How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Last month, the Donald Trump administration noted that it was contemplating whether to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization, a State Department listing that includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and many other groups. But the administration’s critics decried even this as an unwise provocation, despite the fact that the United States has for the past three decades officially denounced Iran as the leading sponsor of terrorism. What's more, in 2007, a number of Democratic and Republican politicians, including then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, cosponsored a bill known as the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act that called on the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to report on its efforts to designate the Revolutionary Guard as an FTO. But the bill did not pass.
From the IRGC’s inception in 1979, terrorism has been its defining feature. The 125,000-strong force has always been commanded by reactionary religious ideologues. During the 1980s, the IRGC conducted vicious campaigns against all forms of dissent as well as against ethnic minorities, especially the Kurds and the Baluchis. Throughout the 1990s, the group attacked the Iranian reform movement and became even more feared than Iran’s intelligence ministry, which had a reputation for human rights abuses. In 1999, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unleashed the IRGC to crush student protests, a move that President Hassan Rouhani, then the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, had passionately supported. In the summer of 2009, the guards also squashed the pro-democracy Green Revolution, arresting thousands and torturing hundreds. Since its foundation, the IRGC has overseen a terror apparatus that has assassinated intellectuals, journalists, dissident politicians, and literary figures.
Yet it has been the IRGC’s terrorism abroad that has garnered the most attention. In the early 1980s, it combined various Lebanese Shiite groups to form Hezbollah, which has become Iran’s most dependable and lethal proxy. At Iran’s behest, Hezbollah bombed a U.S. Marine compound in Beirut in 1983, killing 238 U.S. service members. Since then, the guards have continuously trained and armed non-Iranian Shiite radicals, often dispatching them against Americans. The 1996 Khobar Tower bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American service members, was an Iranian-directed proxy attack. Since 2003, Iranian-supplied munitions and Iranian-trained paramilitary forces have lacerated U.S. troops in Iraq.
In 2011, the Revolutionary Guard conducted its first attack on U.S. soil by attempting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, at a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the plot was “directed and approved by elements of the Iranian government, and, specifically by the senior members of the Quds force,” which is an arm of the IRGC. An Iranian agent pleaded guilty to the crime and has been sentenced to 25 years in prison.
In Syria, the guards have been instrumental in preserving the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Under the direction of the late IRGC general, Hossein Hamadani, Syrian militias modeled after Hezbollah entered the battle. It can be said that Assad’s war crimes are also the IRGC’s war crimes since the IRGC directed military operations, carried out by either Shiite militias or Assad’s forces, explicitly aimed at slaughtering civilians. But the Islamic Republic was not punished for these atrocities. It seemed, at the time, that President Obama was focused on brokering his Iran nuclear deal and thus wanted to avoid at all costs a military collision with Iran and its Shiite militias.
The Trump administration must understand that it cannot stabilize the Middle East without first weakening the IRGC. And to do that, it should go after the group’s financial empire. If the president continues to face opposition in having the organization designated as an FTO, he can use Executive Order 13224, signed by Bush right after 9-11, which gives the administration the authority to freeze the assets of individuals or groups that either carry out terrorist acts or are at risk of doing so. Trump could apply this order to the guards and their supporters and shut them out of the global financial and commercial markets. Bush used this authority in 2007 to block the assets of the Quds Force after it provided material support to Hezbollah, the Taliban, and three Palestinian terrorist groups.
The flagging of the Quds Force’s accounts, however, does not go far enough. As the war in Syria demonstrates, the Quds Force is not a separate entity but an integral part of the IRGC. Quds Force and Revolutionary Guard units operate in tandem, with personnel routinely rotating back and forth within one command structure. Further, the Quds force play only a small role in the IRGC’s vast business ventures, which it uses to fund its terrorist activities.
Designating the IRGC through Bush’s executive order would thus be much more effective, especially if the Trump administration significantly expands the number of IRGC entities and individuals subject to sanctions from the current 60 to include the thousands of front companies operated by the guards. This would further squeeze the force, financially, since it would heighten the risks for European and Asian corporations looking to do business worth billions of dollars in sectors controlled by the guards.
The IRGC has become Tehran’s instrument of domestic repression and overseas terror. In order to tame the Islamic Republic, the United States must find a way of diminishing the guards’ power. Labeling it a terrorist group is just one way to begin that process.