President Donald Trump’s administration is weighing whether to list Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, a decision that would have economic, political and geopolitical implications because of the enormous might it wields. A move against the Guards -- the official protector of the Islamic revolution -- would fit with Trump’s push to get tough on Iran, whose 2015 nuclear agreement with six world powers, he argues, will "give" the country nuclear weapons. Trump’s administration warned it was putting Iran "on notice" for test-firing a ballistic missile on Jan. 29. The U.S. accuses Iran of violating United Nations restrictions on its ballistic missile program. Iran says the program is a sovereign affair and doesn’t contravene UN resolutions because it isn’t aimed at conveying atomic weapons. The Revolutionary Guards control the ballistic missile program.
1. Who are the Revolutionary Guards?
The 100,000-strong corps was established at the outset of the 1979 Islamic revolution as a trusted security force at a time when the military’s loyalty to Iran’s new leaders was unclear. The nation’s premier security force, the corps has its own ground, air and naval divisions as well as a chain of command separate from the military that leads directly to Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guards have amassed sweeping commercial interests, including in the energy and construction industries. In recent years, Revolutionary Guards have provided military support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, a strategic ally of Iran.
2. What’s their alleged connection to terrorism?
The U.S. has listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, accusing it of providing assistance to a variety of groups that have carried out terrorist attacks, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and Iraqi Shiite groups. It says the Qods Force, the Revolutionary Guards’ international brigade, is Iran’s “primary mechanism” for supporting terrorists abroad.
3. What sanctions does the U.S. already impose on the Guards?
The U.S. accuses the Guards of supporting terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, abusing Iranian and Syrian human rights, and stirring regional instability. The U.S. directly sanctions several of the Guards’ commanders and a number of Iranian firms linked to the forces. Contractors who do business with the U.S. government cannot have “significant transaction with” the Guards. Sanctions are imposed on individuals who “materially assist” the Guards and on foreign banks that conduct significant business with the forces.
4. What would designating the Guards a terrorist group change?
It would expose considerably more of the Iranian economy to both direct and secondary U.S. sanctions. The U.S. has sanctioned 25 companies of the Revolutionary Guards, when at least 229 are significantly under its influence, according to one study. Scholars estimate that the Guards control from 20 percent to 40 percent of Iran’s economy. Naming the Guards a terrorist group would further restrict the number of Iranian companies that foreign companies could legally work with and make them more skittish than they already are about doing business in Iran. A terrorist label “ups the reputational concern for companies looking to deal with Iran,” said Mahmoud Fadlallah, a Dubai-based partner at the law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP. The U.S. message would be “we’re going to shut you down, we’re adversarial to companies coming in and investing,” said Amir Handjani, a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council based in Dubai.
5. Would the Iran nuclear deal survive?
Classifying one of the armed forces of a country as a terrorist organization is unprecedented. Such a move would lead hardliners in Iran to pressure Khamenei to put an end to the deal, analysts said. If the Trump administration’s thinking is to push Iran into a position where politically it feels it needs to walk away, then “this is a tactically good step to make,” said Henry Smith, lead analyst on Iran and the Middle East at the Dubai office of Control Risks, a research group.
6. How else might Iran react?
Members of the Guards deployed outside Iran, supporting the regime in Syria and helping to roll back Islamic State gains there and in Iraq, are liable to strike back at the U.S. by “creating more chaos” in those two countries, said Mahjoob Zweiri a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Qatar University in Doha. That would complicate Washington’s campaign against Islamic State and efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria.
7. How could it affect Iran’s May election?
It would give ammunition to hardliners in Iran who already see the U.S. as “an enemy that can’t be trusted,” said Afshin Shahi, senior lecturer in international relations and Middle East politics at the University of Bradford in the U.K. That would weaken the re-election prospects of incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate and the architect of the nuclear deal. The Guards would throw the U.S. action in his face, said the Atlantic Council’s Handjani. “They will say, ‘You’re the one who signed that deal, look what they are doing to us now.’”
The Reference Shelf
- Related QuickTakes on the nuclear deal, Iran’s economy and Iran’s oil.
- A primer on the Revolutionary Guards by the Council on Foreign Relations.
- A Global Security report on the Qods Force.
- The U.S. State Department’s report on state sponsors of terrorism.
- A QuickTake Q&A on Trump’s escalating row with Iran.
- Why Iran’s hard-liners hate foreign investment.
— With assistance by Kambiz Foroohar, and Anthony Dipaola