Iran responded to news that the United States might designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group by reminding the U.S. it would “consider the American army to be like Islamic State all around the world.” That scenario should give our leaders pause.
In 2007, the U.S. designated the group’s overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, as one that supports terrorist organizations. The new sanctions will move up the ladder to the parent organization, the IRGC, which is already under sanctions for ballistic missile development.
Hopefully, the U.S. announcement of the IRGC sanctions is just bad timing, as this week Iran indicated it is open to talks about its ballistic missile program. Iran is likely to see new sanctions against the IRGC as preparatory to a negotiated easing of the missile sanctions, so the Guards will remain under (new) sanctions if the ballistic missile talks bear fruit. If the threat of terrorism sanctions can force Iran to discuss its ballistic missile program with the U.S., great, but once the terrorism sanctions are in place Iran has zero motivation to talk about missiles because the intent behind terrorism sanctions is to keep them in place until a new, complaisant regime is in place in Tehran.
The IRGC is also a major economic actor in Iran, one that the Iranian government is trying to rein in through discreet corruption investigations and asset seizures. Thus, the U.S. is probably attempting to shape the internal situation in Iran by telegraphing that it will treat with favored, non-IRGC related businesses and entities in the future.
The U.S. has grappled with the status of the IRGC before. As recounted in "The Twilight War" by David Crist:
“On February 20 , J.D. Crouch chaired a meeting with senior officials in the Situation Room to recommend to the president a wide range of actions to expose the Quds Force. The debate centered on whether to designate the entire guard or just its covert Quds Force as a terrorist organization. While no one disagreed about most of the plans, the military dissented about designating either group as a terrorist organization. Marine Lieutenant General John Sattler attended the meeting for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Friendly, positive, and unflappable, the head of the Joint Staff’s plans and policy office expressed the concern of the chairman that designating military officers of another country as “terrorist” could backfire, especially if it was reciprocated against American special forces officers, who frequently operated clandestinely and have provided military assistance and training to insurgents.
“The United States has always carefully avoided declaring military officers engaged in activities sanctioned by their governments as terrorists to avoid the same being done to us,” Sattler pointed out.
The last time the U.S. designated a formal military structure of a sovereign state as a criminal organization was during the Nuremberg Trials when Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS was declared as such for its involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Designating the IRGC a terrorist entry probably sounds great after that third beer, but none of the people advocating this idea, or their children, are likely to suffer the consequences. Yes, IRGC commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari may be a bad man, but Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler? No.
If Iran reciprocates, U.S. military personnel captured by Iran or its surrogates would lose Geneva Conventions protections or the intermediation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Iran or its surrogates may not follow the conventions based on what we have seen of their treatment of Iranian-American civilians, but, on the other hand, the U.S. Navy crews who wandered into Iranian waters in early 2016 and were captured by the IRGC Navy received passable treatment.
The U.S. has no shortage of sanction options that won’t place its military personnel, most likely special operations forces, at more risk than they bear right now. It’s time to make our smart guys at the Treasury and State departments find a better way.