Why Trump’s decision to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist group is so dangerous

The move could give Iran an excuse to "target American forces," one expert said.

Trump's decision to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization could lead to war, experts say. (PHOTO Credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump's decision to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization could lead to war, experts say. (PHOTO Credit: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House on Monday announced that the United States would designate a branch of Iran’s armed forces as a foreign terrorist organization, a move experts say could pave the way for military conflict with Iran.

“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 [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] 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,” a statement released by the White House said.

The statement also emphasized that this is the first time the United States has labeled a part of another government a foreign terrorist organization.

At a press conference announcing the decision Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the designation was “a direct response to an outlaw regime and should surprise no one.” Pompeo cited numerous cases of the IRGC’s involvement in terrorism, including its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartment building in Saudi Arabia, and the 2011 attempt to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The designation puts the IRGC on par with such terrorist groups as Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.


Iran responded in kind, announcing Monday that it “has labeled American military forces as terrorist organization,” according to Iranian state-run TV.

The United States has considered Iran a state sponsor of terrorism since the 1980s and, in 2001, the George W. Bush administration designated the IRGC as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” entity, a classification that gave the U.S. government the power to freeze the IRGC’s assets. In 2017, the Trump administration also extended all terror-related sanctions to the IRGC.

But the White House’s decision to label the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization takes things further by creating an extraterritorial criminal liability for individuals who provide material support to the group.

“It makes crystal clear the risks of conducting business with, or providing support to, the IRGC. If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism,” the White House statement said.

This could have wide-reaching consequences, as the IRGC owns hundreds of private companies. As The New Yorker reported in 2017, even the Trump Organization had indirect business ties with the IRGC when it helped build a hotel in Azerbaijan — and knew of those ties while Trump was running for president.


Monday’s decision is the latest in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which has included withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, reimposing harsh sanctions that have brought Iranian citizens to the brink of poverty, and reportedly exploring regime change in and military options against Iran.

The goal, oft-repeated by Pompeo, is to get Iran to behave like a “normal” country. In his first-ever speech as secretary of state, Pompeo said that in order for Iran to have a “path forward,” it must cease all plutonium enrichment (curbed under the nuclear deal), end ballistic missile proliferation, release U.S. prisoners from Iranian jails, pull troops from Syria, and end support for terror groups in Lebanon, Yemen, and Palestine.

The designation hampers Iran’s attempts to reach this “normalcy” by U.S. standards, however, by curbing Iran’s own attempts to rein in the force.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has, over the years, tried to limit IRGC reach in Iran domestically, an effort for which there is broad support inside the country.

“Now that the U.S. is engaged in this pressure campaign, it makes it difficult for anyone domestically to take steps toward this goal because you’re now being seen as aligned with the U.S.,” said Ariane M. Tabatabai, an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

Furthermore, the designation “makes it a bit more difficult to engage with Iran for the foreseeable future,” Tabatabai said. “You also are probably going to have more of a challenge bringing them to the table to talk about regional conflict.”


One key lesson was the 2016 U.S.-Iran naval incident, in which U.S. ships strayed into Iranian territorial waters. The Obama administration’s ability to negotiate the swift release of U.S. sailors was seen as a product of U.S.-Iran diplomacy. Without those channels of communication, Tabatabai said, the outcome of any future similar incidents would be different.

“If Iran does reciprocate [in labeling the U.S. military as a terrorist group],” she said, “then they may very well be inclined to give a green light to their forces, militias, terrorist groups they support in the region … to target American forces.”

Although the move could foment regional instability and tension, the designation will have “minimal practical consequences” for the IRGC itself, said Tyler Cullis, an associate attorney at Ferrari & Associates P.C. who specializes in U.S. economic sanctions.

“[T]he IRGC is already the subject of multiple U.S. sanctions programs and foreign persons dealing with it have long been subject to serious secondary sanctions consequences,” Cullis said. “If anything, the FTO designation shows how little leverage the United States retains with respect to the IRGC and why diplomacy is the only way out of this morass.”    

Trump has defied his own intelligence agencies in branding the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. Officials at the Pentagon and the CIA have said the designation could empower hardline Iranian officials to take action against the United States.

“The Pentagon and the CIA — the two agencies with the most skin in the game in the Middle East — have long warned of the risks in designating the IRGC a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Cullis said.

“The Trump administration appears to have taken today’s action not in spite of those risks but rather precisely because of them – hoping to invite Iranian retaliation and foment a military conflict with Iran.”