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The IRGC was set up in 1979 after Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution as an ideologically-driven branch of the armed forces of Iran.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in Washington DC Monday morning the Trump administration’s “intent to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its Qods Force, as a foreign terrorist organisation in accordance with Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act”.

The designation, Pompeo said, would “take effect one week from today”, that is, on April 15. The designation as FTO will impose sweeping economic and travel sanctions on the IRGC and on organisations, companies, and individuals that have links to it.

IRGC and Quds Force

The IRGC was set up in 1979 after Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution as an ideologically-driven branch of the armed forces of Iran, to protect the newly established Islamic system from hostile foreign powers and internal dissensions. The IRGC is today a 125,000-strong force with ground, naval, and air wings, tasked with internal and border security, law enforcement, and protection of Iran’s missiles.

It controls the Basij militia, a semi-government paramilitary force estimated to have up to a million active members. The elite Quds Force or Qods Corps is an elite wing of the IRGC, reporting directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It has perhaps 10,000-20,000 members, and carries out unconventional warfare beyond Iran’s borders, often working with non-state actors such as the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria.

The Quds Force has been commanded since 1998 by Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani; Maj Gen Mohammad Ali Jafari has been the commander-in-chief of the IRGC since 2007.

Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO)

Section 219 of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act authorises the Secretary of State to “designate an organization as a foreign terrorist organization… if the Secretary finds that (A) the organization is a foreign organization; (B) the organization engages in terrorist activity or terrorism… or (C) …threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States”.

In its statement, the State Department said that “the (designation of) IRGC (as an) FTO… highlights that Iran is an outlaw regime that uses terrorism as a key tool of statecraft and that the IRGC, part of Iran’s official military, has engaged in terrorist activity or terrorism since its inception 40 years ago.

“The IRGC has been directly involved in terrorist plotting; its support for terrorism is foundational and institutional, and it has killed US citizens. It is also responsible for taking hostages and wrongfully detaining numerous US persons, several of whom remain in captivity in Iran today.”

The Iranian regime, the statement said, “is responsible for the deaths of at least 603 American service members in Iraq since 2003. This accounts for 17% of all deaths of US personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, and is in addition to the many thousands of Iraqis killed by the IRGC’s proxies”.

“The IRGC — most prominently through its Qods Force — has the greatest role among Iran’s actors in directing and carrying out a global terrorist campaign,” the State Department said. “In recent years, IRGC Qods Force terrorist planning has been uncovered and disrupted in many countries, including Germany, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kenya, Bahrain, and Turkey.”

Other FTOs

The State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism states that “FTO designations play a critical role in (the US’s) fight against terrorism and are an effective means of curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to get out of the terrorism business”.

Sixty-seven terrorist organisations currently figure on the State Department’s list of FTOs, including Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaida and its regional branches, the Islamic State and its regional operations, Jundallah, Boko Haram, and the Colombian FARC.

Also on the list are several organisations based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which directly threaten India, such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizb ul-Mujahideen, Haqqani Network, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The Indian Mujahideen, LTTE, and Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami-Bangladesh are also on the list of 67 FTOs.

Controversial decision

Pompeo announced that “this is the first time that the United States has designated a part of another government as an FTO”. It had taken this “historic step” because, he said, “the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government”.

This FTO listing would “deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world”, Pompeo said, and reminded “businesses and banks around the world” of their “clear duty to ensure that companies with which they conduct financial transactions are not connected to the IRGC in any material way”.

The decision has raised several questions with regard to the timing, intent, and execution of the FTO designation. This is the first time that the US has interpreted Section 219 of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act as permitting the designation of a government entity a terrorist organisation.

The George W Bush administration had considered a range of tough actions on Iran during the Iraq war, but held back; the Obama administration too, had considered designating the Revolutionary Guards an FTO, but decided against it, The New York Times reported. “By designating a foreign military as an FTO, we were putting our troops at risk, particularly our troops in Iraq, next door to Iran,” The NYT quoted a former top State Department official as saying.

Analysts have asked whether designating the IRGC does not also make an argument for similar action against other foreign intelligence services that use violence, including those of Israel, Pakistan and Russia, and whether US officials ought to, then, work with those agencies.

Prof C Christine Fair, a scholar of South Asian political-military affairs at Georgetown University and the author of several books on Pakistan, posted on Twitter: “By this logic, @POTUS [Trump] should designate the ISI.”

The NYT report said that Trump administration officials were divided on the benefits the designation might bring, and that “many Iraqi officials are opposed… as it could impose travel limits and economic sanctions on some lawmakers in the Shiite-led government and other Iraqis who have ties to Iranian officials”.

The report estimated that the broadness of the FTO designation could potentially cover a staggering 11 million members of the IRGC and its affiliated organisations, including the Basij militia.

The announcement came a day before Israel’s national elections in which Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in the face of stiff odds. Critics of the decision have said that the designation was intended to give a last-minute boost to Netanyahu’s campaign.

Trump recently recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which the United Nations considers disputed, and both Netanyahu and Trump have said that Iran poses a massive threat to Israel, and the Prime Minister tweeted in English: “Thank you, President @realDonaldTrump for your decision to designate the Islamic revolutionary guards as a terrorist organization. Once again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism.”

Iran’s reaction, likely fallout

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on national television that the United States was the real “leader of world terrorism”, and demanded: “Who are you to label revolutionary institutions as terrorists?” The Revolutionary Guards, the President said, “have sacrificed their lives to protect our people, our Revolution… today America that holds a grudge against the Guards, blacklists the Guards”.

In retaliatory action, Tehran named the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) as a terrorist organisation and the US government as a sponsor of terror, wire agencies reported. “This mistake will unite Iranians and the Guards will grow more popular in Iran… America has used terrorists as a tool in the region while the Guards have fought against them from Iraq to Syria,” Rouhani said.

The US action is bound to raise tensions in the Middle East. Tehran-Washington relations plunged after Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, and reimposed sanctions on the country in May 2018.

Iran has threatened to resume its suspended nuclear work, and IRGC commanders have warned that US bases in the Middle East and US aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within the range of Iranian missiles. Iran has also threatened to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf if the US tries to strangle its economy, Reuters reported.

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