It marks the first time a state-run military, one into which ordinary Iranians are often conscripted for mandatory military service, has been designated as an FTO.

Given the IRGC is already one of the most sanctioned entities on the planet, the designation achieves little in terms of economic restrictions or penalties for the IRGC. Instead, it needlessly puts U.S. servicemen and bases across the Middle East at risk, diminishes U.S. diplomatic and military connections in countries like Iraq and Syria, and further limits the potential for future diplomatic de-escalation with Iran. The Pentagon has long warned against the move, and the CIA voiced reservations about this decision.

There is no doubt that the IRGC engages in a wide range of activities that undermine regional security and repress the Iranian people. Yet, the IRGC has been a major beneficiary of broad sanctions on the Iranian economy and rising U.S.-Iran tensions.

Members of Congress should denounce this decision as a needlessly reckless move that serves no purpose other than to increase the risk of conflict in an already turbulent Middle East.

The following is an overview of the potential consequences of an IRGC FTO designation:

Risk to U.S. Servicemen and Bases

  • Designating the military wing of a foreign state an FTO is an unprecedented action that could subject U.S. troops to similar treatment from adversaries and risk withdrawing the legal protections that accompany them in theaters of war. This is one of the major reasons that the Department of Defense and retired military officers have been steadfastly opposed to designating the IRGC an FTO.
  • Designating the IRGC an FTO risks retaliation against American troops in Iraq and Syria, where such troops are in close proximity to the IRGC or its partner militias. Both the Pentagon and the CIA have reportedly warned about the severe consequences to U.S. troops and broader U.S. interests in the Middle East that could accompany this designation.
  • Iranian officials and military commanders have stated than they would reciprocate an IRGC FTO designation with a similar designation against the U.S. military. Over 250 Iranian members of parliament have signed a statement calling for such a reciprocal action, while the head of the IRGC has also vowed a tit-for-tat response and said that U.S. forces in the region will “lose their current status of ease and serenity.”
  • While the U.S. military and the IRGC were on opposite sides in Iraq for years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, the counter-ISIS campaign saw them fight a common enemy. The IRGC was at the center of Iranian efforts to roll back ISIS in Iraq, with U.S. forces operating in close proximity in coordination with the Iraqi army. The fact that the Trump administration has now pocketed Iran’s assistance and turned around and designated the IRGC an FTO will not be forgotten when it comes to deconfliction in future conflicts.

 

Negligible Economic Penalty

  • The legal effect of designating the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization is negligible. The sanctions consequences of an FTO designation are entirely duplicative of existing U.S. sanctions authorities. The IRGC is designated under multiple U.S. sanctions programs, many of which have much more substantial force than an FTO designation. For this reason, designating the IRGC an FTO has nothing to do with exerting more pressure on Iran.
  • Because an FTO designation does not have any additional legal consequences for the IRGC, the intended purpose of this action appears to be to foment a military conflict with Iran. The Trump administration is taking this action not in spite of the risks of a new war in the Middle East but precisely because it embraces those risks and hopes to see them through to fruition.  

Limiting U.S. Diplomatic Options

  • Designating the IRGC an FTO dramatically escalates U.S.-Iran tensions and further negates the possibility for successful diplomacy between the two countries, whether over regional crises, detained Americans in Iran or Iranian nuclear or ballistic missile programs.
  • The Trump administration is seeking to constrain a future President from being able to return the United States to compliance with the JCPOA.  Designating the IRGC is further evidence of this intent. Even if the FTO designation does not lead to an outbreak of conflict with Iran, the Trump administration believes that the designation will deter foreign investment in Iran and will be politically difficult to undo. This move is thus intended to undermine a future President’s efforts to re-enter the JCPOA and comply with U.S. obligations thereto.       
  • The designation also limits U.S. diplomatic and military options across the region in countries where the IRGC has influence, especially in Iraq and Lebanon. In these countries, U.S. military and diplomatic personnel may be prevented from contact with senior Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who have contact with the IRGC. According to reports, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies have raised concerns about this impact of the designation in reducing U.S. regional influence.

Iran Dismisses Warsaw Summit as a Failure

Week of February 12, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Iranian Foreign Ministry Blasts Warsaw Summit as Failing to Isolate Iran

The Iranian foreign ministry blasted as a failure the Trump administration’s co-hosted summit in Warsaw on “peace and security” in the Middle East. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated: “Despite the far-reaching efforts of Washington to organize an inclusive summit and create a new coalition against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the summit was a failure before it ended. The small number of attendees and low-level representatives refused to cooperate with any anti-Iranian initiative.”

Ghassemi added: “The concluding statement was a useless document. Its text came only from the two countries that hosted the summit and lacked any credibility or semblance of a decision.”

He further stated: “How can a conference about peace and security in the Middle East be successful when the main regional players such as Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine are not present? And important countries such as China and Russia and many major European countries and other countries are not present or sent very low-level officials?”

A columnist for the conservative Alef analyzed the Warsaw summit: “The U.S. regime has pursued Iranophobia because of the Islamic Republic’s role in politically isolating the U.S. at the international level and America’s defeat and frustration in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.”

The writer said of the Iranian foreign ministry’s role in diminishing the effectiveness of the Warsaw summit: “The active diplomacy of the foreign ministry caused U.S. officials to become troubled and retreat from their original claims out of fear of organizing a useless gathering. They altered the original aim of the summit and declared that the summit wasn’t targeted against any one country (Iran).”

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Islamic Republic Celebrates 40 years as Ayatollah Khamenei Calls for “Second Great Leap”

On February 11th, the Islamic Republic celebrated its 40th anniversary with marches in Tehran and across the country. According to official outlets, millions marched in the annual state-backed rallies.

At a speech in Tehran’s Azadi Square, President Rouhani lauded what he said was Iran “freeing itself from despotism, colonialism, and dependency 40 years ago.” He also praised the country’s military strengths, stating: “We will continue this path, and I say this clearly to the people of Iran, that Iran’s military power in the past 40 years, especially in the recent five years, has amazed the entire world.”

A column in the conservative Alef discussed the February 11th rallies and the question of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. It asked: “In all these years one question has always existed about what the secret has been behind the presence and participation of a more or less consistent amount of people in 22 Bahman (February 11th) rallies?”

The writer went on: “It was especially expected this year that because of economic and societal crises that the level of people’s participation would decrease in a visible way … what explains the people’s presence and cooperation at a time when many officials across the three branches of government are facing a drop in public trust?”

The piece, reflecting a conservative point of view, noted: “It is clear that despite all shortcomings, deficiencies, and embezzlements, the political and social lives of Iranians has tangibly changed and the Islamic Republic is present in society’s fabric. It breathes, resists, and progresses. However, just like any living being at times in fails or even regresses.”

It added: “The transformation of government and the creation of a national government was one of the greatest achievements of the Islamic Republic and is the main foundation that is preserving it. National government here means the stake that [ordinary] Iranians have in institutions from the Leadership to local government and city councils and the opportunity for them to contribute in a real way.”

The author concluded: “The constitutional revolution started the process of transitioning Iran from a tribal government to a national government. But the total amount of efforts taken during the constitutional and Pahlavi period led to no more than five percent of people having a stake in the government. The Islamic Revolution in the least optimistic view raised the stake of people in government to 40 percent, and in recent years it has remained above 30 percent [of people participating in government affairs].”

Ayatollah Khamenei also released a statement on the 40th anniversary of the revolution, in which he called on Iranian youth to take a “second great leap” to advance the revolution. In the statement, Khamenei gave an overview of achievements and events that had taken place since the revolution and a set of recommendations to the Iranian people, especially the youth.

Khamenei acknowledged regarding the situation of “justice and confronting corruption” in the country: “I explicitly say that there is a wide gap between what has happened and what should happen.”

He said of Iran’s support for regional proxies: “If back then the West’s problem was stopping Iran from purchasing basic weaponry, today its problem is the transfer of advanced weapons from Iran to resistance forces.”

Khamenei also called the United States and some European states “cowardly and untrustworthy.” He dismissed the idea of negotiations with the United States, proclaiming: “No issues can be resolved and other than moral and material harms nothing will come out of negotiations [with the U.S.].”

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Suicide Bomber Targets Bus Carrying IRGC Soldiers

On February 13th, a suicide bomber killed 27 and wounded 13 in an attack on a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) soldiers in southwestern Iran. The bomber drove a car full of explosives into the bus, which was travelling to the city of Zahedan. The Wahhabi-Salafist “Jaish al-Adl”—a group with a history of engaging in such terrorist attacks—claimed responsibility.

In a statement, IRGC commander Mojtaba Fada said that those killed were all from Isfahan province. He said the funeral for the soldiers would be Saturday.

Ayatollah Khamenei blamed the bombing on Iran’s regional rivals. He stated: “The connection is certain between the perpetrators of this criminal act and the spy agencies of some regional countries.” He added that the “responsible [Iranian] agencies” have been instructed to “focus” on this connection and “seriously pursue it.”

President Rouhani also linked the attack to “the White House, Tel Aviv, and their regional cronies.”

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Workers Write to International Labor Group for Support

On February 13th, the Iran-based “Confederation of Free Workers” wrote a letter to the International Labour Organization calling on the head of the organization to press the Iranian government to “unconditionally release imprisoned labor activists.” The letter specifically pointed to the labor activists Jafar Azimzadeh and Parvin Mohammadi, members of the confederation who were arrested in January. (More on their case in a previous Iran Unfiltered).

The confederation underscored a “new trend in repressing laborers” inside Iran. The letter cited the case of imprisoned labor activists Esmail Bakhshi and Ali Nejati and noted that 40 workers belonging to the Ahvaz Steel Company remain imprisoned.

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FATF Debate Coming to a Head

On February 16th, the Expediency Discernment Council is expected to reach its final decision regarding a bill introduced by the Rouhani administration to reform Iran’s anti-money laundering laws. The bill is part of a set of legislation designed to bring Iran into compliance with standards set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks. The Expediency Discernment Council decision will come as the FATF deadline for Iran to reform its banking sector looms at the end of February. (For more background on the contentious domestic debate on the FATF bills, see previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi recently sparked controversy after saying that the Expediency Discernment Council would be responsible for any consequences resulting from rejecting the FATF legislation. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the body’s standards. Vaezi had stated: “If the FATF legislation isn’t passed, pressure on us will increased. If the Expediency Discernment Council doesn’t approve these bills, it should accept the results of this action.”

On February 11th, Ebrahim Raisi, who ran as the main conservative presidential candidate in 2017 challenging Rouhani and heads the influence Astan Qods Razavi religious foundation, dismissed the importance of Iran passing the FATF bills. He stated: “Some state that if we don’t want to give an excuse to the enemy, we should sign these agreements and conventions. Who can guarantee that if we sign, the enemy will stop its excuses? Wasn’t the nuclear issue an excuse?”

He added: “The only solution with respect to the enemy has been steadfastness and resistance. This is an important signal and symbol to give the enemy.”

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Announcement on New Judiciary Chief Imminent

Iran’s judiciary spokesperson Gholam-Hossein Eje’i has stated that the new head of the judiciary—replacing incumbent Sadegh Larijani—will be appointed by the end of the current Iranian year (March 21st). Eje’I said: “God willing the new head of the judiciary branch will be introduced and begin work before the end of the year and before the start of the new year.”

According to some Iranian media reports, hardline 2017 presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi will replace Sadegh Larijani as Iran’s judiciary chief on March 15th, securing one of the Islamic Republic’s most senior posts.

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President Rouhani Attends Syria Peace Talks in Russia

On February 14th, President Rouhani joined Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan for the fourth round of “Astana-process” Syria peace talks in Sochi. According to Iranian media outlets, Rouhani called on the international community to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees and to support reconstruction efforts in Syria. He also said that the presence of foreign troops, namely American forces, remain in Syria “without the invitation of the [Syrian] government” and that this must “end as soon as possible.”

Rouhani said of the Astana process: “Our cooperation has managed to greatly diminish the fires of war and merciless killing that had overtaken Syria for years. Dialogue between the various sides has seen [political] differences substitute guns and bullets. Today, after over seven years since the start of the crisis, in most of this country there is security and stability except for a small part of the country.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif Travels to Lebanon

On February 11th, Foreign Minister Zarif travelled to Lebanon for a two-day visit and met with figures ranging from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In his meeting with Hariri, the prime minister called on Iran to release Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and information technology expert arrested and accused of being a U.S. spy in 2015.

 

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