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ThreatsWatch Symposium: Designating Iran's IRGC

Pros and Cons of designating the IRGC as terrorists

By ThreatsWatch | August 19, 2007

ThreatsWatch asked a couple of experts in terrorism and national security about the recent decision by the US government to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. We thank them for their insights and perspectives, and we thank them for participating in the first ThreatsWatch Symposium.

Specifically, what impact will the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization have on our ability to degrade Iranian ability to interfere in Iraq? Will it help us further de-legitimize and degrade the effectiveness of the Iranian regime? What negative consequences can you see coming about from this move, either on the terrorism front or with regards to their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons?

Thomas Joscelyn

My initial reaction to the news that the State Department was going to designate the IRGC a terrorist group was: What took so long? Every year from the late 1990’s through 2003, the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism report (which has been replaced by another report), noted something similar to what was written about Iran’s behavior in 2001: “Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2001. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) continued to be involved in the planning and support of terrorist acts and supported a variety of groups that use terrorism to pursue their goals.”

That is, Iran was “the most active state sponsor of terrorism” and the IRGC is one of the two main organizations it uses to spread its terror. So, of course the IRGC is a terrorist organization. Recounting all of the ways the IRGC has been involved in terrorism would require more space than is available here, but it is worth remembering that the IRGC built Hezbollah, one of the two most dangerous terrorist organizations on the planet, and has worked in tandem with that group for decades.

Will the designation degrade their ability to interfere in Iraq? The designation, by itself, is unlikely to do have any effect on the ground in Iraq. I think, under General Petraeus, U.S. forces have now started to seriously target IRGC assets inside Iraq. Time will tell if they are doing enough and if what they are doing will work – the Bush administration did so little about their influence in Iraq for so long it may be impossible to substantially reduce their footprint now. But, the point is that the IRGC’s dirty-work in Iraq is being dealt with by our counter-insurgency strategy, not State Department designations.

Will the designation further de-legitimize and degrade the effectiveness of the Iranian regime? It is too early to tell and there are good reasons to think its impact will be minimal. The IRGC and Iran do little business with the U.S. currently because of existing laws and regulations, so the designation will not have any real direct impact in that sense. It may dissuade companies located in other Western countries from doing business with IRGC-run entities, but while that is possible it is also dubious. And, perhaps most importantly, the designation is unlikely to dissuade Russian and Chinese companies from doing business with Iran, including IRGC- run companies. The Bear and the Dragon are what keep the Iran regime going with vital assistance on numerous levels.

Are there any negatives to this move? I don’t think so. I see it as the U.S. Government finally calling it like it is. I am uncertain of its upside also, however. If the designation is a first step to finally dealing with the realities of Iran’s behavior, then it may have some impact down the road. But, the U.S. has simply ignored or minimized Iranian provocations for too long for me to believe that is true.

Andy McCarthy

Though better late than never, the designation of the IRGC [as a terrorist group] is about a dozen years overdue. Because of that, and because of striking inconsistencies in our foreign counterterrorism policy, its impact will be minimal, at least in the short term.

Unlike most other terrorist entities, the IRGC is an official component (as opposed to Hezbollah, which is an unofficial component) of a sovereign government, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which the United States not only recognizes but (a) as to which we shun a policy of regime change, and (b) with which we now even engage in direct negotiations. The closest analogue I can see is the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist arm of the Fatah organization which governs the West Bank and to which we now can’t seem to give enough foreign aid. Don’t think we won’t be reminded of this contradiction by the Europeans, Russians and Chinese, who want to negotiate with the terror-facilitating mullahs until they are a fully armed nuclear power … and will continue to do so regardless of the designation.

At this point, the designation also smacks of the law-enforcement approach to terrorism which the Bush administration used to criticize sharply. Throughout the 1990s, al Qaeda threatened to attack and attacked the U.S. We responded with indictments and not much else. Qaeda was emboldened and grew. Now, with a rich history of anti-American terror, Iran ups the ante by killing American forces in Iraq, harboring al Qaeda, holding Americans hostage, and building its nukes. We respond by offering direct negotiations and designating the regime’s official terror arm—the latter which merely allows seizing assets in the U.S. (which the IRGC won’t have in a traceable form), seizing assets in international transit (which we could only do with help from other countries, and thus is a non-starter), and prosecuting Americans who assist the IRGC (who could already be prosecuted under other laws). The upside is thus minimal and the downside is that we look, yet again, like we don’t have the stomach to deal with Iran in a meaningful way.

Steve Schippert

I may well be on an island nearly alone here. But please consider....

While one hand, it is refreshing to see the Bush Administration take some sort of fresh overt stand against the Iranians' terrorist endeavors, their elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the IRGC's Quds Force in particular, on the other it concerns me that the US Government would label a military branch of a sovereign state as a terrorist organization. And it doesn't matter if they train terrorists or engage in 'terrorist' attacks themselves. Here's why:

Terrorism is not simply defined as attacks on civilians or non-combatants, nor is it constrained to the emotional definition most observers attach to it. It is also importantly defined as an act of war by a non-state entity (or, in the words of our own State Department definition, a "subnational" group.) An act of war by a state, such as via Iran's IRGC or the Quds Force, is then, quite simply, an act of war. There is debate - in quite limited observable circles - whether part of the Administration's aim is to avoid this direct and unwelcome reality.

Regardless of what any intent may or may not be, the effect in the long struggle against terrorism could be potentially detrimental, lasting and incrementally acute.

There have been untold numbers of instances of civilians killed in warfare. In World War II, we fire bombed Dresden to destroy a key German industrial capability that produced weapons used to effectively kill Allied troops and also served as a critical logistics, transport and communications hub for the Third Reich's war efforts. Civilians were killed. The rationale behind using the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was to break the will of the Japanese people and, thus, end the war saving potentially millions more lives. Civilian tolls in warfare are not distinct to al-Qaeda and Iran's IRGC and Quds Force-supported groups.

More recently, the attack on an al-Qaeda/Taliban madrassa that served as a terror camp in Bajour netted cries of civilian deaths, as did Israeli attacks on Hizballah positions in Lebanon in the Summer 2006 war. Yet, for an enemy which purposefully embeds itself within civilian populations for human shield defense and, posthumously, propaganda gains (Bajour, Islamabad's Red Mosque, Qana, etc.) we should refrain from the purely civilian-attack definition of terrorist activity and also adhere to the non-state actor portion as well.

The death of civilians in warfare is, thus, not a distinctly terroristic result. Not by a longshot. And the death of civilians was not then and is not now simply 'terrorism.' However, acts of war by a non-state actor are distinctly terrorist endeavors, including but not limited to civilian casualties and very often the intentional targeting of civilian populations.

If we insist on labeling any of Iran's military branches - even if they do train their own terrorist proxies like Hizballah and Iraqi militia groups - are we not then lending undue (foreign) credence to wild cries of a "terrorist US Air Force," et al, citing Bajour, Pakistan as just one example? That will be one result.

Inconsequential? Think "International Courts" and the ongoing efforts by less than friendly quarters to force the United States Military to acquiesce to the jurisdiction of "international" tribunals and trials at The Hague.

Do we truly need to fly beneath the umbrella provided by labeling the Islamic Republic of Iran a State Sponsor of Terrorism in order to distinguish specific commands?

Once again, lost is clarity...a clarity Iran once understood with great fear in 2001 and 2002. Just a few short years later, we now erect in place of clarity the arguability of nuance where we require none. None.