For more than 30 years, U.S. presidents have known that Iran was a state sponsor of terrorism. U.S. officials frequently spoke about how Iran hosted al-Qaida operatives, permitting them to move money and fighters to South Asia and Syria.
Last year, a U.N. Security Council report found that al-Qaida leaders based in Iran “have grown more prominent” in projecting authority and dictating orders to groups in other countries. The United States even imposed sanctions on Iran’s military and intelligence agencies because of its support for terror groups.
Never before, however, has an administration done what President Donald Trump did when he designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). This is the first time that the United States has labeled part of another government as an FTO, and it puts the IRGC into the same category as al-Qaida and ISIS.
According to the White House, this move is intended to “increase the financial pressure and isolation of Iran and deprive the regime of resources it uses for its terrorist activities.”
The IRGC, an official part of the Iranian military, is one of Iran’s three armed forces. It was created after Iran’s 1979 revolution and is charged with protecting the country’s Islamic Republic system by preventing foreign interference or coups from within. The IRGC has about 125,000 members. It consists of ground forces, an air force, naval units, missiles, and drone forces, and reports directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As with organizations such as ISIS, al-Qaida, and Boko Haram, the IRGC has been accused of grave human-rights violations, such as beheading victims, stoning them, burning people alive, hangings, torture, and dismemberment. Furthermore, this treatment has allegedly been meted out to innocent non-combatants without trials, hearings, or any kind of due process. Terrorists seek to instill terror and submission, not provide justice. That’s exactly what the IRGC has done.
The IRGC conducts commercial activity in Iran, controlling about 20 percent of the country’s economy. That’s where the U.S. terrorist designation may hurt the most, because it’s a crime to do business with an FTO-designated organization. Therefore, banks, corporations, and financial institutions will have to be careful if they do business in Iran. Funds can be frozen, individuals can be prosecuted, and immigration restrictions can be placed on anyone who is linked to the IRGC.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said, “If you’re the general counsel for a European financial institution today, there’s more risk.”
Several commentators have argued that the FTO label won’t accomplish much more than the sanctions already in place will do. The Trump administration announced “the highest level of economic sanction” in May 2018, and many Western corporations have already withdrawn from Iran. Inflation and unemployment are skyrocketing, with sanctions compounding the burdens on an economy suffering from mismanagement and corruption. How much worse can it get?
It’s worth noting that the George W. Bush administration designated the IRGC’s elite foreign operations wing, Quds Force, a “specially designated global terrorist” in 2007. Canada. Egypt, and the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain all followed suit. Other nations are also likely to join with the new designation from the Trump administration. On the eve of elections in Israel that led to his unprecedented fifth term, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Trump for his action, as did leaders from Saudi Arabia.
The decision to label the IRGC as an FTO came one year after the Trump administration announced that it was withdrawing from the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran. That was a very controversial move, as was the original agreement, which arguably overlooked Iran’s historic support for terrorism and focused solely on nuclear weapons. However, after completing the negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program in 2015, the IRGC became even more aggressive in supporting terrorist proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. The issue could no longer be ignored.
Trump said the FTO designation “underscores the fact that Iran’s actions are fundamentally different from those of other governments.” His strategy starts with the recognition that Iran is an outlaw state, and a large part of its military is indistinguishable from those terrorist groups that it has been sponsoring for several decades. As such, the United States will treat Iran as a terrorist nation until it changes its behavior.
Unfortunately, Iranian officials responded in a predictable manner, with the Foreign Minister saying that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council would designate Central Command, the overseer of U.S. armed forces in the region, as a “terrorist organization.”
According to NBC News, lawmakers dressed in military uniforms met, chanted “death to America” during an open session of parliament, and passed an emergency bill requesting countries that take U.S troops into custody hand them over to Iran to face trial as terrorists.
This may be simple “tit-for-tat” between the two nations, but what are the implications for soldiers from either nation? The concept of “just warfare” can be traced back to at least the 13th century, and it extends through the Geneva Convention up to today. Among the basic ideas is that a soldier fighting in uniform, under a chain of command, and not hiding among the civilian population, is to be treated with a higher degree of respect than a spy, terrorist, or so-called “illegal” officer.
The idea is that when fighting can’t be avoided, we want to encourage it to be done in a more humane manner. For that reason, those who fight as true soldiers receive Prisoner of War status, but that status is denied to terrorists or enemy combatants.
So how would the United States treat IRGC soldiers who may or may not be identified by wearing insignia indicating affiliation with the Guard? Are they entitled to protections under the Geneva Convention? (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they are entitled to some rights in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 2006). Perhaps most importantly, how would Iran treat an American G.I.? (In the recent past, it has been with great brutality.)
This isn’t an academic question. For almost two decades, Iran has expanded its influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. In the process, it has operated close to U.S. forces, often in adversarial positions. Now that the IRGC is considered an FTO, will the United States take aggressive action against it? IRGC leaders have a legitimate reason to fear so.
Secretary of State Pompeo has said that Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC Quds Force, “has the blood of Americans on his hands.” Pompeo has pledged to pursue him just as the United States does the leadership of ISIS.
Hopefully, this knowledge won’t prompt Iran to strike first. One must also hope that Iranian nuclear operations don’t yet pose a serious threat to the world. If, however, the plan is to combat terrorism, the truth must clearly be stated.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The administration is justified in saying so.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.