The Trump administration on Monday announced it had labeled the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — Iran’s hugely influential security and military organization responsible for the protection and survival of the regime — as a “foreign terrorist organization.”
That will make it illegal for any American or person in the US to provide IRGC members “material support or resources” — a very broad definition that can mean almost anything — and anyone with connections to the group will be denied visas to visit the US or have their current ones revoked.
It’s the first time the United States has ever designated part of a foreign government in this way, and it has the potential to hurt Iran’s economy and complicate America’s Middle East policy.
In a statement, President Donald Trump said “this action sends a clear message to Tehran that its support for terrorism has serious consequences.”
This is a big deal, as the IRGC isn’t just any military organization. It has its hands deep in Iran’s economy, domestic politics, and foreign policy, aiding regimes and funding proxy groups in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East. It views itself as the only organization in Iran that can truly defend the country’s Islamic system of governance, some experts say.
But some worry the move could ultimately backfire.
The complications of labeling the IRGC as terrorists
According to officials I spoke to, Iran hawks in the Trump administration argued that labeling the IRGC a terrorist organization would increase the administration’s maximum-pressure campaign on Tehran, which is aimed at curbing Iran’s activities in the region and weakening the firm grip the country’s leadership has on the reins of power.
Iran is already designed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, but a State Department official I spoke to said that in recent meetings, US officials spoke openly about “really getting to” Iran’s government and “driving [it] crazy.” This move aimed to do just that.
But the Trump administration’s decision was controversial within the US government, including among some Republicans, according to multiple senior US officials and congressional aides I spoke to.
One reason they’re skeptical is that the US already has substantial sanctions on Iran and individual members of the IRGC. It’s unclear if the terrorist designation will add enough additional pressure to really make much of a difference, especially because few actually do business with the group now. “Only the incorrigibles are prepared to do so, and there aren’t even all that many of them,” Richard Nephew, a sanctions and Iran expert at Columbia University, told me.
Skeptics also worry it will complicate US policy in Iraq, where the IRGC has close ties to militias and politicians that the US also works with, and in Lebanon, where the group has close ties to Hezbollah, the terrorist organization that forms part of the government the US must talk to.
It’ll also make bringing an end to the war in Yemen that much harder, as the IRGC provides material support to the Houthi rebels. Labeling the IRGC a terrorist organization will thus make it more difficult for the US to work with the Houthis to end the conflict.
These and other concerns delayed the Trump administration’s announcement on the foreign terrorist designation, a State Department official told me, but ultimately the Iran hawks won out.
What happens next
The worry now is that the IRGC will retaliate against the roughly 5,000 US troops in Iraq and around 2,000 in Syria. Iran already threatened their safety if the group was named a terrorist organization.
There’s also a chance Iran will label the US military a terrorist group, which means Tehran may attack US forces without regard for international law governing conflict between the armed forces of nations.
“If the Americans take such a stubborn measure and endanger our national security we will put in place countermeasures in line with the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC chief, said on Sunday.
Put together, this is a risky move that shows just how much the Trump administration wants to counter Iran — consequences be damned.