On April 8, President Donald Trump and top US officials announced that they would do what previous administrations had considered but ultimately refrained from carrying out: to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The move is unprecedented; the United States has never before recognized an official military arm of a foreign government as a terrorist group. Naturally, critics and supporters alike began staking out claims about what would come next. For proponents of the move, this was an overdue decision that would break the back of the ruling regime in Tehran. For detractors, on the other hand, this represents the latest step in a slow march to war. Not to be upstaged, Iran responded by designating US forces in the Middle East a terrorist group. To better understand what could follow the announcement, it is important to understand what the designation does and does not do.
Foreign Terrorist Organization Authorities and Sanctions
The FTO designation authority is derived from the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended over the years. For FTO designees, the implications include freezing of assets that pass through US jurisdiction, refusal of entrance into the United States, and potential removal from the United States if already in its territory. The law also makes it a crime for any person or entity subject to US jurisdiction to “knowingly provide material support or resources” to an FTO or its members.
If the sanctions set forth by the FTO designation sound familiar, it is because they are very similar to provisions laid out by Executive Order 13224 (EO 13224). This order invokes the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and allows the State or Treasury Departments to label a foreign person or entity a “specially designated global terrorist” (SDGT). With this designation come the following sanctions: a freezing of assets, restricted travel to the United States, and a prohibition on transactions with SDGTs by US citizens or by individuals within the United States.
This is important to note because the IRGC has been designated as an SDGT under EO 13224 since 2017, so it and its members have essentially been subject to FTO sanctions, just under different authorities. Furthermore, the Quds Force branch of the IRGC, the Basij Resistance Force, and the full IRGC itself have all been targeted by miscellaneous sanctions regimes over the years. In short, it is difficult to see what additional financial stress the latest designation will cost the ruling regime in Iran.
Reactions to the Decision
Analysts, politicos, and security officials in Washington and Iran have opined on the real implications of the decision. For those who support the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and want to see the Islamic Republic brought to its knees, this was a necessary step and a way to stigmatize the IRGC. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top State Department officials Brian Hook and Nathan Sales spoke for nearly half an hour to announce the decision; the trio spoke with great force about how this designation would rally the international community and demoralize the IRGC as a pariah institution. Indeed, supporters of the decision were elated by the news with a number of prominent Republicans voicing their support (see here, here, here, and here) and calling for further action.
Others, however, sounded the alarm, warning that the FTO designation is a precursor to an all-out military conflict with Iran. Some—like military and intelligence officials, for example—were less alarmist but nevertheless expressed concerns about the potential for retaliation in the arenas in which the IRGC and US personnel are in close proximity.
As of now, it is simply too early to confidently outline the results of the Trump Administration’s decision. The administration has not detailed clearly enough how it plans to implement the designation, which formally goes into effect April 15. Furthermore, Iran’s reaction will go a long way toward determining the wisdom of the decision and, as of its early postures, it seems like the administration actually helped unify a somewhat fractious Iranian elite class in solidarity with the IRGC.
The decision does open up a Pandora’s box of possibilities, though. Strictly speaking, the IRGC is now considered a terrorist organization, on a par with groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. US policy dictates that FTOs are legitimate targets anywhere they exist, so it is logical to assume that this policy could lead to covert targeting of IRGC personnel (overt military force would still need to be authorized by Congress). The anti-Iran hawks in Washington who pushed for the designation likely will not be content with the decision unless it is enforced to the fullest extent possible; this ultimately elevates the potential for conflict throughout the Middle East. Ironically, there are questions about whether US personnel who, say, coordinate with IRGC personnel in places like Iraq or Afghanistan would now be breaking the law.
How the administration enforces the law will also have major implications for partners in countries like Lebanon, Qatar, Iraq, Syria, and to some extent, Yemen. Security partners in any one of these countries will likely be confused regarding the US posture since Washington routinely depends on actors in all of these arenas to cooperate with Iranians, many of whom will be swept up in this IRGC designation. That is to say nothing of Iran’s partners that provide humanitarian assistance, like Kuwait. Now, however, such cooperation is akin to helping a terrorist group like IS. Some of these states, mainly Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, could also serve as the staging grounds for any kind of retaliatory actions by the IRGC against the United States or its allies—actions that could easily escalate if Tehran and Washington have no de-escalation channels as a result of this decision.
The expectation is that the administration will clarify its position on enforcing the FTO designation once it becomes official next week. As for the implications of the move, it is clear now that the heated rhetoric and posturing in both Tehran and Washington only widen the gulf between the parties and further reduce any chance of fruitful negotiations under this administration. Brian Hook’s hopes for reconciliation are likely decimated now that an important sector of Iranian society is considered a terrorist equal to IS and al-Qaeda.
Also Happening This Week in Washington
War Powers Resolution. On April 3, the House voted 247-175 to adopt S.J. Res. 7, calling on the administration to withdraw US troops from hostilities in Yemen. A rundown of floor activity for the vote can be found here.
Limit the Use of Funds for Kinetic Military Operations on or Against Iran. On April 4, Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) introduced S. 1039 to invoke the “power of the purse” to prevent the Trump Administration from funding any military actions in or against Iran.
Additional Sanctions on Iran, IRGC. On April 8, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) introduced a bill to levy more sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, and additional sanctions on the IRGC.
Prevent Violence and Global Fragility. On the same day, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York) introduced H.R. 2116 in an effort to equip the US government with the appropriate tools to stabilize conflict-affected countries and prevent global fragility, like in the case of Syria. The House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) later ushered the bill through committee.
Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East. On April 10, a group of Republican representatives announced that they would use a procedural maneuver to circumvent the HFAC and discharge H.R. 336to the floor for consideration. Since S. 1, the Senate counterpart to H.R. 336, passed the upper chamber, House leadership has held both versions of the bill for fear of splintering the majority. Democrats are torn because of an anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) provision that many see as antithetical to the First Amendment of the Constitution
2) Hearings and Briefings
Assessing US Policy Priorities in the Middle East. On April 3, the House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing to try and ascertain its role in establishing US policy priorities in the region. Largely, all of the witnesses agreed that Congress must use its oversight role to investigate the true aims and meaning of the administration’s policies toward Iran. This ad hoc policy strategy, as one witness described it, will leave the region worse off in the long term.
Pompeo, Green Talk Budgets with Lawmakers. On April 9, Secretary of State Pompeo appeared before the Senate Appropriation subcommittee that oversees the State Department to discuss the fiscal year 2020 budget. That same day, the director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Mark Green, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about his agency’s budget. For Pompeo’s part, his appearance diverted the discussion to a broader assessment of US foreign policy, including in the Middle East and North Africa, because senators told him from the outset that the president’s State Department budget request, which cuts funds by nearly 25 percent, is dead on arrival. Some members of the committee also took him to task over US policy toward Egypt.
Congress Exposed to Competing Events on Egypt. Before Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi arrived in Washington on April 8, three groups held competing events to sway the opinions of lawmakers and their staffs about Sisi and his government. First, the US Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) held its fifth annual advocacy day and met with more than 250 members of Congress and staffers. Groups under the USCMO umbrella spoke out against President Sisi. After that, a group called American Pulse, considered a pro-Sisi outfit, held an event in one of the House office buildings and staffers were given a pro-Sisi, anti-Muslim Brotherhood, and anti-Qatar presentation.
Lastly, the Project on Middle East Democracy along with nearly a dozen human rights advocacy groups held an event outlining the Egyptian president’s visit to Washington and the ways it is intended to give cover for his efforts to entrench himself as ruler of Egypt.
3) Personnel and Correspondence
Bipartisan, Bicameral Group of Lawmakers Write in Support of Syria Withdrawal. On April 3, a bipartisan group of House and Senate members, led by Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California), wrote to President Trump urging him to follow through on his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
Key Senators Vow to Block F-35s for Turkey. On April 9, the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Armed Services Committees penned an article for the New York Times vowing to sanction Turkey if it follows through with plans to accept delivery of a Russian missile defense system. More developments were noted in last week’s report. This was not the only issue irking Congress about Turkey this week, as two senators also introduced legislation to sanction Ankara for detaining US citizens.
17 Senators Ask White House to Raise Concerns with Sisi. On April 8, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to raise concerns with President Sisi about three specific issues: Egypt’s detention of US citizens; its efforts to secure military assistance from Russia; and the gross erosion of political and human rights in the country.
Senators Take Issue with Riyadh Arrests of Two US Citizens; Seek to Free Americans in Iran. This week, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) has been vocal about the plight of US citizens detained and/or arrested in Saudi Arabia and Iran. First, it was announced that Riyadh had swept up two US citizens in a recent crackdown, one of whom lives in Kaine’s state. Additionally, Kaine and Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) wrote a letter to the Trump Administration outlining ways the United States could try and free US citizens detained in Iran.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
President Trump, Secretary Pompeo Meet with President Sisi. On April 8, Secretary Pompeo met with President Sisi while President Trump welcomed the Egyptian leader to the White House the following day. President Trump gave Sisi exactly what he wanted: a photo op, a lot of praise, and legitimacy for Sisi’s (and other authoritarians’) governing strategies.
Trump, MBS Discuss Iran. On April 9, President Trump spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to discuss the pressure campaign against Iran.
2) Department of State
State Department Blacklists 16 Saudis. On April 8, the State Department announced that it would be designating 16 Saudi nationals for their roles in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Administration Officials Meet with Somali Prime Minister. Though Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s visit was the most visible, Somalia’s leader, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, is also in Washington this week and he will meet with State and Treasury Department officials, as well as individuals from the intelligence community.
3) Department of Defense
CENTCOM Withdraws Personnel from Tripoli amid Fighting. After Libyan General Khalifa Haftar ordered his soldiers to march on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, US Central Command ordered a withdrawal of a small contingent of US troops stationed there.
4) Department of Treasury
Mnuchin Meets with Bahraini Interior Minister. On April 9, Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin met with Bahrain’s Interior Minister, General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, to discuss efforts to combat terrorism and illicit finance.