President Donald Trump has levied a terrorism designation against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in its entirety pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13224. Leading up to last Friday’s designation, the IRGC and the Islamic Republic threatened the US over the move; one senior Iranian official called it a “declaration of war.” Since the designation, officials have dialed down the rhetoric, but have continued attacking the American president – particularly over his use of “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf” and threat to abandon the 2015 nuclear accord – and have sought to project a unified position.
The US has previously designated the IRGC under various authorities such as proliferation, human rights and anti-terrorism, but the Iranian government’s rhetoric over the latest potential move is unprecedented. Despite the threats of attacks, however, the IRGC is unlikely to launch attacks against US forces that would elicit a direct response, though it could respond through asymmetric means such as militias (on display in Iraq’s Kirkuk).
A decade ago, the US sanctioned the IRGC’s exterritorial branch, the Qods Force, for terrorism pursuant to E.O. 13224 for its role in providing material support to terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Iraqi-Shiite militias. Despite that designation, however, the US has worked both directly and indirectly with the Qods Force in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Per the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which passed in August, the US president was to by Oct. 30 designate the IRGC as a whole pursuant to E.O. 13224, or justify to Congress why a waiver is in America’s vital national security interest [see FDD’s Long War Journal report, US to designate the IRGC, affiliates as terrorists]. He levied the sanctions as he decertified that the 2015 nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is approrproiate and proportation to US national security interests per the Iran Nuclear Review Act, and threatened to terminate the agreement if its major flaws were not fixed.
In the weeks leading to the IRGC designation, Iranian officials threatened the US. They issued threats earlier in the summer when the US was deliberating CAATSA. Last week, Iran’s nuclear agency chief said his government would treat the move as a “declaration of war.” The Qods Force deputy commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani said “any nonsensical word they say will harm them, and the Islamic system will confront with them strength,” adding, “Trump must know that we sent many arrogant like him to the grave.”
The IRGC chief commander Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari proclaimed, “if the report about America’s idiocy over considering the IRGC as a terrorist group is correct, the corps will consider the American army within the same category as DAESH [the Islamic State] across the globe especially in the Middle East.” He threatened US bases within a 2,000-kilometer radius of Iran and he said if the US wants to negotiate with Tehran over the region, “the Islamic Republic seeks to resolve regional issues in areas outside of the negotiations table, there is nothing or no one to negotiate over.”
Interestingly, Jafari also said that the US designation would forever shut the door to “dialogue.” That statement should be taken with a grain of salt. The IRGC has consistently rejected ties with the US and pursues a strategy to drive the US out of the Middle East and undermines its interests worldwide. The IRGC has long used the pretext of America as “the enemy” to expand its activities abroad and stifle dissent at home. The IRGC’s alignment with the US against the Islamic State in Iraq is a temporary confluence of interest because US air power has proven critical in the war. The IRGC’s challenging of US presence in eastern Syria this past summer and the threats of IRGC-led Iraqi militias against US presence following the Islamic State’s defeat highlights that point.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has defended the IRGC claiming that it is not merely “a military organization” but it is in “the hearts of the people.” The IRGC has likewise said it is united with the administration. Those comments contrast sharply with the intense bickering during this past year’s presidential election, when the IRGC mobilized support to foil Rouhani’s re-election and Rouhani criticized the IRGC’s meddling on live television. While their rivalries go back to the Iran-Iraq War, they are both creatures of, and committed to, the same system. Iranian government officials and factions can be at other’s throats while displaying unity in the face of mutually perceived foreign threats.
Iran’s foreign minister has echoed Jafari’s statement that the IRGC would treat the US as they treat the Islamic State. The ministry spokesman warned Iran’s reaction to a US designation would be “firm, decisive and crushing.”
Iran’s national security and foreign policy committee issued a resolution vowing to support the IRGC’s “right to confront them [the US] the same way it deals with terrorist groups.”
The IRGC political deputy Brigadier General Rasoul Sanaei-Rad claimed the US move stems from “back-to-back defeat in the region and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s rising power,” and that the US move “has created a sort of unity inside the country in defending the corps.”
The Armed Forces General Staff chief spokesman said the Trump administration “needs shocks to understand the new meaning of power in today’s world,” claiming “the era of America’s presence and dominance in west Asia has ended.”
Following the designation and Trump’s speech, Iranian officials tampered their rhetoric but attacked the US president. In a televised address, Rouhani tried to stir nationalist sentiment by slamming Trump for saying Arabian instead of Persian Gulf, and again defended the IRGC. The US president’s use of the phrase dominated Iranians’ conversations on social media.
Unofficial Khamenei mouthpiece Kayhan tried to spin a win for the IRGC, claiming Trump backtracked from labeling the IRGC under the Foreign Terrorist Organization authority, while, despite erroneous media reports, American law required the president to designate the IRGC as a terrorist entity per E.O. 13224.
IRGC commanders and figures have vowed to continue their ballistic missile program, which Trump says he seeks to curtail. Kayhan‘s chief editor even called for unveiling intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Figures sought to portray Trump as hostile to the Iranian people, a component of their efforts to paint the interests of the IRGC as the same with Iran’s national’s interest, which has been a contentious issue. The IRGC and Islamic Republic officials claimed Trump’s speech has served their interests in unifying the polity and the people, though they clearly gloss over the fact that many Iranians fear the IRGC because of its role in repression.