Reports that the U.S. government is poised to designate the IRGC a terrorist group have sparked jitters in Tehran, even overshadowing Donald Trump’s expected plan to tear up the landmark nuclear deal, The Guardian reports.
The U.S. accuses the IRGC of terror mainly because of their military support for Hezbollah and Hamas, organizations that have been designated as terrorist groups both by the U.S. and the European Union. Trump has argued that Iran’s support for such groups “violates the spirit” of the nuclear deal.
In private, Iranian officials say that Trump’s ability to unravel the nuclear deal is bound by the U.S. Congress and the reaction of Washington’s allies in Europe, but they warn that a move against the guards would be a step too far and could even push the two countries towards open war. In Tehran political leaders are keen to show unity.
Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, architect of the nuclear deal, has said that U.S. military bases in the region would be open to attack if his forces were designated a terrorist group. Zarif’s ministry has said that Tehran’s reaction would be “firm, decisive and crushing”.
Farideh Farhi, an academic who closely monitors Iranian affairs, said that designating the IRGC as a terrorist group would be unprecedented.
“The IRGC is a integral part of Iran’s military defense and has constitutional standing as such. The designation of military officers of another country as terrorist will be a first and will open the U.S. military to reciprocal action,” she said.
Particularly at risk, Farhi said, would be U.S. special forces operating in the Middle East. The IRGC initially operated as a local force across Iran, but it expanded quickly after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 and Khomeini allowed the corps to have its own ground, navy and air forces. But Khomeini remained wary of its growing force, writing into his will an explicit command for IRGC to stay away from politics.
In 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei introduced a new dimension to the IRGC’s operational capacity by creating the Quds force, which is in charge of its overseas operations and has worked closely with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, which it sees as legitimate political parties who have legally won elections.
Such activities have infuriated the U.S. and Iran’s regional rivals, but the IRGC’s activities in Lebanon, Bosnia, Iraq and more recently their involvement in propping up Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, have hugely endeared them to Khamenei.
The U.S. also alleges that Iran has been behind a series of bombings in Iraq that has led to the death of U.S. military personnel, accusations that Iranian officials say are not substantiated. A string of top brass at the IRGC and Quds forces are already blacklisted and subject to U.S. sanctions.
Despite the dying wishes of Ayatollah Khomeini, the IRGC did become politically active – most notoriously when its Basij militia helped to crush protests after the disputed 2009 elections.
The IRGC also has a large stake in the Iranian economy, both in legal and illegal enterprises. Guard commanders own large swaths of real estate in Tehran, and are accused of involvement in lucrative cross-border smuggling operations. Mohsen Sazegara was a founding member of Khomeni’s Sepah, but is now an exiled dissident – and an outspoken critic of the organization he helped establish.
“We created a people’s army to defend the country and also help in emergencies – but it turned into a monster,” he told the Guardian. “Its transformation during the Iran-Iraq war, then the creation of the Quds force, its involvement in financial activities and its role in suppressing reformists has turned it into a country inside a country, a government inside a government and an organization that has no equivalent anywhere in the world. It’s like a river that is overflowing, covering everything.”