Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a research fellow in the Levermore Global Scholars Program at Adelphi University and senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter @jonathancristol. The views expressed are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Monday, President Donald Trump formally designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). This designation will do nothing to limit the IRGC’s malign activities, but it may criminalize the activities of millions of Iranians and foreign tourists – and set a precedent that Washington may come to regret.
According to the White House statement, this is the first time that the US has designated a unit of a foreign government as a “terrorist organization.” In response, Tehran has already designated US Central Command as a terrorist organization. And it’s not hard to imagine other adversarial governments designating American individuals or military units as “terrorists” for political reasons.
For background, shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini established the IRGC as a parallel military to Iran’s “regular” military. The existing military could not be dismantled, both because putting over 400,000 armed Iranians out of work was clearly a bad idea, and because the old guard knew how to operate advanced American and European military equipment.
So, Khomeini created a new military, with its own army, navy and air force – and a distinct set of responsibilities. This parallel military would be loyal to the Islamic Government, rather than to the Iranian people.
Over time, according to a Congressional Research Service report, the IRGC permeated Iran’s economy. It now owns businesses ranging from construction firms to shipping companies to shopping malls and bazaars, some of which are already subject to US sanctions. In 2017, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo estimated that the IRGC might control 20% of Iran’s GDP, but the actual number is unknown.
Inside Iran, it is difficult to avoid doing business with the IRGC, IRGC-controlled or IRGC-linked entities. The White House’s Monday statement says that, “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.” Does this apply to a produce vendor who rents his stall from an IRGC-linked bonyad (a cross between a charitable foundation and a private equity fund)? What about the vendors’ customers, who might be Iranian locals or foreign tourists? Are all visitors to Iran now responsible for determining the precise ownership of every hotel, restaurant and store that they patronize?
The designation of the IRGC as an FTO will also do little to reverse Iran’s influence in Iraq. But it will make life more difficult for American forces and diplomats in Iraq, which is why many inside the State Department and Defense Department have opposed this decision.
And while the United States may not work directly with Iran in Iraq, the two states have a shared interest in ensuring that ISIS does not reemerge and that other radical groups do not gain a foothold. Even if the United States has accounted for this necessity in how it intends to use this designation, if Iraqis need to choose between doing business with the United States, or doing business with Iran – and risk the US accusing them of “material support for terrorism” – they may well decide to maintain a good relationship with the regional power that isn’t going anywhere, rather than with a Washington that seems eager to withdraw from the region.
Moreover, Shia militias trained by and connected to the IRGC are now being integrated into, and paid by, the Iraqi government. IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassam Soleimani is a frequent visitor to Baghdad. In short, the Iraqi government officials have little choice but to work with the IRGC.
Of course, it’s critical to acknowledge that the Iranian government uses the IRGC to spearhead its most malign actions across the Middle East. Thus far, the IRGC has helped to establish and support Hezbollah in Lebanon. It aids Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It fights on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and supports the Houthis in Yemen. And it is responsible for the deaths of dozens of American soldiers in Iraq. At home, its Basij militia attempts to violently suppress protests, and its businesses and entities distort the local economy.
The United States does need to counter the IRGC – and it has already acted appropriately by sanctioning dozens of individuals and entities connected to, or part of, the IRGC. Sanctions allow the US to target those individuals and entities directly responsible for actions to which we object – and while they impact the broader population, they do not make them susceptible to criminal charges.
And if the Trump administration thinks that it is easy to avoid dealing with the IRGC, I’d suggest it ask the Trump Organization, which, according to the New Yorker, worked with an IRGC-linked family on a building in Azerbaijan. The building suffered major damage in an April 2018 fire, and the story was quickly overtaken by the myriad other Trump administration controversies.
Maybe now the House of Representatives can, in the spirit of Monday’s designation, investigate American firms that may knowingly have done business with the IRGC – starting with the Trump Organization.