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U.S. Stakes Over Iran Rises, As Alleged Use of Fund To Support Terrorism And Militant Activities Continues

The impact of the U.S. designation on the many tens of thousands of Iranians who have served their mandatory military service in the IRGC is not immediately clear. They include intellectuals and members of the opposition.

allegedly uses to fund terrorism and militant activities. RFERL

The U.S. designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) marks the first time Washington has officially used that label on a foreign state institution.

“It underscores the fact that Iran’s actions are fundamentally different from those of other governments,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in an April 8 statement.

His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the move was aimed at increasing pressure on Iran and diverting some of the financial resources it allegedly uses to fund terrorism and militant activities.

The designation, effective on April 15, is a significant symbolic departure and will result in economic and travel sanctions for the IRGC — a branch of the Iranian armed forces — and for individuals and entities associated with the so-called Guards.

Experts say it could also increase the risk of a hostile encounter between Iranian and U.S. military forces.

But let’s start with the basics.

Why The IRGC?

The IRGC was created after Iran’s 1979 revolution to protect the new Islamic establishment against internal and external threats and to preserve revolutionary ideals.

Under the rule of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom the IRGC has answered directly since he ascended to Iran’s highest post in 1989, its influence has arguably increased.

Domestically, the Guards’ forces have been involved in enforcing Islamic codes and crushing dissent. Even very recently, its intelligence branch has been reported to be behind the arrests of several Iranian-Americans and environmentalists.

The United States has in the past accused Iranian naval forces of provocations in the Persian Gulf.
The United States has in the past accused Iranian naval forces of provocations in the Persian Gulf. RFERL

By targeting the IRGC, one of Iran’s most powerful state institutions, Trump intends to raise the heat on Iran.

The move is part of his administration’s comparatively hard line on the Islamic republic, beginning with Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and the subsequent reimposition of tough economic sanctions that appear to have hurt Iran’s currency and its economy.

In announcing the designation, Trump said this “action will significantly expand the scope and scale of our maximum pressure on the Iranian regime.”

U.S. officials have said that their “maximum pressure” approach is aimed at persuading Iran to return to the negotiating table, although some have interpreted it as a campaign for regime change.

Analysts, including Rand Corporation’s Ariane Tabatabai, predict that the IRGC designation will make it more difficult for Iran to return to the negotiations. “The administration is looking to build a comprehensive pressure campaign, which seems to aim to either force Tehran to fundamentally change its behavior or to pave the way for an internal collapse of the regime,” she says.

The IRGC plays an important role in Iran’s economy. It is also in charge of Iran’s controversial missile program, which just last month a U.S. official said threatened to spark a “regional arms race.”

The IRGC’s involvement in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through its Quds Force, as well as alleged operations in or involving Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Yemen, have also threatened perceived U.S. interests.

The group is estimated to have between 100,000 and 150,000 members, and has reportedly recruited thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis to fight in Syria, where Tehran has been allied with Assad and Russia to oppose antiregime forces that it regards as terrorists.

“The IRGC is not a conventional military force; they are a largely asymmetric force created to balance the conventional Iranian military. As a result, the tactics they employ, and their toolkit, make them a different kind of challenge to the United States,” Tabatabai says.

How Could The Designation Help The U.S.?

The IRGC and its parts — including, the elite Quds Force — are already facing U.S. sanctions over alleged support for terrorism, human rights abuses, censorship, malign cyberactivities, and Iran’s ballistic-missile program. The U.S. Treasury Department labeled the IRGC as a terrorist group in 2017.

The FTO designation raises further obstacles to doing business with Iran. But since punitive measures already in place by the United States include sweeping financial sanctions, analysts say its impact could fall short of administration hopes.

“The designation is more political and symbolic than it is impactful economically or operationally. The U.S. objective is to make it harder for the IRGC to operate beyond its borders and to delegitimize it internally, and the designation is a tool to achieve these objectives,” Tabatabai says.

What Are The Risks?

Some critics of the designation, including some U.S. military and intelligence officials, have said that the “terrorist” designation could endanger U.S. troops and intelligence officers by putting them at greater risk of attacks.

In a tit-for-tat response, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council announced that the United States would itself be designated a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and Centcom, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, would be designated a “terrorist group.”

It is unclear how such designations will be enforced in the Persian Gulf and in countries such as Iraq.

U.S. military personnel are shown on their boat after they were captured by IRGC forces in the Persian Gulf in January 2016.
U.S. military personnel are shown on their boat after they were captured by IRGC forces in the Persian Gulf in January 2016. RFERL

Analyst Tabatabai says the risk of the new designation is related to uncertainty. “We’ve never done this before, and there’s an inherent risk associated with doing something you’ve never done before,” she says.

She adds that Iran’s decision to reciprocate “will provide more of a free hand to their own forces and the operatives and terrorist groups they support to target U.S. military personnel, contractors, and others,” and could make it “more difficult to deescalate situations in the Persian Gulf.”

The United States has in the past accused Iranian naval forces of provocations in the Persian Gulf, including failing to observe internationally recognized maritime customs by getting too close to U.S. vessels. The incidents have involved the IRGC, which in 2016 captured and detained 10 U.S. sailors who entered Iran’s territorial waters.

“The designation could make U.S.-Iranian interactions more dangerous, particularly in Iraq and the Persian Gulf,” Afshon Ostovar, an assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and author of a book on the rise of the IRGC, says.

Ostovar adds that the risks will depend on how Iran decides to respond. “If it takes any direct action or action by proxy, then it could more quickly lead to escalation. I don’t believe this will happen, but it’s a possibility U.S. forces in the Middle East will have to prepare for,” he says.

Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, says he believes the designation raises the risk of a direct military confrontation between the two countries. “Some in the Trump administration appear determined to provoke the IRGC into committing a mistake that would then justify taking military action against Iran,” Vaez says.

Are There Domestic Consequences For Iran?

The blacklisting of the IRGC has resulted in a show of support and unity inside Iran, where lawmakers attended an April 9 parliament session wearing the uniform of the Guards.

Leading reformist lawmaker Mahmud Sadeqi, an outspoken critic of hard-liners, was among those expressing support for the IRGC.

“I am also a guard,” the reformist daily Etemad said on a front page that features a picture of IRGC members.

The designation could make any criticism of the IRGC even more difficult, as critics are likely to be accused of siding with the U.S and supporting Washington’s tough line on Iran.

It could also complicate purported efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rohani to restrict the group’s role in the economy.

The impact of the U.S. designation on the many tens of thousands of Iranians who have served their mandatory military service in the IRGC is not immediately clear. They include intellectuals and members of the opposition.

Award-winning exiled Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji served in the IRGC during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Ganji, who was jailed in Iran for six-years, now lives in the United States.

Also Read: Global Judicial Executions Fell By One-Third In 2018, Reaching Lowest in A Decade

“Those who have served in the IRGC could be considered as having been in a terrorist organization, at least by the United States,” says analyst and author Ostovar, who adds that the designation will make it difficult for former members of the IRGC to obtain U.S. visas.

Iranians are already among the citizens of seven countries who face a U.S. travel ban enacted in 2017. (RFERL)

Next Story

Here’s Everything you Need to Know About the Increasing Islamic State Terror Activity in Syria

Surge of IS Violence and Terrorism Seen in Syria

Smoke Syria
Smoke rises while people gather at a damaged site after two bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State hit the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli near the Turkish border, Syria. VOA

By Sirwan Kajjo

Islamic State militants have increased their terror activity in recent weeks in Syria, carrying out deadly attacks against Syrian regime troops and U.S.-backed forces.

Since early December, the terror group has conducted at least three major attacks on Syrian government forces and their allied militias in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, local sources said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has reporters across the country, recent attacks claimed by IS against Syrian military forces have killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded more than 50 others.

Last week, at least three fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in what local military officials described as a suicide attack carried out by IS militants in the province of Raqqa, IS’s former de facto capital before it was freed in 2017 by the SDF and its U.S.-led allies.

Islamic State Syria
Islamic State militants clean their weapons in Deir el-Zour city, Syria. VOA

‘Threat to our forces’ 

IS “terrorists still pose a threat to our forces, especially in the eastern part of Syria,” an SDF commander told VOA.

“They have been able to regroup and reorganize in some remote parts of Deir el-Zour, where there is a smaller presence of our forces or any other forces,” said the commander, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

He added that despite the declaration of the physical defeat of the terror group in March 2019, IS “still has hundreds of sleeper cells that have the capability to wage deadly attacks on civilians and combatants alike.”

In the town of Tabqa, in western Raqqa, local news reports this week said a suspected IS sleeper cell assaulted a family, killing three of its members, including a child. The reports did not say why the family was attacked, but IS has in the past targeted people whom it suspected of having ties to or working for the government or U.S.-backed local forces.

While most of the recent activity has been in areas IS once controlled as part of its so-called caliphate, the militant group has been particularly active in Syria’s vast desert region.

The Syrian Observatory reported at least 10 IS-claimed attacks in December that originated from the mostly desert eastern part of Homs province in central Syria.

Baghdadi’s death

Islamic State Syria
The Islamic State group’s leader extolled militants in Sri Lanka for “striking the homes of the crusaders in their Easter, in vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz,” a reference to IS’ last bastion in eastern Syria, which was captured by U.S.-backed fighters. VOA

Despite the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in October in a U.S. operation in northwestern Syria, IS still represents a major threat in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, experts say.

“As ISIS returns to its original decentralized structure, members of the group are trying to show ISIS still poses a threat, even after the defeat of its caliphate and the recent death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” said Kaleigh Thomas, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, using another acronym for IS.

Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militancy, echoed Thomas’ views.

“IS is now living a period of stability, so to speak. After the death of Baghdadi, their objective is clearer now. They try to stay focused on carrying out assassinations, ambushes and suicide attacks, and they have been successful at that,” he told VOA.

Kinno said IS “really believes in a recurrent cycle of violence, so for them the territorial defeat they experienced this year is just a phase of their ongoing jihad.”

US withdrawal 

U.S. vehicles Syria
A convoy of U.S. vehicles is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

U.S. President Donald Trump in October announced a withdrawal of troops from Syria, which was followed by a Turkish military offensive against U.S.-backed SDF fighters in northeast Syria.

Some experts say the U.S. troop pullout allowed IS to regroup, and thus its terror attacks have increased.

“The U.S. decision sent a signal to [IS] that the U.S. is not interested in a long-term presence in Syria,” said Azad Othman, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Irbil, Iraq.

IS “now feels that its low-level insurgency in Syria could be even more effective as long as the Americans don’t have a significant military presence in the country,” he told VOA.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report in November that “ISIS has exploited the Turkish incursion and subsequent drawdown of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria to reconstitute its capabilities and resources both within Syria in the short term and globally in the longer term.”

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“The withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. troops has also affected the fight against ISIS, which remains a threat in the region and globally,” Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general, said in the report.

But the U.S. has decided to keep about 500 troops to secure oil fields in Syria to prevent IS militants and the Syrian regime forces from accessing them. (VOA)