Biden is right to hesitate taking Iran’s IRGC off terrorist list

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Three years ago, the U.S. correctly added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Now, as part of the negotiations to restore the nuclear deal, Tehran is forcing the U.S. to consider reversing itself. But President Biden reportedly is hesitant to budge — and rightly so. To date, the political wrangling on this issue has overlooked three factors that counsel against delisting without concrete concessions: the IRGC’s importance to the incumbent Iranian system; its terror charge spanning the entire organization; and the troubling precedent that its removal as an FTO would set.

Champions of ‘a deal at any cost’ argue that the FTO designation is merely symbolic and inconsequential. They are wrong. Why is Iran insisting that the IRGC’s FTO delisting is a red line but appears satisfied with Washington retaining its Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) designation? The answer is not all sanctions are created equal.

Prior to the FTO designation, the IRGC found itself designated as a SDGT under Executive Order 13224, but there are legal distinctions between the various counterterrorism authorities, and the FTO designation goes a step further than the SDGT in restricting immigration simply by virtue of membership in the organization — which is not inconsequential given the IRGC’s reported plotting of assassinations on U.S. soil. The SDGT has a more limited prohibitive scope, focusing on criteria defined within the Executive Order. The FTO sanction also triggers a criminal prohibition on knowingly providing material support or resources to the IRGC — with extraterritorial reach — and provides additional avenues of relief for victims of the terrorist organization in civil litigation for damages. This explains why Tehran has been driving such a hard bargain for its removal. But it is not the only reason.

IRGC as kingmaker

The Raisi administration has a close strategic relationship to the IRGC. Given Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s age and that the presidency was a springboard for him attaining the supreme leadership, Raisi has emerged as a contender for the position. If Raisi wants the top job, he will need support from the IRGC. He recognizes that allowing the U.S. to maintain its FTO designation of the IRGC would make him vulnerable in this contest. For this reason, he will want to be seen as going the extra mile in notching an additional concession for guardsmen ahead of succession.

Thus, merely delisting the IRGC as an FTO would be sacrificing leverage over the current power structure in Tehran — which will especially be needed if there is a return to the nuclear deal. Unless and until the IRGC is ready to make radical and tangible changes in its posture, no such relief should be afforded.

The IRGC’s terror mission extends throughout the entire organization

The IRGC’s constitutional mandate is “an ideological mission of jihad in God’s way … extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.” Terrorism is a means to that end. The IRGC Quds Force offers manpower, money, and materiel to Iran’s Axis of Resistance and runs point on its management. The IRGC’s other branches, namely the Aerospace Force, Navy, Ground Force, Basij, and the Intelligence Organization all collaborate with the Quds Force in employing terrorism.

The IRGC’s Aerospace Force’s drone unit undertook the July 29, 2021, attack on the Mercer Street commercial vessel, which killed two Europeans. The U.S. government has found that the commander of the IRGC’s Navy, Alireza Tangsiri, “sits atop a structure … that is responsible for the sabotage of vessels in international waters.” The IRGC’s Ground Force has deployed to Syria to assist the Quds Force and its terrorist militias. Ditto for the Basij, which, according to the Treasury Department, “recruits and trains fighters for the [Quds Force], including Iranian children, who then deploy to Syria to support the brutal Assad regime.” The head of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization has also served as an intermediary for Khamenei in Iraq — and in the process played a role normally reserved for the Quds Force commander — in meeting with senior militia leaders in July 2021 and urging them to increase attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

Thus, the IRGC across all its branches engages in and supports terrorism. The argument that discrete IRGC branches — like the Quds Force — are more worthy of being designated as FTOs than the others ignores the overlap in mission across the organization. Terrorism is in the IRGC’s DNA.

A troubling precedent

There are at least seven organizations designated as FTOs receiving direct support from the IRGC. If Washington were to rescind the designation of the mothership from which aid flows, but not its satellites, it will further undermine the consistency and coherence of the sanction.

Separately, just weeks after coming into office, the Biden administration opted to delist the Houthis — without first securing a change in its behavior. The militia’s doubling down on terrorism since the delisting has placed the Biden administration in an awkward position of having to defend the delisting even though the Houthis indisputably engage in terrorism. The delisting of the IRGC would similarly cheapen the value of the FTO list as a pressure tool.

Terror groups should only be delisted based on their conduct, as has historically been the practice. For example, when the State Department decided to remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from its FTO list in 2012, it noted that “the absence of confirmed acts of terrorism by the MEK for more than a decade, and their cooperation in the peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf, their historic paramilitary base” informed the decision. Despite the secretary of state retaining wide statutory discretion in removals, the IRGC should be subject to this same high standard.

The Iranian request for the IRGC’s delisting as an FTO is not insignificant. Acquiescing would come at a significant cost to the United States and hand the Iranian regime a significant win.

The wiser strategy would be to recognize the importance of the FTO designation and leverage that as a means of securing significant additional concessions, including first and foremost tangible changes in behavior. Anything else would be a capitulation.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). Follow him on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.

Tags Biden delisting Department of State list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations Iran Iran deal IRGC Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Joe Biden
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