Photo Credit: RadioFreeEurope/Radio Library

Does Designating the IRGC as a FTO Help or Hurt the US?

IRGC troops marching during the anniversary of the 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in Tehran

Photo Credit: RadioFreeEurope/Radio Library

On April 8, 2019, President Trump designated Iran’s most powerful security organization, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). He believed it was necessary as America has already labeled Iran a state sponsor of terrorism. This is the first time that the United States has ever designated another government entity as an FTO. In response to this designation, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) ordered that American troops in the Middle-East be designated as terrorists.

According to Daniel Benjamin and Jason M. Blazakis, two experts in terrorism and counterterrorism, designating the IRGC as an FTO was unprecedented and counterproductive. They stated that “FTO designations are supposed to be apolitical and preventative.”

The Trump administration didn’t act immediately to these attacks, therefore making this designation seem more as a punishment for Iran’s retroactive actions rather than focusing on other factors that pose a terrorist threat to the United States. Before imposing this designation on the IRGC, there have been executive orders long predating this Administration that have been taken by the State Department allowing the US to take further legal and financial actions against Iran.

The current policy states that the US will continue to place maximum pressure through sanctions to manipulate Iran to change its behavior. It’s hard to say when diplomatic relations will be restored but the US has rebuilt its relationship with both the Soviet Union and China.

The Secretary of State should revoke the designation within a specific time frame. The United States has a list of conditions for a policy change with Iran that include a revised nuclear deal and normalization of US relations. If the US and the Iranian government can engage in conversation within this time frame, it could leave room for negotiations.

There could be a significant backlash because of the absence of proper reasoning for this FTO designation. Benjamin and Blazakis believe that American troops in Iraq and Syria could be attacked by Iran. Others state that Tehran’s participation in the 2015 nuclear deal can’t stop Iran from retaliating in domains outside of proliferation. They could detain and imprison US citizens, assassinate people, and harass American ships in the Persian Gulf, or even exploring in the cyber realm.

Due to this being the first time that the United States has designated a foreign country’s government entity as an FTO, it should have been examined more closely. Rather than keeping the IRGC designated as an FTO, maybe the Administration should look at reopening dialogue with Iran. Having an open conversation on revoking the designation on the IRGC in return of some negotiation may lead to less or no negative effects toward the United States.


US Deems IRGC “Terrorists”

As part of the Trump Administration campaign to isolate Iran, Secretary Mike Pompeo declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist group.

The IRCG was created in 1979 to protect the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran. Today it does much more. In Iran, the IRCG is an important actor for business including telecommunications, and energy.

They have close ties with the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which gives them influence beyond the Iranian boarders. For example, their sub-group Quds operates in Syria, Israel, and other Middle Eastern states.

Pompeo cites the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and the 2011 foiled plot by the Quds to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US. It seems as if this move has been a long time coming due to previous attacks relating to the US and its allies.

Trumps use of ‘maximum pressure’ is a part of this move to add IRCG to the list of terrorists and it is used as a way to stabilize the region to create peace.

However, the timing suggests this action may be political to support Benjamin Netanyahu, who was running for Prime Minister of Israel. Trump and Netanyahu have very close relations since the end of the Obama administration, so it would be plausible for Trump to make this move to support his friend in the Middle East, while continuing his campaign to isolate and threaten Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has also responded in word and action with Trumps decision to designate the IRCG as a foreign terrorist group. In return, the Iranians have declared all American forces in the Middle East as terrorists.

This latest development increases the already heightened tension. This could be catastrophic in the Middle East. Since both militaries consider their counterparts terrorists, it could lead to war between the US and Iran.

The US has made many harsh moves to isolate Iran since the election of Trump. Although, it seems that tensions between the US and Iran are at an all-time high. President Trump just might want to reevaluate the way he’s using his power.


Nick Webb is the Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.

Pakistan: A Crossroads for US Defense Strategy

President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House Photo: PETER SOUZA

May 1, 2011: United States Navy SEAL Team 6 boarded two helicopters and crossed the Afghan border. They flew low, evading radar coverage on their way into Abbottabad, Pakistan (a military town home to the Pakistani military academy) and the location where U.S. intelligence believed they would find America’s most wanted criminal, the man responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

The excitement of the day eight years ago masked the fact that modern US-Pakistani relations were laid bare. A clearer picture emerged as the public discovered that the mission to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden was conducted without the knowledge or involvement of the Pakistani government and that this lack of transparency was not an anomaly in the era of the War on Terror.

During the Obama presidency, U.S. policy was designed to elicit Pakistani support in order to facilitate a renewed focus on winning the war in Afghanistan, as many Taliban elders sought refuge in the tribal regions of Pakistani northern Waziristan.

This entailed limited appeasement of the Pakistanis, in order to try to develop the partnership through billions of dollars in aid and support. Former Obama administration national-security council advisor Joshua White, now at The Brookings Institution, explained that at that time “the duplicity of Pakistan’s intelligence services was baked into the stock price of U.S.-Pakistan relations.”

Despite this understanding, as time went on inaction and opposition to US policy in Afghanistan would strain the relationship. It seemed the Obama Pakistan policy was doomed by a fundamental reality of US relations in the region: Security issues have always been the most pressing impetus for diplomatic relations, and they will always find a way to dominate the agenda.

The problem then and remains today that tensions will inevitably arise from a mismatch in security interests between the two countries. Several more diplomatic incidents involving CIA assassins and an unintentional attack on Pakistani forces by a NATO warplane would later underscore the reality of relations with Islamabad for Obama, who would later acknowledge that he questioned why the alliance existed at all.

The Trump administration benefits strongly from the hindsight of the Obama years. For them, the problem of demanding greater Pakistani action is much more one of stop-losses. Despite bilateral failings and differing priorities, the Pakistanis outstrip most other allied nations in counterterror action against organizations like Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network and other mutual nuisances, but less so when it comes to unilateral US concerns like the Afghan Taliban.

A senior US intelligence official interviewed by The New Yorker last year described the “maddening truth” that despite the willingness to give funding and sanctuary to Taliban leaders, “Nobody had taken more bad guys off the battlefield than the Pakistanis.” Islamabad’s willingness to prioritize their own interests has long been tolerated, but that may be coming to an end as the new administration’s foreign policy is seen as less flexible.

President Trump appears to be comfortable taking a hardline position with Pakistan, raising the bar for access to US aid in the hopes of greater support, while seemingly willing to accept diminished returns if they are not willing to step up counterterror efforts. Last year he spoke out on Twitter condemning Islamabad’s lack of commitment as he announced a wave of significant cuts to economic and military aid in an attempt to underscore the seriousness of his administration’s new policy.

For the administration, a diminished – but not severed – the alliance has some advantages.

The US occupies a precarious position, balancing concern for regional partners like India and the desire to continue efforts to develop an exit strategy for Afghanistan, which are heavily predicated on Pakistani support to the Taliban.

Reducing military aid while enjoying the benefits of the somewhat diminished counterterror efforts Pakistan carries out on its own would allow the U.S. to reassure commitments to India but would cost the U.S. significantly in negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. For now, Trump has not yet made clear which is the ultimate priority in the region.

Continued indecisiveness will threaten new bilateral economic agreements with India.

Given the mandate Indian PM Narendra Modi holds from his recent victory, he is likely to extend his hardline anti-Pakistan rhetoric, particularly after the widely condemned Pakistani sponsored JeM attacks on a bus of Indian troops in April.

As India rachets up tensions, Pakistan stands squarely in the crosshairs of this emerging and potentially invaluable alliance for Washington. India’s position as a regional power makes it a priority, as their capability to check back against the rise of China can resolve a signature Trump policy goal. Sacrifices are going to have to be made. The result of such decisions may be grave for Pakistan.

As future US-Pakistani relations evolve, there must be a greater focus on bilateral accountability, commitment, and anti-corruption efforts.

Without them, future efforts to combat terrorism in the region will likely remain productive when there is an ongoing mutual interest, but continue to be hampered by distrust and lack of commitment when U.S. attention turns to groups with which Pakistan finds strategic convenience in turning a blind eye, particularly with the Taliban.

Likewise, if the rift between the nations were to exacerbate, the Pakistanis may find limited access to important trade and economic aid which has been essential to the local economy and may struggle with counterterror coup-proofing to resist regional insurgents bent on vying for control of the country.

A significant part of the decision to retain the support of Pakistan needs to be made with respect to the continuing goals and strategy in Afghanistan. Pakistan has never made secret its efforts to back regional extremists in the northern tribal areas of that country and has long given refuge to Taliban elders within its borders.

Obama set the course for a slow withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with the legitimization of Taliban rule in exchange for the closure of terror camps – the pre-9/11 US strategy.

If Trump wants to take the position that there cannot be legitimate Taliban rule in Afghanistan under his watch, then he will have to put increasing pressure on Islamabad to force greater counter-terror participation.

If the administration is content with the settlement being developed by the US special envoy for Afghanistan – a plan albeit widely unpopular with Congress – then it may be wise to dissolve much of the alliance in favor of broader support of India.

This reflects a much bigger crossroads in the future of US threat analysis: does the administration believe it necessary to remain engaged in widespread counterinsurgency, or is it time to cut losses in favor of a solution to emerging great power woes?

Special Report: Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information

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In the report Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information, Director of the Domestic Counter-Terrorism Program John Patrick Wilson and Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow Caitlyn Ryan offer in-depth analysis of the neo-Nazi movement. This broad endeavor covers many important topics required to understand neo-Nazism in the US and methods to offset it going forward. Please click the above link to view the publication in its entirety.

George Rockwell: The Original American Nazi

Rockwell at a news conference in 1965. Image credit: Associated Press.

Within the American neo-Nazi movement, there is perhaps no single individual more significant than George Lincoln Rockwell. Rockwell, who founded the American Nazi Party, was an active politician, former military commander, and grandfather of the neo-Nazi movement. Channeling conspiratorial beliefs and a dedication to the ideals of Adolf Hitler, Rockwell sought to bring National Socialism to mainstream politics in the United States.

Prior to his assassination by a neo-Nazi protégé, Rockwell had even run for governor of Virginia, garnering one percent of the total vote. Standing around 6’4” and in sound shape, the former military man seemed on the surface to be a prime example of another hero in a generation of heroes, but something had gone terribly wrong.

Information on Rockwell’s upbringing does not reveal a nurturing of extremist beliefs by family or close friends. In fact, Rockwell grew up with family friends who were Jewish. He was highly intelligent and studied philosophy at Brown University. During his time at Brown, however, Rockwell developed the belief that a sub-culture of communism was being fostered by the university; thus, he dropped out. Shortly thereafter, Rockwell volunteered as a pilot in the United States Navy. Rockwell served in both World War II and the Korean War, finishing his career in the Navy as a Commander- a title he insisted on being addressed by even after completing his time in the service.

Near the end of his military career, a copy of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf came into his possession and he became obsessed. Observing the civil rights movement and associated civil unrest, Rockwell came to the conclusion that fascism was the only cure for the direction he saw the United States taking.

Rockwell regularly wrote various types of literature, from basic Nazi propaganda to full-length books. Looking into his own past, he stated that his time spent fighting Nazism during the second world war was regrettable. He referred to the war as a battle between criminal gangs consisting of ‘Bolsheviks & Zionists’, and considered himself ignorant for partaking in it.

Rockwell went out of his way to defend a history marked with indicators that he had a mental health condition. In the 1930s, just prior to his volunteering for the United States Navy, Rockwell was committed to an insane asylum; however, he was released after just 10 days of his scheduled 30 day stay, and writes that this is because he proved his sanity. However, his writings indicate a narcissistic personality. Rockwell believed that he possessed a ‘superior mind’ which could truly grasp and understand the universe and all its grand ideas and concepts, unlike the general population whom he describes as idiots. So grandiose was Rockwell that he on multiple occasions stated that he would be elected the President of the United States by 1973.

The American Nazi Party still maintains several of Rockwell’s writings on their website and speak about their founder with great admiration. In a post about Rockwell, the party states that “he single-handedly lifted our banner from the ashes of Berlin into the skies of America”. Interestingly, while the party speaks about Rockwell’s physical, mental, and leadership qualities, they also acknowledge that his rise occurred at least in part due to the social and civil unrest of 1960s America.

Rockwell’s legacy in the neo-Nazi movement in the United States is far from just a distant historical existence. Martin Kerr of the New Order, an organization that descended from the internal factions that split the American Nazi Party at the time of Rockwell’s death, views Rockwell as important to the neo-Nazi movement today. Speaking on the protests in Charlottesville that left one dead and dozens injured, Kerr declared that Rockwell’s spirit was alive and well within the protest.

Rockwell may have not been raised to be a Nazi, but several factors likely led to his ideological outcome. First, despite his claims of sanity, there likely was a mental health condition that led to his time in an asylum. This alone does not lead to the start of the radicalization process, but combined with societal and personal pressures, can contribute to the process. As Rockwell demonstrated in college, he was vulnerable to conspiratorial claims and through his writings he speaks with overtly narcissistic language. However, he also maintained a natural leadership capability demonstrated through his military career and his ability to gather followers once radicalized.

Rockwell was likely victim to, and later beneficiary from, societal stressors. The evolution of the civil rights movement and its accompanying civil unrest would appear to support racial conspiratorial claims found in Nazism. This both reaffirmed Rockwell’s Nazi beliefs and allowed him to market the ideology to others prone to the radicalization process.

While Rockwell’s conception of Nazism was more accurate to actual Nazi teachings and beliefs than some modern neo-Nazi groups, the lessons that can be learned from how Rockwell came to power in the movement are still relevant today. Rockwell was the perfect storm, at the almost perfect time. The civil rights movement allowed Rockwell to capitalize on racist beliefs and fears to attract a following. If it the atrocities of Nazi Germany had not still been fresh in the minds of Americans, there is a real chance that Rockwell’s following would have been much stronger. In the heated political climate of today, we must remember that there will be ‘perfect storms’ who will seek to capitalize on the divides in society.


John Patrick Wilson is a law enforcement professional as well as Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.