March 23, 2022
U.S. negotiators working to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are said to be weighing the option of reversing a nearly three-year-old terrorist designation for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite militia charged with protecting Iran’s fundamentalist regime.
Not to be confused with Iran’s traditional armed forces, the IRGC is a parallel military body formed during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It maintains its own air, land, and naval branches and protects Iran’s fundamentalist regime. Its special operations unit, the elite Quds Force, has helped establish proxy militias like Hezbollah in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
It also plays an essential role in Iran’s aggression. Earlier this month, the IRGC said it launched a second surveillance satellite into space, defying a UN Security Council resolution, and demonstrating that Iran has the technology necessary to achieve intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
In January 2021, missiles fired by a U.S. drone destroyed the convoy of Qassem Soleimani, the then-commander of the Quds Force who was in the process of arming Palestinian resistance groups to wipe out Israel. Now Iran is demanding that the U.S. reverse its terror designation on the IRGC, even as IRGC takes credit for a missile attack in Iraq that struck near a U.S. consulate under construction. Their motive? Retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on its drones that were still executing Soleimani’s strategy – carrying arms to Hamas in Gaza.
The IRGC is the only foreign state entity on the roster of 67 other militant factions on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). Declared a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984, Iran already faced sanctions, including restrictions on U.S. foreign aid, a ban on defense exports and sales and other miscellaneous financial restrictions.
Since 2007, the Department of Treasury has targeted the IRGC for its connections to Iran’s human rights abuses, backing Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, and supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. Here are three reasons why a reversal of the IRGC designation would be a dangerous and deadly concession.
Key Measures Against the IRGC
The designation in April 2019 imposed at least two new restrictions, according to Matthew Levitt, Director for the Reinhard program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The U.S. can prevent terrorists from entering the country by denying visas to current and former members of a designated group. In addition, third parties – individuals, companies, and countries – can face criminal charges if they don’t comply with U.S. sanctions against a terrorist group.
A Message from U.S. Leadership
The unprecedented designation of IRGC gave other countries the confidence to blacklist the IRGC and Hezbollah, another dangerous Iran-backed terrorist operation. Although the U.S. declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1997, other countries had been reluctant. But since then, Germany, Lithuania, Serbia, Argentina, and Australia have designated Hezbollah a terrorist group in its entirety. Still, most of the 27 European Union countries distinguish between Hezbollah’s militant and political wings and limit the terrorist label to its militant activity. Levitt calls this fiction, given the group’s ongoing sponsorship of antisemitic terrorist attacks across Europe and around the world.
“As European law enforcement officials can attest, banning only part of Hezbollah has not worked,” said Levitt. “Hezbollah called the EU's bluff and has continued engaging in terrorist and criminal activities notwithstanding the ban of certain parts of the group. The only remaining question is what Europe is willing to do about it.”
Jason Isaacson, AJC Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer, said the IRGC designation hopefully clears the way “for other states to adopt a similar approach to this and other Iranian forces and proxies, notably Hezbollah, that threaten peace and stability.”
The Geopolitical Ramifications
Terrorists are not viewed as legitimate players on the international stage, said Aaron Jacob, AJC Director of Diplomatic Affairs. While an FTO designation might not add enough sanctions to weaken a terrorist group’s reach, he said, it does serve to delegitimize them. And the value of that should not be underestimated.
Legitimacy is an important currency in the international community, Jacob said. Just as the IRGC designation casts doubt on the legitimacy of the current Iranian regime, a similar classification for Hezbollah would cast doubt on its so-called political and social activity. And because Hezbollah shares Iran’s agenda of eradicating the Jewish state, a similar label not only would delegitimize terrorism, but antisemitism as well.
“Iran is the greatest existential threat for Israel, now that Israel's relationships with Egypt and Jordan are peaceful, Syria is on the ropes and Lebanon is volatile and divided,” Jacob said. “Anything that weakens the current Iranian regime would be good for Israel.”
But calling out terrorists doesn’t just have an impact on Israel. Hezbollah and the IRGC have murdered civilians around the world. Holding terrorists accountable, whether it’s the Iranian regime or its proxy Hezbollah, sends a message to the rest of the world and puts in place key measures to ensure the U.S. is actively countering threats its safety and that of its allies.