The Trump administration has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity.
“This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognizes the reality that Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft. The IRGC is the Iranian government’s primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign,” President Trump explained in a statement.
While there is hand-wringing in Washington and European capitals about the president’s actions, many of the complaints ignore the reality of the IRGC. For example, it is ridiculous to give any credence to the idea that U.S. adversaries may respond by labeling the U.S. military as a terrorist entity. Iran has two militaries, after all: the regular military often called the artesh (simply the Persian word for army) and the IRGC.
The former, charged with territorial defense, is the better parallel to militaries around the world. The IRGC, however, is an ideological army established to defend the revolution, meaning its enemies are both internal and external. While Nazi metaphors are overused and often inaccurate, the best parallel to the IRGC’s role is as similar to the role the Schutzstaffel, or SS, played within the Third Reich — an elite force charged with ideological defense.
Some states may still label the U.S. military as a terrorist entity, but such states deserve little diplomatic consideration and even less foreign aid. That they may still do so, however, highlights the failure of the U.N. and international community to define terrorism.
Both the Iranian constitution and the founding statutes of the IRGC define the goal of the Islamic Republic to “export revolution.” In 2008, Iranian authorities had a debate about what that meant: Did “Export of Revolution” mean building Iran up as a soft power example which others would seek to emulate, or was it fundamentally about bombs and bullets? Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the IRGC resolved it as the latter.
Then, there’s the simple fact that the IRGC is responsible for the deaths of more than 600 Americans in Iraq, and the maiming of many times more. If the IRGC were a formal and declared combatant in Iraq, that might be one thing,but Iranian leaders first reached a truce with American diplomats and agreed to keep the IRGC out of Iraq. They violated that agreement and, contrary to diplomatic hand-wringing on the Left, proceeded to violate the Geneva Conventions by waging combat while not in uniform and while shielded by civilians.
The IRGC involvement in Iraq is only the tip of the iceberg: Beirut 1983, Buenos Aires 1994, Khobar Towers 1996, the 2011 Washington assassination plot, Burgas 2012, Bangkok 2012, and the list goes on. For Iranian leaders or the IRGC to threaten retaliation only underscores the terrorist nature of the group.
What’s missing in the designation, then, and why might it be the wrong strategic move?
One of the biggest intelligence gaps in U.S. understanding toward Iran over the last 40 years is failure to identify the factional divisions within the IRGC. For all the talk (often inaccurate or exaggerated) of reformists, moderates, hardliners, pragmatists, and principalists in Iranian politics, there is little corollary discussion with any granularity about the factional divisions within the IRGC. While there is widespread agreement that the IRGC is not homogeneous and some Iranians only join for the privileges bestowed, especially in juxtaposition to those conscripted into the regular army, analysts do not have a very good idea about which personalities truly believe the IRGC’s rhetoric versus those who seek to reform the institution versus those who seek only to profit from it.
The problem for Washington and those who value freedom and liberty in Iran is that if Iran is ever going to change, it is going to be essential to fracture the IRGC. That requires identifying its weak points and internal disputes and exacerbating them. There can be no informal reform so long as the IRGC remains intact as a Praetorian Guard for the supreme leader, nor will the regime collapse so long as the IRGC remains in power.
When change comes to Iran, and it may be coming very soon with the deaths from old age of regime elites and the likely death sooner rather than later of Khamenei himself, it will be essential to win over those within the IRGC who cynically seek profit rather than those for whom ideology guides. A broad terrorist designation may hamper defections if U.S. policy considers the guilt of IRGC membership indelible.
Designating the IRGC may satiate a segment of the American audience for whom hatred of the Islamic Republic of Iran runs paramount, but it will be counterproductive if it, first, allows the IRGC to consolidate itself and, second, substitutes for the far more difficult problem of fracturing the organization and encouraging defections from within its ranks.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.