The Trump administration increased pressure on Iran on Monday as it designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. The provocative move is likely to inflame tensions between Tehran and Washington following the US decision last year to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The Revolutionary Guard Corps was established in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, initially to provide security protection for members of the new regime. But it soon expanded its reach to permeate many sectors of Iranian economic and political life.
The elite group remains one of the most important forces in the country, despite efforts by President Hassan Rouhani to loosen the guards’ grip, and is loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The move to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organisation will lead to fresh sanctions on individuals and entities connected with the organisation, a move with potentially far-reaching implications giving the role the IRGC plays in many sectors of the Iranian economy.
White House officials declined to specify who may be affected by the sanctions, which are due to go into effect next Monday.
In retaliation, Tehran named the United States Central Command as a terrorist organisation and the US government as a sponsor of terror. "This unwise and illegal measure is a major threat to regional and international stability and peace," said Iran's National Security Council in a statement.
Announcing the decision, President Donald Trump said that the "unprecedented step, led by the department of state, recognises the reality that Iran is not only a state sponsor of terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft."
Briefing reporters at the White House, senior administration officials said that the Iranian regime had made a “clear choice” not only to fund and equip terrorists, but to become an “active and enthusiastic participant in acts of terror” through the IRGC.
In particular, the state department highlighted the role of the IRGC in the deaths of hundreds of Americans, including 603 American serviceman killed in Iraq since 2003.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that the Trump administration was "simply recognising a basic reality" with the designation, adding that the IRGC would now take its rightful place on the same list as terrorist groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon.
“This is the first time that the United States has designated a part of another government as a foreign terrorist organisation,” he said. “We’re doing because the Iranian regime’s use of terrorism as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government. This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”
‘Gift’ for Netanyahu
But Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif accused the United States of presenting a “gift” to Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the eve of the Israeli election.
“A(nother) misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu. A(nother) dangerous U.S. misadventure in the region,” he tweeted.
Mr Netanyahu, who visited Washington two weeks ago and is a close ally of Mr Trump, also took to Twitter in response to the move.
“Thank you, President Trump for your decision to designate the Islamic revolutionary guards as a terrorist organization. Once again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism.”
The Israeli prime minister has taken a hawkish stance on Iran and vociferously opposed the 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama and other western powers.
It was not clear how the US move to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organisation would impact on the European Union’s engagement with Iran. Despite the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the EU remains committed to the accord and is in the process of setting up a special mechanism to allow companies to trade with Iranian exporters.