Categories: Rise to Peace blog

U.S Increases Pressure on Iran, but at What Cost?

On April 8th the Trump Administration designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization. It marks the first time the U.S has taken this action against an entity of a foreign government.[1] Until now, terrorists were always considered “non-state actors.” Iran, however, has been labeled a state-sponsor of terrorism since 1984. The result of this designation is sweeping economic and travel sanctions on the IRGC, as well as sanctions on any individuals or companies associated with the organization[2] The IRGC will be added to a list with 67 other terrorist organizations, including Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Ashstar Brigades.

The U.S. intent in designating IRGC a terrorist organization remains unclear, but the decision appears to have been made with haste, as Mike Pompeo, the U.S Secretary of State, was pressured by State Department officials to delay the announcement. The exact plan for implementation also remains unclear, as according to the New York Times, American officials in Baghdad said they had “no guidance” on how to enforce the policy. In fact, it has been argued that the Administration’s decision was not made for strategic reasons, but instead at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last week was Israel’s elections, thus, the decision has been decried as an attempt to boost his popularity.[3]

Whether or not the decision was made at the behest of Prime Minister Netanyahu, it reflects the United States’ hawkish strategy to isolate and provoke the Iranian government. Last May, the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated by former President Barrack Obama. In November, the administration reinstated wide-ranging economic sanctions on Iran. In the State Department’s announcement the sanctions were deemed part of the U.S government’s “maximum pressure campaign” to counter Iran’s influence in funding terrorist groups and to counter their support for Assad’s regime in Syria.[4] Especially given the United States’ already existing sanctions on Iran, it is uncertain if the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization will achieve any strategic goals or meaningful reduction in terrorism.

However, it does seem certain that the designation will have unintended consequences. It may provoke anti-American sentiment in the region, encouraging local militia groups and terrorist organizations to retaliate to American presence. In particular, American forces in Iraq are endangered due to Iraqi Shiite militants that have been trained by Iranian military officials to fight American troops. This concern isn’t hypothetical, following the administration’s announcement, Iranian lawmakers dressed in military uniforms chanted “Death to America,” during their opening session of Parliament.[5] Days after the announcement, a car bomb attack in Afghanistan killed three U.S service members.

Instead of using methods that will provoke anti-American sentiments, the U.S should consider diplomatic channels. One of the purposes of the administration’s decision to label the IRGC as a terrorist organization is to force changes to their ballistic missile program and reduce their financing of militant groups in Iraq and Syria. However, the designation is antithetical to the administration’s strategy, as reliance on unilateral, hostile measures make it less likely that Iran will accede to American demands. Iran has already demonstrated their unwillingness to cooperate with U.S when it uses forceful measures; in fact, Iran’s response to the American designation was to retaliate by labeling the regional United States Central Command a terrorist organization.

A strategy focused on diplomatic engagement should include a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal. The nuclear agreement can be successful, especially because it has support from the international community including important U.S partners like the European Union. Unilateral pressure will be insufficient, therefore, the administration will need multilateral support and a willingness to open up spaces for negotiation. This won’t come easily, due to President Trump’s record of using force rather than diplomacy, it will be difficult to build trust amongst Iranian lawmakers that the United States is legitimately changing course. But if the Trump Administration wants to ensure reginal stability and protect American troops, it should reconsider its decision to label the IRGC as a terrorist organization and its decision to withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

[1] Iran Warns US of ‘Dangerous Consequences’ As Saudi Arabia and Israel Back U.S Move. Accessed April 12th 2019. Received from https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2019/04/09/iran-designates-u-s-military-a-terrorist-organization-warns-of-dangerous-consequences/#2b888013ede2.

[2] Trump Designates Iran Revolutionary Guards a Foreign Terrorist Group. Accessed April 14th 2019. Received from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-revolutionary-guard-corps.html.

[3] US labeling of IRGC meant to cater to Israel, experts say. Accessed April 14th 2019. Retrieved from https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2019/04/09/592958/US-IRGC-Israel.

[4] Sanctions Announcement on Iran. Accessed April 14th 2019. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2018/11/287500.htm

[5] Designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terror group could jeopardize U.S troops. Accessed April 14th 2019. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/designating-iran-s-revolutionary-guard-terror-group-could-jeopardize-u-n992356.

Shannon Howley

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