Trump offers clarity on Iran's terrorist aims
For more than 30 years, successive US administrations have called Iran what it is: a state sponsor of terrorism. Leaders of its military and intelligence agencies have been sanctioned, while the terror groups Iran supports have faced military action as well as sanctions.
Until now, however, the main organisation responsible for founding, funding and training many of these groups has not been placed in the same category as its clients like Hezbollah. On Monday, President Donald Trump upended that precedent and designated Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as the IRGC, as a foreign terrorist organisation.
This is a dramatic escalation with real consequences. There is a difference between saying a state is a sponsor of terrorism and calling an arm of a state an actual terrorist organisation. The designation will make the IRGC even more financially toxic than it already is, says Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The threshold is now lower for proving someone is giving material support to the IRGC. The designation also makes non-Iranians who wittingly or unwittingly do business with the IRGC vulnerable to having their US visas revoked. This is an even more powerful disincentive for Europeans to invest in Iran, says Mr Dubowitz, because the IRGC's tentacles reach into most of Iran's economy.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the IRGC, and particularly its elite Quds Force, have been devoted to spreading that revolution abroad. Despite the efforts of past US administrations, Iran has never ended its support for terrorist groups. Indeed, following the completion of talks over Iran's nuclear programme in 2015, the IRGC became even more aggressive in supporting terrorist proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
All that said, there are two basic objections to this move. The first is that this designation may provoke Iran to target US forces. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, obliquely made this point in testimony to Congress in January. "We assess that unprofessional interactions conducted by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy against US ships in the Persian Gulf, which have been less frequent during the past year, could resume should Iran seek to project an image of strength in response to US pressure," he said. The New York Times reports similar worries among other top military and intelligence officials.
Make no mistake: These threats are real. Already, Iranian government officials have promised a response to the designation. The mistake is thinking that pressure alone is provocative to Tehran. So are entreaties. In the days leading up to the final implementation of the nuclear deal in 2016, for example, the IRGC briefly took US sailors hostage and released a humiliating video of the incident.
The second objection is the designation further undermines the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. A progressive group chaired by alumni of the Obama administration made this point in a Twitter thread on Monday. They say it's an effort to deter investment in Iran and possibly provoke the Iranians into breaking the deal's limits on uranium enrichment, with which they have largely abided since Mr Trump vacated the deal nearly a year ago.
Some see this objection as a point in Mr Trump's favour. "It makes it much more difficult for a Democratic president to go back into the Iran deal in 2021," says Mr Dubowitz, who favours the designation. Any future administration would have to make a determination that the IRGC was out of the terrorism business.
Determining that the IRGC is no longer engaged in terrorism is about as likely as determining that the IRS is no longer engaged in collecting taxes. It's in the organisation's nature. This is why Mr Trump's statement said the designation "underscores the fact that Iran's actions are fundamentally different from those of other governments".
This is a point that the narrow nuclear agreement, by dealing only with Iran's nuclear programme and not its support for terrorism, tried to evade. Now the US government has formally recognised that a key part of Iran's military is legally indistinguishable from the terrorist groups it has been sponsoring for decades. Mr Trump's strategy, unlike his predecessor's, begins with the premise that Iran is an outlaw state -- and treats it as such until it changes its behaviour. ©2019 BLOOMBERG OPINION
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
Bloomberg View columnist
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about politics and foreign affairs.