Media Guide: U.S. Designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Terrorist Organization

By AIC Research Fellow Andrew Lumsden

On April 8, 2019, U.S. President Donald J. Trump announced that the United States would formally designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as a terrorist organization. President Trump argued that the IRGC “actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism,” and that by labeling it a terror group, the U.S. would send “a clear message” to Iran that “support for terrorism has serious consequences.”

Trump’s move represents the first time the United States has labeled a part of another country’s government a terror group and it has sparked widely varying reactions from all over the world and intense scholarly speculation as to how the move will impact global politics.

This Media Guide will explain what the IRGC is, what it means to be labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., how the move has been received in Iran and internationally, and what consequences it is projected to have for both Iran and the United States.  

What is the IRGC and what does it do?

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was created soon after the 1979 Iranian Revolution by inaugural Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to protect the new government from perceived internal threats, particularly from royalist holdovers in the regular military. The Corps in enshrined in Iran’s constitution, and tasked with “guarding the Revolution and its achievements.”

The IRGC is entirely separate from Iran’s regular armed forces and is under the direct control of the Supreme Leader. It has its own ground force of about 125,000 men, as well as a navy of about 20,000 small ships and patrol boats. The Revolutionary Guards operate Iran’s ballistic missiles, monitor its coastlines and oversee the Basij, a volunteer militia which cracks down on internal dissent through intimidation, detentions and violence against government critics and protesters.

The IRGC also has a sizable presence in Iran’s politics and economy. Its veterans hold seats in Parliament and its members control a network of companies involved in oil extraction, telecommunications, construction and engineering among others. It is estimated that the IRGC controls as much as 25% of Iran’s publicly traded companies and 20% of the overall economy. Iran’s Parliament gave the IRGC a 2019 budget of US $4.7 billion, more than double that of the regular military.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the IRGC is its Quds Force. Whereas the rest of the IRGC focuses on securing the Iranian government, Quds Force is responsible for expanding its influence throughout the region. With about 10,000-15,000 personnel, Quds Force provides material, advisory and combat support to pro-Iranian parties and leaders throughout the Middle East, particularly in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, the Palestinian Territories and Yemen. Many of the factions supported by Quds Force, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have long been considered terrorist organizations by the United States.

For more information, please see AIC’s 2017 Media Guide on the IRGC and Quds Force

What does it mean to be designated a terrorist group by the United States?

Established under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the U.S. Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) reflects organizations outside its borders which the U.S. government feels engage in terrorist activity that threaten the national security of the United States or Americans abroad. With the addition of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, 68 organizations are now designated as terrorist groups by the United States including al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Once an organization is designated an FTO,

  • It becomes illegal to “knowingly” provide “material support or resources” to it, on penalty of up to 20 years in prison or life in prison if said support results in deaths.

  • Any financial institutions which hold funds or other assets belonging to the group must freeze them and notify U.S. authorities, or face substantial fines.   

  • Any members of the group who are not U.S. citizens are banned from entering the country and those in the country can be removed.

Furthermore, per the U.S. State Department, addition to the FTO list also serves to raise public awareness and knowledge of these groups and the danger they pose in the U.S. and abroad and to discourage non-U.S. economic and government entities from dealing with the group.

Organizations can be removed from the FTO list at any time if the U.S. State Department believes that they no longer pose a threat to the country. Thirteen organizations so far have been removed from the FTO list including Cambodia’s notorious Khmer Rouge. Also, any organization designated an FTO has the right to appeal the decision in U.S. federal court within 30 days.  

Why has the U.S. designated the IRGC a terrorist organization?

In its official statement on the matter, the U.S. Department of State said that its decision to add the IRGC to its list of terrorist organizations stems from the Guards’ role in planning uncovered bombing, assassination and espionage plots in Germany, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kenya, Bahrain, Turkey and the United States since 2011. The U.S. also accuses Iran and the IRGC of harboring and aiding members of al-Qaeda.

As to how it believes FTO designation of the IRGC will advance U.S. interests, the State Department was vague, saying only that the move will send a “clear message to the world that the Administration is committed to exerting maximum pressure on the Iranian regime.”

Some analysts posit that the IRGC’s designation was indeed an entirely symbolic gesture on the part of the Trump administration to emphasize its commitment to combating Iran and its regional allies.

  • Dr. Sanam Vakil of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies argues that Trump wants to be seen as “upping the ante” against Iran because so far, his policy approach “has yet to see any change in Iranian behavior.”

  • Former State Department counterterrorism officials Daniel Benjamin and Jason Blazakis agree, arguing that Trump’s move was meant solely to give “the illusion of decisive action,” with regard to Iran.

  • Tess Bridgeman, former National Security Council adviser, goes further, arguing that by calling the IRGC an anti-U.S. terror group, the Trump administration may be “priming the public” for a military conflict with Iran.

Those who say the designation was symbolic point to the fact that the IRGC and Iran in general have already been under strict economic sanctions from the United States and others. The FTO designation, they argue, will not significantly restrict the IRGC any more than it already is.

Meanwhile, others have argued that Trump’s move was on the behalf of Israel’s conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch ally of the U.S. president and at the time, in the midst of a tight and contentious re-election campaign. Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst Shimrit Meir, calls Trump’s designation “last-minute help from afar for pal Netanyahu.” Raz Zimmt, a Tel Aviv University Iran expert agrees, saying that although it is debatable, Trump’s move “appears connected to the [Israeli] elections. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has also advanced this theory, writing on Twitter that putting the IRGC on the terror list was just a “election-eve gift to Netanyahu.”

What has been the reaction to the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group?

In the United States

Reaction to the designation in the U.S. has been mixed, including within the government. State Department Iran advisor Brian Hook and counterterrorism official Nathan Sales assert that the move will make Iran’s economy, over which the IRGC has substantial influence, “radioactive” to those investors still thinking about doing business in the country.  On the other hand, the Department of Defense, particularly the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top policy officials, reportedly opposed the designation on the grounds that it could put U.S. servicemen in the region at risk.

Reaction in the U.S. Congress, has largely been along party lines with nearly all Republicans, including prominent Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mitt Romney (R-UT) expressing support for the designation. Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from Minnesota signaled her opposition to the move on Twitter, while Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced legislation which would bar all military action against Iran without congressional approval.

Many Jewish and pro-Israel groups, including the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and United Against A Nuclear Iran, chaired by former Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), also backed the designation and called for even tougher sanctions against Iran.

In Iran 

Iranian officials were vociferous in their condemnation of the U.S. designation.

  • The IRGC’s head at the time, Maj. General Ali Jaafari, called it “ridiculous” and pledged that the Corps “will grow stronger in the coming year…more than ever before.”

  • Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the IRGC, saying they have “always defended the country.” He added the U.S.’ moves against the Guards “won't get them anywhere.”

  • President Hassan Rouhani, who has himself had a contentious relationship with the IRGC, blasted Washington as the “leader of world terrorism." He warned that “this mistake will unite Iranians and the Guards will grow more popular.”

  • Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister said that the Trump administration is trying to “drag the U.S. into a quagmire” with the designation, and suggested that U.S. military forces should be designated terrorists by Iran.

  • Chairman of the Expediency Council and former Chief Justice, Amoli Larijani said that “Iran will not keep quiet” in opposing the United States and that there are “many possible ways for the Islamic Republic to counteract.”

  • On April 9, 2019, legislators from all political factions, including Speaker Ali Larijani and Reformist majority leader Mohammad Reza Aref wore IRGC uniforms on the floor of Parliament and chanted “Death to America.” Leading reformist lawmakers and journalists also issued statements of solidarity with the IRGC.

Tehran formally retaliated against the U.S. on April 11 by designating its military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees U.S. troops in the Middle East, as a terrorist organization, and U.S. servicemen under its command as terrorists. Parliament passed a bill confirming this move by a margin of 254-2. On April 23, Parliament passed another bill labeling the entire U.S. military as a terrorist organization by a margin of 173-4. The bills prohibit provision of assistance to U.S. forces. Ultimately however, it remains unclear exactly what impact, if any, Iran’s designation will have on the U.S. military.

The designation also sparked demonstrations across the country, with thousands rallying with signs reading “I’m a Guard Too,” as well as other pro-IRGC and anti-U.S. slogans.  “I’m a Guard Too,” also became a trending slogan on social media in Iran, although support for the U.S. move could also be found. Some online commentators have recounted their experiences of torture and false imprisonment at the hands of the IRGC and agree that it is an “oppressive” organization undeserving of popular approval.

In the Wider Middle East

Reactions to the U.S.’ designation among other Middle Eastern countries has been mixed, with the U.S.’ close regional allies standing in solidarity, its adversaries issuing blistering condemnations and others calling for mutual de-escalation of tensions.

  • Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional adversary and close ally of the United States, backed the designation, hailing it as a “serious and practical step” in fighting terrorism. Saudi Arabia designated the IRGC as a terror organization in 2018.

  • Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump for the move and wrote that in doing so he is “keeping the world safe from Iran’s aggression and terrorism.” Netanyahu also appeared to confirm suspicions that the designation was a favor to him, thanking President Trump for “acceding to another one of my important requests.”

  • Bahrain has expressed support for the U.S’ designation, having itself labeled the IRGC a terrorist group in 2018. The Kingdom further accused the IRGC of supporting Shi’a Islamist terror groups in its territory.

  • Syria’s state-run media reports that President Bashar al-Assad has condemned the U.S.’ designation as “irresponsible” and as yet another “erroneous” U.S. policy contributing to instability in the Middle East.

  • The leader of Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shi’a Islamist political party and militant group backed by Iran, Hassan Nasrallah, condemned the U.S. move as “impudence and folly.” He warned that the IRGC, his group and other Iranian allies have “many cards up [their sleeves] to respond to US sanctions and measures.”

  • Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi said that he had tried to stop the U.S. designation. He warned Washington that labeling the IRGC a terrorist group would “have negative ramifications for Iraq and the region.” However, Abdul-Mahdi added that his concerns were ignored. He pledged that Iraq will “distance itself from any rivalry [between Iran and the U.S.]” and maintain “good relations with the two sides.”

  • Turkey’s Foreign Minister said that while his country does not support the IRGC’s activities, “no country can declare another country’s armed forces a terrorist organization.” He warned that Washington’s “one-sided decision” may lead to instability in the Middle East.

  • Qatar’s Foreign Minister said that any disagreements with Iran’s behavior should not be addressed by imposing sanctions.

In East Asia

  • Japan’s Foreign Minister asserted that his country would not support the U.S.’ designation of the IRGC as a terror group, nor would it follow suit. He asserted that any problems with Iran must be solved through dialogue.

  • China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that “non-regional major powers” should “do more to contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East and refrain from actions that might lead to further escalation of tensions in the region.”

In Europe

Although critical of the Trump administration's 2018 re-imposition of economic sanctions on Iran, European leaders have largely been silent on its designation of the IRGC as a terror group.

  • French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly spoke to Rouhani after the designation, but did not discuss it, focusing instead on Iranian political prisoners, recent floods and economic sanctions.

  • However, Iran’s state-affiliated Mehr News Agency reports that a British government representative in Iran has informed them that his country has no intention of supporting the American designation of the IRGC.

What ramifications will the designation have for Iran and the United States?

Since its announcement, the question of what consequences the U.S. designation of the IRGC will have for the sides involved, has been the topic of much speculation and debate among Middle East experts all over the world.

Some potential ramifications include:

·         Loss of Foreign Investment for Iran

Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that given that the IRGC has such a prominent presence in Iran’s business atmosphere, the U.S. designating it a terrorist group will scare off potential foreign investors, particularly Europeans, who hitherto have demonstrated interest in doing business in Iran despite U.S. sanctions. He notes that if these investors are caught doing business with IRGC-linked companies, they could face personal sanctions by the U.S. including visa revocation - something Dubowitz doubts they will be willing to risk. Heritage Foundation Fellow James Phillips agrees, adding that those planning to invest in Iran also now face the threat of criminal prosecution by the U.S., which may further deter them.

It should be noted that on April 24, 2018, the Trump administration announced that it would not automatically apply sanctions or travel bans to government entities or businesses found to be doing business with the IRGC. This calls into question the extent to which the designation will impact the IRGC’s business activities or Iran’s economy. Also, even if Dubowitz and Phillips are correct and the designation does lead to the weakening of Iran’s economy, the country’s Parliament has consistently given the IRGC a sizable budget regardless of the country’s economic health.

·         International Erosion of U.S. Credibility

Benjamin and Blazakis, former State Department counterterrorism officials, assert that the Trump administration’s designation of the IRGC is a serious blow to the international credibility of the United States as a leader in the global war on terrorism and to the U.S.’ relationship with its European allies. This is because the U.S. terror list has hitherto been regarded as the “gold standard” among America’s allies, meaning that they accepted that any group designated by the U.S. was a genuine threat and eagerly committed their support to Washington’s efforts.

They accuse the Trump administration of simply using terrorist designation to throw “the nearest piece of furniture at Iran,” and argue that America’s allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere can see this clearly and in the future may regard U.S. designations as “questionable claims and not as the irreproachable product of the world’s foremost intelligence community.”

·         Weakening of Iranian Reformists

Another consequence of the designation put forth by experts, which appears to have begun to materialize, is the further weakening of moderates and reformists in Iranian politics. Golnaz Esfandiari, senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty argues that the designation has linked criticism of the IRGC with support for the U.S. and its politics, and will therefore make criticizing the IRGC or enacting policies contrary to its will, “even more difficult.”

This cooling of political will to challenge the IRGC may already be evident in the reaction of President Rouhani and many prominent reformists to the U.S. designation. Most reformist legislators, publications and activists came to the Guards defense, despite previous criticisms of the IRGC or attacks the Guards have made against them in the past. For example, Reformist Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, who served five years as a political prisoner, wrote that despite his “disagreements” with the IRGC, he will support them against “unreasonable” U.S. policies.

Furthermore, hardline conservatives in Iran are already using the designation to push their agenda and smear opponents. Conservative legislators are calling for the rejection of a series of bills passed by the pro-reform Parliament in late-2018 which would strengthen measures against money laundering and terror financing in Iran. The bills are being considered by the Expediency Council, which steps in when the Parliament and the Guardian Council, the other body whose approval is required to pass legislation, fail to agree. Conservatives say that no concessions, or anything resembling concession, should be made to the U.S. now that it has targeted the IRGC. They also accuse the bills’ proponents of being American allies.

Meir Javedanfar, Middle East analyst at the University of Haifa pushes back on this idea, arguing that recent reformist and moderate expressions of support for the IRGC are “photo-ops” and that their solidarity with the Guards is “unlikely to last in the long term.” He adds that given the “fundamental” nature of their disagreements, and those of their supporters, with the IRGC over economic and foreign policy issues, moderates’ and reformists’ willingness to confront the Guards may rebound in time.

·         Armed U.S.-Iran Conflict

Perhaps the most prevalent concern among experts about the fallout from the designation is that it has increased the likelihood of military conflict between Iran and the United States.

Former United Nations spokeswoman and Middle East expert Dr. Massoumeh Torfeh, notes that since the designation, rhetoric from IRGC officers and other Iranian officials towards the U.S. has become far more militant. Foreign Minister Zarif, for example, at the UN, warned that Iran will impose “dire consequences” on the “U.S. regime…as well as two or three puppet regimes” for the designation. Also, the Chief of Staff of Iran’s regular army threatened that if American troops in the region “make a mistake,” his forces will “confront them vigorously." Torfeh adds that because of the ballistic missiles and “elaborate network of operatives,” the IRGC has, it and its allies, are more than capable of attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

For her part, Atlantic Council scholar Barbara Slavin doubts that Iran’s direct response will go beyond the heated rhetoric. However, she does fear that the IRGC may strike U.S. forces through allied militant groups in Afghanistan and Syria. AIC’s President Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, shares this concern about the IRGC’s allies, noting that some have already assumed combat positions near the Iranian border and that “the risk of confrontation” with U.S. forces has been brought “to a higher level” by the designation.

Ali Vaez, Iran Project director for the International Crisis Group argues that the designation may well be designed by the Trump administration to provoke a militant response from the IRGC or its allies against U.S. forces, which would then give Washington a “casus belli,” or justification, for conflict with Iran. Former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes agrees, writing that designating the IRGC as a terror group “only makes sense as a step toward conflict.”

Tess Bridgeman argues that regardless of how Iran responds, the Trump administration may intend to strike Iran in the near future and use designation to claim justification under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act (AUMF). She notes that that in comments on their reasoning for the designation, State Department officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been stressing the IRGC’s role in supporting al-Qaeda operatives in the past. The AUMF permits the U.S. President to use military force against any “nations, organizations, or persons” that had any role in carrying out the 9/11 terror attacks or harbored anyone who did. These concerns are shared by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who said that he was troubled by the Trump administration’s refusal to unequivocally state that the AUMF does not justify a strike on Iran.

Some conservative analysts, it should be noted, have pushed back on the idea that the designation could lead to armed conflict. Dr. Alireza Nourizadeh, head of the London-based Center for Iranian and Arab Studies, argues that concern over military escalation is overblown because, despite its rhetoric, the IRGC, he contends, is under no illusions that it is “in a position to do any harm to the U.S.” Nor, according to Nourizadeh, is it willing to actually provoke the Trump administration into going to war. He cites the decreasing occurrence of incidents of harassment of U.S. Navy warships in the Persian Gulf by IRGC speed boats since President Trump, who had pledged to have the boats destroyed, took office as evidence.

As to the IRGC using its militant allies to attack U.S. forces in the region, Jerusalem Post analyst Sean Durns notes that these groups have “been threatening, and murdering U.S. personnel for decades” before the designation. He cites recent data from the Pentagon which blame IRGC allies for over 600 U.S. military deaths in Iraq and argues that the U.S. cannot allow threats of violence to determine its foreign policy.

  • None

In the end, only time can truly tell what impact the U.S. designation of the IRGC will ultimately have. There is a very real possibility that nothing will change. Most experts do not believe that it will cause any significant shift in Iran’s foreign policy or the IRGC’s regional activities, as terror group designation adds few restrictions to the IRGC which were not already imposed by older sanctions. Also, despite his own concerns about rising US-Iran tension, AIC President Hooshang Amirahmadi notes that there are many groups on the U.S.’ terror list against which Washington has never taken significant military action, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.