How Trump can show Iran that America will not be intimidated
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Last week, Iranian officials threatened to attack American bases in the Middle East if the U.S. imposed terrorism sanctions on the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). On Thursday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to send a bill to the president that would require the Trump administration to so sanction the IRGC. Neither Congress nor the administration should let the threat of violence deter them from holding the Revolutionary Guard accountable.

The Trump administration has expressed interest in designating the IRGC, but held back due to internal disagreements. The George W. Bush administration previously settled on designating only the IRGC’s elite Quds Force for terrorism and the entire IRGC for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The entire Revolutionary Guard has since been designated under two Obama administration orders, one for human rights abuses and the other for information technology rights abuses.

Senate legislation approved last month by a vote of 98-2 requires the administration to determine that the IRGC is a terrorist organization and apply the punishments found in a 2001 executive order, which could prohibit commercial contact with the Revolutionary Guard or its affiliates.

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Early wins by Tehran over Washington could put the U.S. government on poor footing to push back against Iran across the Middle East. Timidity could also impede any future effort to amend the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. In the past, Iran has threatened to attack U.S. military installations in order to deter potential strikes on Iranian territory.

 

Yet, the most recent threats clearly targeted those debating the IRGC designation. Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, an IRGC veteran and chief of Iran’s armed forces general staff, exclaimed, “Putting the IRGC in one single class with the terrorist groups and imposing similar sanctions against the IRGC poses a major risk to the U.S., its bases and forces deployed in the region.”

His comments were echoed days later by top IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Aziz Jafari, who said, “If the U.S. wants to pursue imposing sanctions on the IRGC and defense issues, it should first close its regional military bases in a radius of 1,000 kilometers away from Iran.” Implicit in his statement is that Iran would use its missile force — which according to U.S. officials is the region’s largest — to retaliate against American bases for terrorism sanctions against the IRGC.

Yet, Tehran has every reason to back down from carrying out a missile strike. An overt attack by the Islamic Republic against an American facility — military or diplomatic — would beget an escalation spiral ending in more damage done to the Islamic Republic than to Washington or its allies. Iranian leaders know that the U.S. retains escalation dominance. In response to an attack, the U.S. can destroy any Iranian target. In 1988, the Pentagon quickly smashed most of the Iranian Navy.

Rather, Iran may fall back on its tried and true methods of proxy attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East and terrorism against American embassies. Unfortunately, the clerical regime has done both in the past without provoking escalation, or even much of a response at all. One need only to recall the lackluster American response to embassy bombings in Beirut and Kuwait during the 1980s, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and IRGC-supported attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq after 2003.

To preempt this kind of Iranian response, the Pentagon should state clearly that the U.S. will not permit its personnel to be harassed by Iran’s conventional or unconventional forces. The White House should make explicit that any attack by an Iranian-linked force on Americans will be dealt with harshly.

While Tehran will want to prove that it, too, can’t be intimidated, recent history says otherwise. A mere shift in tone from the new administration already appears to have affected Iran’s calculus. While Iran has continued missile and space launch vehicle testing, it has not launched another nuclear capable, medium-range ballistic missile since being put “on notice” by the White House in February. In Syria, Iranian-backed forces have not targeted the U.S. military outright, even though the U.S. twice downed Iranian-made Shahed-129 drones.

Despite ongoing harassment in the Persian Gulf, according to reports, U.S. officials believe that there has been a decrease in the amount of “unprofessional encounters” between U.S. and Iranian vessels when compared to the same time last year. Lastly, despite persistent Iranian grumbling about a perceived lack of American compliance with the JCPOA, Iranian officials have apparently backed down from using the “dispute resolution mechanism” in the accord.

By increasing sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard, Washington can signal a different Iran policy. A blanket designation would facilitate targeting numerous entities owned or controlled by the guards’ business fronts. The administration need not worry about American compliance with the JCPOA. Even the Obama administration fully conceded that sanctions on non-nuclear activities are consistent with the deal.

The Revolutionary Guard commanders’ angry response to potential new sanctions shows how painful a terrorism designation might be. While the Trump administration should take every precaution to defend American personnel and security architecture in the region, it must not allow Tehran to intimidate the United States. A weak response to Iranian threats could have lasting repercussions. Issuing a terrorist designation against the overlords of the Islamic Republic’s foreign adventures is long overdue.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He frequently briefs Washington audiences on a host of Iran-related issues and has testified before the U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.