Donald Trump Names Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a Foreign Terrorist Organisation

Yazar: Yrd. Doç. Dr. Assel Tutumlu  – 7 Mayıs 2019

On 8 March 2019 US President Trump proposed to formally designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisation’. The move is unprecedented, because for the first time US accused a government institution of another state as a terrorist organisation. In return, the Iranian government used the principle of reciprocity and declared the US Central Command forces and American military bases in the Middle East as part of a terrorist organisation. The designation came into effect on 16 April and now allows the United States to “seek criminal penalties against elements of the military agency and foreign officials deemed to be aiding it, as well as allowing Washington to ban travel to the United States for individuals associated with the unit.” In return, the reciprocal ban by Iran of the US forces ensure that the US army personnel working in the region will not be spared from the attacks by Iranian government in case both forces come into open confrontation.

So why did President Trump adopt such foreign policy and what are the likely repercussions?
Formally, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State justified the move by the fact the IRGC has killed over 600 US soldiers in Iraq and only has a legitimate cover for its global terrorist activities. However, this explanation does not tell us why Trump needed to pick IRGC when the US Government has already designated Iran as a state that supports terrorism and a terrorist state. The difference between the two designations being that Iran not only supports rebel terrorist groups outside its sovereign border, but also that it terrorises its own people and as a result, is a terrorist state. Both designations carry mainly economic implications, such as arms embargo, termination of economic assistance and financial limitations. By putting an army unit of another country on the terrorist list, the US escalates the tensions since now US forces must open fire on members of IRGC, which would be interpreted as an act of war in case the two armies meet. The designation also went against the advice of the US military and international diplomatic community, which viewed it as a violation of Iranian sovereignty.

There are, however, several arguments in support of such designation. First, the Iranian involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen is akin to a proxy war, where rather than fighting directly Tehran supports the pro-Iranian forces in the region with military aid, training, weapons, personnel, ammunition and keeps the conflict alive. Particularly, the IRGC has been supplying weapons to Hezbollah fighters operating in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the IRGC is not a regular army unit. Created to defend ideals of the 1979 revolution in Iran, it is tasked to spread the sovereignty of God’s law. In practice, it is an army unit made to protect the clerics and stifle any attempt at changing the political regime in Iran. It is directly responsible to the Supreme Leader of the country and not to the secular authority of the publically elected president. The Iranian government has its own army unit called Artesh or the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It consists of conventional forces and carries out a direct task of defense and protection of state sovereignty. The US government only designated one part of the Iranian government, which is highly ideological, militant and aggressive in its policies in the region.

Nonetheless, such accusations are somewhat disingenuous since Trump has a long history of dealing with the Iranian regime and Iranian elites involved in lucrative construction contracts. The New Yorker Magazine published an investigative piece on Trump’s dealings with Mammadov’s family in Azerbaijan which documents how the Trump Tower in Baku was constructed by the Iranian company belonging to Darvishi’s family with direct association to the Revolutionary Guard. Construction firm was paid in cash (often in duffle bags) to avoid fines from the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of the US, which forces American companies to conduct due-diligence and monitor any corruption activities among the partners. The fact that Trump did not collect/did not know that Mammadov’s family is linked with Davishi’s family and Revolutionary Guard is shocking to many observers. In addition, Davidson, the author of the report in the New Yorker cites Trump lambasting against the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, saying “Every other country goes into these places and they do what they have to do […] It’s a horrible law and it should be changed […]” and claiming that If American companies refused to give bribes, “you’ll do business nowhere”. As he continued: “There is one answer—go to your room, close the door, go to sleep, and don’t do any deals, because that’s the only way. The only way you’re going to do it is the other way.”

Regardless of the differences in Trump’s rhetoric and action, many observers claim that the key reason why Trump decided to put the IRGC on a terrorist list is to help his old friend Benjamin Netanyahu win domestic elections in a tight race. Netanyahu ran on the ticket that the US and Israeli cooperation will strengthen Israeli security. Indeed, upon hearing the news Netanyahu tweeted in Hebrew:“Thank you, my dear friend, U.S. President Donald Trump […] for meeting another of my important requests”.

Trump has also been instrumental in supporting Netanyahu’s hard line by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the US Embassy there. Trump went even further and has also recognised Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, which Israel occupied from Syria in 1967. Such statement not only went over Congress, but also against international law leaving observers including his Secretary of State stunned with Pompeo admitting he was unaware of the decision.

Trump’s policies in the region do aim to stifle Iran’s capacity to become a regional player by using lax interpretations of domestic and international law. Anti-Iranian policy is vested in strengthening the strategic cooperation with Israel deemed as the actor who can stop the expansion of militant Iranian operations in the region. However, such tactics undermine long-term American interests and capacity in the Middle East allowing hard-liners take over policy- and decision-making power, leaving many to also wonder who will be next on the list.