Expert Commentary

Tougher Line on Iran Could ‘Fatally Undermine’ Fight Against ISIS

Tyler Cullis
Attorney Specializing in Sanctions

President Donald Trump’s threatened de-certification of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement is sure to damage not just the deal itself, but the ultimate credibility of the United States. But his reported plan to declare Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group would pose an ever more troubling risk: plunging Iran and the U.S. into open conflict.

Multilateral institutions, international partners, and the U.S.’s own defense and intelligence establishment have determined that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and concluded that maintaining it is in the interests of the United States. – a fact Trump seems to be ignoring.

And the President’s de-certification is being styled as only one prong of the administration’s emerging strategic posture towards Iran. Reports indicate that – in tandem with his de-certification of the nuclear agreement – President Trump intends to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a branch of Iran’s armed forces – a terrorist group.

Such a move would be unprecedented – the first occasion on which the United States has designated a foreign state’s military outfit as a terrorist organization – and would more critically, fatally undermine tactical cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State, as well as risking triggering open confrontation with Iran. Considering the negligible benefits to designating the IRGC a terrorist group, President Trump’s intended move will produce a hollow victory whose ultimate reverberations could pose grave consequences for U.S. security interests in the region.

Successive administrations have debated whether to designate the IRGC a terrorist group. Each has concluded that the balance of equities dictated against any such move. During the Bush administration, U.S. military leaders warned of the perilous consequences for U.S. troops in Iraq, should the U.S. label the Quds Force as terrorists – a concern that remains compelling today.

Instead, the Bush administration imposed the same sanctions on the IRGC but for its role in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  The Obama administration upped the ante and chose even more potent tools to address threats posed by the IRGC–imposing tough extra-territorial sanctions on the IRGC and thus cutting off the group from the global economy. These sanctions were left undisturbed by the recent nuclear agreement with Iran.

Even the Trump administration – to its credit – appeared to have decided against designating the IRGC a terrorist group. Following significant pushback from the Pentagon, the administration’s initial plans to designate the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization (“FTO”) were shelved. Senior defense and intelligence officials had warned the White House of the potential consequences for U.S. personnel stationed in the region should the IRGC be so designated.

The issue was only revisited after Congress passed new sanctions legislation mandating President Trump to impose the same sanctions on the IRGC as those applicable under U.S. law to a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT).

Congress did not mandate the President to designate the IRGC a terrorist group, but rather to merely apply sanctions on the IRGC as if it were designated as such. The distinction is important. In making it, Congress sought to take action against the IRGC without risking the perilous and known consequences of designating the IRGC a terrorist group.

The Trump administration appears to care less, moving down a path that could risk the potential blowback for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. IRGC leadership has warned that it will treat U.S. troops in the same manner as it does the Islamic State if the U.S. designates it a terrorist group.  Considering the close quarters in which IRGC and U.S. forces operate in Iraq and Syria, these should not be seen as idle threats and could explode open a new front in a region-wide war for the United States.

What is so callous is that the Trump administration invites such immense peril for so little gain. By designating the IRGC a terrorist group, the U.S. will impose blocking sanctions on the IRGC so that any property in which the IRGC holds an interest will be “frozen” if it comes within U.S. jurisdiction.

But the IRGC has been subject to these exact same sanctions for at least a decade, as it is designated under at least three separate U.S. sanctions programs. Moreover, the IRGC is already the subject of U.S. extra-territorial sanctions that bar foreign banks and companies from engaging in transactions with it. Designating the IRGC a terrorist group only serves to duplicate existing sanctions targeting the entity and will thus have no practical consequences as a matter of U.S. law. The Trump administration will be certain to do lots of chest-pounding following its designation of the IRGC, but no one should mistake this effective nullity for getting tough with Tehran.

Trump’s de-certification of the Iran nuclear deal will undoubtedly do damage to that agreement and to U.S. prestige, but the rest of the world can plan for any such eventuality and take steps to insulate the agreement from this administration. What the world cannot prepare for, however, is an outbreak of hostilities between the U.S. and Iran if Trump’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group ramps up tensions that quickly spiral out of control. Such are the perils that previous U.S. administrations have long avoided; such are the dangers that the Trump administration has now decided to invite.

The Author is Tyler Cullis

Tyler Cullis is a D.C.-based attorney specializing in the practice of U.S. economic sanctions.  His writings on foreign policy have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and Foreign Affairs, amongst others.

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