The Biden administration is playing with fire as it considers lifting the formal terrorism designation on Iran’s elite military force, former U.S. officials and national security scholars said Friday, warning that American lives will be at greater risk if Washington makes such a concession in a bid to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The debate over whether to pull Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s official list of “foreign terrorist organizations” has become a flashpoint in Vienna, where negotiators from Iran, the U.S., Russia and a handful of other nations are seeking the revival of an Obama-era deal limiting Tehran’s nuclear program. President Trump repudiated the deal in 2018.
The IRGC, which backs militant groups that routinely target U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and claimed responsibility for a ballistic missile attack in northern Iraq just weeks ago, was put on the terrorist list in 2019 as the Trump administration was reimposing sanctions and ratcheting up a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.
Reflecting the fragile state of the emerging deal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Israel on Sunday to assure the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and four visiting Arab state delegations that the Biden administration remained committed to containing Iran and its nuclear programs even if a new deal is signed.
The status of the IRGC — and the prospect that the military group could get fresh funds and operating room from a new deal — was a prime topic of concern voiced to Mr. Blinken at the meeting, The Associated Press reported.
Beyond the symbolism of declaring that the IRGC is no longer a terrorist threat, critics say, offering Iran relief from economic sanctions would be a financial shot in the arm for Iran’s most potent military force with a special duty to protect the Islamic republic. The IRGC, skeptics say, would use its restored access to funds to underwrite support for militant regional allies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, anti-American militias in Iraq and other extremist outfits.
“The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has been at the center of a strategy … of using terrorism as an instrument of national power,” David Shedd, a former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Friday at a forum hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a leading group of Iranian exiles fiercely opposed to the regime in Tehran.
To argue that dropping the terrorist designation will change the IRGC’s behavior “is to say the equivalent of having someone change their DNA,” said Mr. Shedd, now a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Their DNA is terrorism as an instrument of national power, against the Iranian people, inside Iran and externally … around the globe.”
The Biden administration has been tight-lipped about the details of nuclear negotiations in Vienna, though officials have said in recent weeks that talks are nearing the finish line. Iranian officials have hinted that a deal is near and that Washington is holding up a final agreement.
U.S. negotiators aren’t allowed to meet directly with their Iranian counterparts. Instead, they rely on Russians and other intermediaries. The U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China make up the P5+1, which in 2015 secured the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agreement limits Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief. That same group of nations is seeking to negotiate a return to the agreement.
Mr. Trump put an emphatic point on the new U.S. attitude by authorizing the January 2020 strike near the Baghdad airport that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force was reportedly visiting Iraq to coordinate with local Shiite militia groups that carried out attacks on U.S. forces based there. U.S. intelligence agencies said they had learned the general was plotting more attacks when Mr. Trump approved the strike.
‘Seal of approval’
Specialists say the IRGC should remain on the U.S. terrorist list for a host of reasons, including as a way to maintain the limits that the designation puts on its ability to move money and assets outside Iran.
Delisting the organization could signal to the region that Washington now believes it’s acceptable to do business directly with the IRGC.
“Being on the list does make some entities and some people reluctant to deal openly with the IRGC. But think of the effect of taking the IRGC off the list,” former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said at Friday’s NCRI event. “That would be, in effect, the United States saying the IRGC … is not itself a terrorist organization. The IRGC, in essence, will have been given the Good Housekeeping seal of approval by the U.S. government.”
President Biden came to office after promising to resume diplomacy with Iran and secure a new nuclear deal. Iran has demanded a rollback of the sanctions on its economy and trading partners, and the status of the IRGC has emerged as a final sticking point in the talks. The administration says a new deal is the only way to restore curbs and international monitoring to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.
Proponents also argue that the terrorist designation is more symbolic than substantive and that other human rights and military sanctions will remain in place to keep the IRGC in check. The 2019 designation was the first time that the U.S. government branded a foreign government entity a terrorist group, and some warned that the same tactic could be used in time against the American military.
Mr. Biden is facing fierce resistance at home and abroad as details of the talks leak out.
Republican lawmakers and some Democratic colleagues say the administration should abandon negotiations with Iran in their current form and that the deal will never attract majority support in Congress.
“The Iranian Revolutionary Guards are Hezbollah in Lebanon, they are Islamic Jihad in Gaza, they are the Houthis in Yemen, they are the militias in Iraq,” Mr. Bennett said in a statement last week. “The IRGC are responsible for attacks on American civilians and American forces throughout the Middle East, including in the past year. … They kill Jews because they are Jews, Christians because they are Christians, and Muslims because they refuse to surrender to them.
“The attempt to delist the IRGC as a terrorist organization is an insult to the victims and would ignore documented reality supported by unequivocal evidence,” the Israeli leaders said. “We find it hard to believe that the IRGC’s designation as a terrorist organization will be removed in exchange for a promise not to harm Americans.”
“We do think the remaining issues can be bridged,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week after he was asked about the IRGC designation and its role in nuclear talks. “We do think, as we said before, we have made significant progress, we are close to a possible deal, but we’re not there yet. From our end, we are not going to characterize the number or the nature of these remaining issues precisely because we are at a very delicate stage.”
The administration seems to be banking on assurances from Iran that if removed from the terrorist list, the IRGC would cease all attacks against Americans. Some foreign policy specialists say it’s naive to believe that, as evidenced by Iran’s actions when the JCPOA was in effect.
“I think we should all remember this: When we were talking about the JCPOA and talking about implementing it, there was a hope, some sense that with this Iran [would] moderate its behavior,” former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic adviser Joseph DeTrani told the NCRI forum. The hope, he said, was that Tehran “will cease its terrorist activities, its intrusive threatening behavior, whether it be in Yemen, whether it be in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc.”
“But this,” he added, “has not happened.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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