Why Trump’s Iran Terror Designation is a Game Changer

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awards IRGC Navy commanders for abducting US sailors (Image credit: Khamenei.ir [CC BY 4.0])

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei awards IRGC Navy commanders for abducting US sailors (Image credit: Khamenei.ir [CC BY 4.0])

U.S. President Donald Trump's designation of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization is the first move in extending the concept of “terrorism” to a state actor — an actor that owns a remarkable share not only in Iranian foreign and security policy but also in its economy.

This move could have severe security and foreign policy implications for Iran, since Iran has embarked upon structuring a tacit security regime in the Middle East by means of the IRGC, with its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the Chief Commander of this entity as per section 5 (e) of Article 110 of the Iranian Constitution.

Iran began to introduce IRGC into the region in the early 2000s after the Iranian Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) assigned IRGC full authority to engage in the security and military issues in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2010, this order was further extended to cover the same involvement in Syria and Yemen. However, the full authority and capacity of IRGC is not limited only to these regions, and this entity can exercise its authority — in terms of military and security involvement — in every state that shares the same Islamic and revolutionary values and principles. The IRGC is thus absolutely a state actor, deploying state budget and state equipment to exercise its influence in the region via the following means:

  • Military support of its allies by deploying military aircraft cruise and ballistic missiles, anti-tank missiles, drones, cyber security support, missile boats, anti-ship missiles, naval mines, and conventional warfare

  • Intelligence information support for its allies through covert collection of information using technical human resources, counter-intelligence operations, providing analyses of overt and covert information, and delivering technical intelligence equipment

  • Training and military and financial support for its allies through international financial mechanisms, developing informal financial activities, transfering goods and equipment, and providing the infrastructure to transport those goods and equipment in formal and informal ways

  • Creating diplomatic coverage for certain actions of its allies in the region

  • Exploiting a common ideology and discourse of Islamic Shia to convince and provoke its allies

  • Providing human resources for the military actions of its allies in the region — it has been stated that IRGC exploits 20,000 Iraqi and Hezbollah forces, 20,000 Afghan forces, and even a remarkable number of Pakistani forces

The formation of IRGC was not only a response to the transformations of the region in the early 2000s by expanding Iran's scope of activities and IRGC involvement and cooperation with the Syrian government, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Al-Hashd-al-Shaabi, Yemenite Houthi militia, the Saberin Movement, the Islamic Jihad Movement, and the Palestinian Hamas. It was also an attempt to form a Tacit Security Regime in the Middle East in order to secure Iran's survival and then to secure its constitutional goal of developing an Islamic state, which in turn is tied up in the existence of its allies — the so-called Axis of Resistance.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has several times emphasized the IRGC’s military intervention in the region’s conflicts, including the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah Second Lebanon War and the Gaza War in 2008-09 (Operation Cast Lead). Mohammad Ali Jafari, Commander-in-chief of the IRGC, defended their presence in Syria by calling it a necessity to support Islamic resistance and prevent security threats to Iran's national territory. In addition, the constant presence of Commander of Iran's foreign operations Quds Force Maj. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, as well as air cargos being sent to Syria and Yemen, all indicate the formation of a tacit regime by Iran in the region.

Iran, believing that there must be no transregional power in the region since it would destabilize the regional players,has provided a road map for handling security deals in the region. In this regard, IRGC is a representative of Iran endowed with full authority as well as all means of exercising its power with Khamenei as the major decision-maker over its policies. For Iran, IRGC is a means to change the balance of power to favor Iran’s strategic interest — even if it costs renunciation of national interests — leading to more conflicts and securitization of interests in the Middle East.

Trump’s decision to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group can be considered a decision based on realpolitik aiming at balancing an unbalanced regional order. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made it clear that there is no articulation of a conventional concept of national interest in its foreign policy showing in practice the lines of inalterability in its interventions through the region. The same is also evident in the rhetoric of its foreign policy which is based on establishing an Islamic theocracy and a single Shiite Muslim Community, according to Article 11 of the Iranian Constitution.

The decision to consider the IRGC as a terrorist organization is not only a decisive act of politics, but it is also a good deed in the efforts to conceptualize the basic ideas of human rights in the turbulent region of Middle East. It conveys a message to the IRGC that their gross violations of human rights will not be tolerated.

In Iran, this decision can force a paradigm shift in foreign policy because the Reformists will be forced to show their true colors and stand by the hardliners to defend their ideologies. The first reactions from Iranian reformist parliamentarians and politicians was to consider themselves, first and foremost, loyal to IRGC objectives. This will apparently bring an end to negotiations with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization that fights money laundering and terrorist financing.

The FATF negotiations with Iran are only the head start to implementing a more aggressive and securitized foreign policy. The European Union and other countries must stand by this terrorist designation in order to help bring peace and security to the region. They should keep in mind that fighting terrorism requires practical actions based on realpolitik.

Samireh Ahmadi was born in Kurdistan and educated in Iran and Germany, receiving master’s degrees in International Relations - British Studies from the University of Tehran and in European and European Legal Studies from the University of Hamburg.

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