The designation of a foreign terrorist organization is seldom a matter of great public concern. But the Trump Administration’s April 8 announcement — complete with a statement from the President himself — that the State Department was designating the Iran armed forces’ Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) heralded a significant ratcheting up of pressure on Iran, as well as the deployment of a well-worn and useful policy tool in a wholly unprecedented and counterproductive manner. Terrorism designations are supposed to be apolitical and preventative. But the IRGC designation is both political and punitive — and as such, is the latest in a series of foreign policy moves by the President that are more about providing the illusion of decisive action than actual progress.
In some cases, in fact, the movement is retrograde. Infuriated by the continued flow of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Trump announced he is ending assistance to those countries, even though expert analysis suggests doing so will only make the population flows worse. Frustrated that the Palestinians refuse to accept the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, where it has been since the founding of the state in 1948, to contested Jerusalem, Trump cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, even though this humiliation will likely only harden Palestinian resolve — and worry Israeli security officials who fear another intifada.
In the Trump era, foreign policy has ceased to be about the serious pursuit of desired outcomes and more about emotional outbursts and bold gestures that show the President won’t be restrained by the niceties of diplomacy and convention. It is theater by a man who values toughness over all else. And it puts America on the road to failure or worse.
This is the first time that Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) sanctions have been used against an official part of another government. To date, FTOs have always been non-state actors: al Qaeda, ISIS, FARC, to name some of the most famous. The designation allows the U.S. to block groups from using America’s financial system, prosecute terrorist financiers and prohibit terrorists from entering the United States. The IRGC designation will produce no practical results in way of arrests, seized assets or denied entries at the U.S. border. Why? Because the U.S. government has been taking action of all kinds against Iran for decades — ever since it was named a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984. The abundance of restrictions that accompany that designation — a figurative nuclear weapon in the diplomatic arsenal — has been the reason the State Department has never labeled a part or whole of a foreign government as an FTO. In short, the U.S. already has a perfectly effective tool, except that it predates Donald Trump.
The IRGC and its special operations component, the Quds Force, have also been the subject of multiple Executive Orders that have created a web of authorities for the government to take legal and financial action against them for their various misdeeds, including supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, if the U.S. already had a belt-and-suspenders approach to Iranian terrorism, it has now added tiny safety pin. This will gain us nothing.
But it may lose us a lot. First, there is American leadership in the fight against terror. Traditionally, U.S. designations were the gold standard, and other countries routinely accepted our word that the individuals and groups were truly bad if we said they were. This case of throwing the nearest piece of furniture at Iran will persuade no one to jump onboard the Administration’s initiative to put “maximum pressure” on Tehran. Only Israel and a few Sunni Arab states will applaud it. If anything, it will do no more than further convince friends and allies — above all, in Europe and Asia — that the Administration’s maximum hostility toward Iran is unreasoned and counterproductive. No one has any illusions that Iran is benign — it isn’t — but it is also not threatening to subvert the global order, which it is far too weak to achieve. Future designations will also be sniffed at as questionable claims and not as the irreproachable product of the world’s foremost intelligence community. This skepticism is the price of bending toward short-term political gains for what should be apolitical, analytic deliberations.
The consequences could be more tangible for the U.S. military. The IRGC is a genuinely capable operation with lots of blood on its hands — consider its actions in recent years in Syria, where its forces propped up Bashar al-Assad’s forces, managed the deployment of Shia militias from multiple countries and conducted special operations. For the last two years, as the subject has been debated inside the government, the Department of Defense objected to an FTO designation because it would put American troops at greater risk. For years, the IRGC has ensured that the Iraq-based terrorist groups it supports, like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba would not directly target U.S. forces. The Pentagon’s concern has been that Qassem Soleimani, the notorious head of the Quds Force, may be more inclined to initiate attacks against American troops in Iraq and Syria. In the worst-case scenario, these groups lob mortars at our embassy in Baghdad or kidnap American citizens.
Some people will argue that if the Iranians have been avoiding tangling with us over the last few years, they will continue to do so, and therefore this is cost-free chest thumping. But Iranian policymakers may well view this action as yet another step toward open hostilities, making it better still to steal a march on the Americans. The fear that the Iranians will see it that way seems to have been behind the thinking of both the Pentagon and the CIA, which opposed this designation. Even some analysts in the U.S. wonder if the designation is a prelude to military action against Iranian forces. The risk of miscalculation — that the Iranians will strike somewhere rather than cede the initiative to the U.S. — may not be enormous, but it is still more than we should be taking.
Yes, foreign policy is filled with tedious processes, distinctions and practices. It’s seldom as dramatic as reality television or even Twitter, and achieving results takes patience and resolve. But when it’s done right, Americans — and innocents who may be near us — won’t get killed, and other nations, hard as it is to imagine these days, may still follow our lead.
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