President Donald Trump announced today that he will designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a foreign terrorist organisation. It is the first time the US has classified an entity of a foreign government as terrorist and I have little doubt that such an unprecedented move will have serious consequences for Iran and across the Middle East.
In retaliation, Iran’s National Security Council announced today that they will designate the US Central Command a terrorist group themselves, and treat American forces in the Middle East the same way they treat members of Isis. Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the IRGC, has said that if the United States makes such a “dumb” move that threatens Iran’s national security, his forces will plan retaliatory missions and American forces in West Asia will not stay in peace.
This is how an escalation starts in the Middle East: first with a war of words and statements, then policies and actions that can easily get out of hand in an already volatile region. Iranian Revolutionary Guards and American forces have been in close contact in places like Iraq and Syria, sometimes even fighting against the same enemy — as has been the case with Isis.
In this context, then, it’s clear to see is why American military commanders have been the main opponents of Trump’s decision. Top Pentagon and CIA officials, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier, are concerned that such a move “would allow hard-line Iranian officials to justify deadly operations against Americans overseas, especially Special Operations units and paramilitary units working under the CIA.”
But there’s one person who is definitely happy about the situation: Benjamin Netanyahu, the hardline prime minister of Israel who has consistently worked to prevent any diplomacy between the United States and Iran and historically encouraged military conflict between the two. In fact, he personally tweeted Donald Trump to thank him, writing: “Thank you, president @realDonaldTrump for your decision to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation. Once again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism”.
Here’s the problem: Trump’s policy of maximum pressure is going to weaken moderates in Iran and strengthen the position of hardliners like the IRGC. An external threat like this will force the Iranian political elite, including critics of the hardliners, to unite behind the IRGC in a way they may never have done before.
Abdollah Ramezanzadeh — a prominent reformist politician and the former spokesman for the government of President Mohammad Khatami, who was arrested and jailed by hardliners during the 2009 election protests — condemned the IRGC designation in a conversation with me earlier.
“We don’t want war and want gradual reform in Iran,” he told me. “We are hoping to convince Iranian hardliners to allow more civil liberties and [to allow] participation in the political process and decision-making, which is not easy. But Trump’s actions will only stop these reforms.”
Azar Mansoori, deputy head of the People’s United Party, Iran’s largest reformist organisation, and a critic of hardliners, also tweeted in support of the IRGC. She told me: “Our priority is the country’s national interest and no foreign government has the right to threaten that. The US government’s actions will make the path to democracy in Iran more difficult. It will help hardliners put more pressure on the Rouhani administration to violate international agreements such as the nuclear deal, and to not join the FATF and other related agreements.”
Ironically, designating the IRGC a terrorist group will not have serious economic consequences for those who run the military force. In fact the IRGC has benefited (yes, benefited) from US sanctions over the years, due to its massive share in the Iranian economy. Economic sanctions on Iran have created a dark financial ecosystem where state and private actors engage in non-transparent trade and financial dealings which allow them to circumvent the sanctions. That has created a breeding ground for massive corruption in the country; the IRGC and its collaborators have been key benefactors.
Economic sanctions have been hurting ordinary Iranians more than any military or government entity. Just in recent weeks, devastating floods across Iran hit hundreds of villages and towns, killed at least 70 people, destroyed thousands of homes, farms, livestock, schools, roads, and bridges, and cost millions of dollars in damages that will take years to recover. All during an economic crisis in the country that has been enhanced by US sanctions. These same sanctions have limited Iran’s ability to receive financial aid from abroad in a time of crisis. Trump administration officials keep repeating that they support “the Iranian people” — but their actions suggest the opposite.
Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist and political commentator based in Washington DC and a Consultant Editor for The Independent. Follow her on twitter @NegarMortazavi
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