Could Trump’s Hardline on Iran Do More Harm than Good?

Picture of Ayatollah Khomeini in Qom, Iran
Photo: John Moore/Iran

The White House is expected to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group as part of the White House’s tough new tact on Tehran, according to multiple news reports—but experts say doing so could worsen regional conflicts.

This week, President Donald Trump will announce the designation as part of a broader strategy targeting Iran, the Financial Times reported. The decision is likely to come along with the president’s much-anticipated decertification of the Iran nuclear deal, an agreement Trump will say is not in the national security interests of the U.S. However, the president will not recommend Congress re-impose sanctions immediately — a move that would effectively scuttle the deal.

Tehran has received some sanctions relief, pouring tens of billions of dollars into its economy, in exchange for implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and placing curbs on its nuclear program. The U.S. Treasury had previously designated the IRGC’s Quds Force, its external operations arm, in 2007 for its “support of terrorism,” calling it Iran’s “primary arm for executing its policy of supporting terrorist and insurgent groups.”

By designating the IRGC as a terrorist group, the U.S. would be targeting Iran for its destabilizing role in the region, taking aim at the revolutionary government’s support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen and its Iraqi Shiite proxies. With this move, the Trump administration wants to highlight Iran’s active role in fomenting instability across the region.

“That’s their main concern — Iran’s ambitions in the region, fueled by the additional money they receive and legitimacy that the JCPOA gave them. It has only renewed their confidence to pursue their strategic goals,” said retired four-star General and former Vice Chief of Army Staff Jack Keane.

The designation of the entire group as a terrorist entity will reverberate through the Iranian government. Charged with preserving the Islamic Revolution, the IRGC is a significant force in Iran’s domestic politics, military, economy, and foreign affairs. The Quds Force conducts the IRGC’s extraterritorial operations and provides weapons, personnel, training, and logistical support to an array of groups in order to protect and project Tehran’s influence, as well as counter what it sees as key threats to its power and ambitions such as the U.S.’s presence in the Middle East.

Part of the White House’s focus on cracking down on Iran’s malign activities also means increased attention on Hezbollah. Calling it a terrorist organization that is “rotten to its core,” the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism Nathan Sales said Tuesday that countering Hezbollah is a top priority for the Trump administration. He announced new rewards for two Hezbollah leaders, Talal Hamiyah and Fu’ad Shukr, and pointedly called out Iran’s connection with the group.

Hezbollah has not developed its military and terrorist capabilities on its own, Sales said.

“It has become the global threat it is today for one reason: Tehran’s deep and abiding assistance,” he told reporters. “The Iranian regime has built and bankrolled Hezbollah to foment instability throughout the region and across the world.”

Foundation for Defense of Democracies Research Fellow Tony Badran and Research Associate Amir Toumaj argue in The Cipher Brief that Hezbollah is more than a mere proxy of Iran.

“Hezbollah – like the IRGC-Quds Force – is an integral component of the Islamic Republic’s command structure,” they write.

The decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization would add onto previously imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the group. In July, the Treasury Department targeted 18 entities and individuals for “engaging in support of illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity.” Those included activities backing Iran’s military and IRGC as well as organizations involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program.

And in August, Trump signed bipartisan sanctions legislation on Russia, North Korea, and Iran that gave an Oct. 31 deadline for Trump to either impose sanctions with respect to the IRGC and foreign persons that are officials, agents, or affiliates of the IRGC or to sign a waiver, which he is not expected to do.

Iran has said it would give a “crushing” response if the Trump designates the IRGC as a terrorist organization.

“If they do, Iran’s reaction would be firm, decisive and crushing and the United States should bear all its consequences,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said, according to state news agency IRNA.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the IRGC, said on Sunday that if the report is correct “about the stupidity of the American government” then “the Revolutionary Guards will consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world.”

Tyler Cullis, a Washington based attorney specializing in U.S. economic sanctions, writes that designating the IRGC a terrorist group will have little impact on the group and serves instead as a “chest-pounding” exercise by the Trump administration. It “only serves to duplicate existing sanctions targeting the entity and will thus have no practical consequences as a matter of U.S. law,” he argues.

“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,” Cullis says.

The White House’s moves concerning Iran reflect its decision to try to hold Iran accountable for its aggressive behavior and their use of proxies in the region, Keane said. Whatever Trump announces — from the anticipated decertification to the designation of the IRGC to the possibility of further targeted sanctions — will be part of a broader, more hardline strategy against Tehran, Keane said.

“We should likely expect the president to decertify, and as a part of that, announce the current policy of dealing with Iran specifically and address the JCPOA as a part of that strategy. For them not to certify without a comprehensive explanation is unlikely. They’ve been driving toward this next certification period and wrapping up the Iranian review so that they could get the president to make a decision,” he said.

Trump’s anticipated announcement on the nuclear agreement this week — driven by a U.S. law that requires the administration to notify Congress every 90 days about whether Iran is living up to the deal — opens up several possible scenarios. Members of Congress could introduce legislation to re-impose sanctions or to try to re-work the agreement, the administration might focus on supplementing or reworking the accord in partnership with European allies, or the pact could ultimately unravel if the U.S. withdraws.

The multilateral agreement was reached in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 countries — the U.S., the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany — and the other signatories have urged the White House to stay with it. Trump, meanwhile, has dubbed it the “worst deal ever.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said several times that Iran remains in compliance with the deal. Although the Trump administration has previously certified Iran was technically in compliance, the White House has said Tehran was “unquestionably in default of the spirit” of the deal.

The Brookings Institute’s Suzanne Maloney told The Cipher Brief that decertification “only confirms Iran’s deep-seated distrust of American intentions and will almost certainly encourage and expedite the inevitable process of Iranian testing of the boundaries of its own adherence to the JCPOA.”

“Add to that the impact of the administration’s broader efforts to push back on Iran’s expanded influence and reach across the region, which will likely provoke retaliatory impulses among the Iranian leadership. In other words, we can expect intensified frictions across the board with Iran, that may play out in unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable fashion,” she said.

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

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