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Is military conflict on the horizon? U.S designates Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization

By Younes Zangiabadi

On April 8th, the Trump administration formally announced its plan to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. This is the first time that the United States designates an official branch of the armed forces of a foreign government as a terrorist group. The move has long been advocated by Iran hawks, such as the White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, to roll back Iran’s influence in the region and pressure the IRGC to stop its support for militia groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. After the announcement by Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote on Twitter thanking President Trump, “Once Again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism.”

Iran’s retaliation was quick. Only hours after Pompeo’s announcement, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif released a statement addressed to President Hassan Rouhani, who also heads the Iranian National Security Council, requesting the council to designate the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), U.S military unit responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia, to be placed on Iran’s list of terrorist entities. The request was immediately approved and adopted by the council. Before US decision was announced, the head of the IRGC Mohammad Ali Jafari warned that “the U.S will no longer have calm in west Asia if it decides to designate the Guards as a terrorist organization.”

Similar warnings have been made by senior Iranian parliamentarians. Heshmatollah Falahat Pisheh, Chairman of the Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, who said that “Iran will retaliate by designating the US army as a terrorist group in the next few hours.”

It’s yet to be seen whether any other country will join the US in designating the IRGC. Previously the European officials have warned against such measures saying that such measures will only escalate tensions in an already volatile region. However, Canada’s House of Commons voted in June of 2018 for a motion proposed by the Conservatives calling on the government to list the IRGC as a foreign terrorist entity under the Canadian Criminal Code. Since that motion was passed in 2018, the Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale has confirmed that various options are being considered before formally implementing this in practice.

The special extraterritorial operation branch of the IRGC Quds Force is currently listed as a terrorist organization in both Canada and the US. However, many experts believe that listing the entire military apparatus as a terrorist entity will have serious legal, technical, and security challenges on both regional and international levels.

Reza Nasri, international law expert from Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies believes that such designation would have serious international ramifications on the legal regime governing the laws of war; It would have unintended consequences that may seriously jeopardize regional efforts to fight terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and affiliates.” It’s reported that the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies share similar concerns.

Furthermore, the diplomatic engagements in the region would be strikingly complicated, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran has close relations with the political parties and Shia militias. The U.S. will be legally obliged not to have contacts with foreign officials who have been in communication with the members of a designated organization, in this case the IRGC.

With both countries now considering each other’s military units as a terrorist entity, the possibility of military confrontation will reach dangerously high. Currently, tens of thousands of U.S. troops are serving in the Middle East with approximately 5,000 operating in Iraq. Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei expressed his disconnect about this situation, urging Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, during his visit to Tehran, to demand U.S troops leave Iraq “as soon as possible”.

Once in effect on April 15th, there will be more economic and travel sanctions on the IRGC. This provides the U.S with more leeway to prosecute any group or individual linked to this branch of Iranian military. “This action will significantly expand the scope and scale of our maximum pressure on the Iranian regime. It makes crystal clear the risks of conducting business with, or providing support to, the IRGC”, Mr. Trump said in a statement.

According to the U.S Department of State, “It’s a crime for a person in the US or subject to the jurisdiction of US to knowingly provide ‘material support or resources’ to or receive military-type training from or on behalf of a designated FTO.” Yet, an Iraqi diplomat who was interviewed under the condition of anonymity for this report said, “we are confused by the generality of the US statement”. He added “The U.S has been in the region long enough to know some of our military organizations, namely Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi has official and public collaborations with IRGC in the fight against the Islamic State…We still don’t know the scope of the sanctions but we are assessing the potential impact that could have on Iraq.”

The U.S has already imposed some of the most comprehensive sanctions on Iran and the IRGC, raising doubts about the effectiveness of the new sanctions associated with designation of the military elite. Richard Nephew, a sanction expert at Columbia University showed his skepticism in a tweet where he wrote. “The practical effect of this form of sanctions pressure perspective are nil given CISADA and IRGC sanctions.”

It is not yet clear what IRGC’s designation exactly mean in legal and technical terms. But what is easy to recognize is that this provocative measure put both countries another step closer to a conflict in an already troubled region.

It is expected that there will be renewed pressure from the Conservatives on the Government of Canada to follow suit. However, the Trudeau government might consider the ramifications of such action on the peace and security in the Middle East as well as the possibility of dragging Canada into a catastrophic military confrontation in the region.


This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.

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