Targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guard Is the Right Move
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP
Targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guard Is the Right Move
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

This article has been published in collaboration with the Middle East Institute, where Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow. Follow him on Twitter @AlexVatanka. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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The Trump administration is said to be considering listing a powerful state actor in Iran as a terrorist organization. Indeed, listing the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC, would be unprecedented and would constitute the biggest escalatory step by Washington against Tehran in years.

There is reportedly plenty of pushback already from senior U.S. intelligence and defense officials against adding IRGC to the State Department’s terrorism list. Critics fear such a step would do more harm than good to U.S. interests. Yet irrespective of the decision to officially designate it or not, a review of the IRGC’s actions has its merits.

IRGC leadership seizes every opportunity to flaunt its anti-American ideological mission in words and in practice. It is explicit in its core aim of forcing the United States out of the Middle East. For the sake of American interests in the region, the United States has no option but to first single out the IRGC before rolling back its noxious influence.

A Toxic Force

As the Trump administration deliberates over its next move on Iran, the one certainty is that the many disputes with Tehran will not go away anytime soon. IRGC generals will continue to go out of their way to remind Trump that this political-military organization of some 120,000 armed men is a dangerous adversary of the United States. In just the last few days, top IRGC commanders have taunted the United States as a “paper tiger” that should give up its claim of being a superpower, all the while lampooning Trump as an “amateur.”

This is mere schoolyard taunting. But Trump should not allow it to distract the administration from the real progress the IRGC has made in spreading its power at home and abroad in the last decade. The list is long.

IRGC’s intelligence arm is today holding a number of U.S. citizens in prison in Tehran on spurious charges. Its foreign expeditionary branch, the Quds Force, is spearheading Iran’s military interventions in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. From Lebanon to Syria to Iraq and elsewhere, it has helped create a variety of Shiite militant proxy groups that it arms and indoctrinates into its sectarian and anti-American worldview.

At home, the Guard’s generals are the biggest obstacle to the demands of the mass reformist movement that has tried to bring about gradual political change. IRGC bosses regularly threaten reformist leaders with death. Meanwhile, the organization’s insatiable appetite for money has put it in control of about 20 percent of the Iranian economy. Its extortionist methods are so flagrant that even an ally, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, once referred to them as “our smuggler brothers.”

Holds the Key

In other words, on key issues that matter most to the United States -- from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs to its military interventions across the region -- it is the words and actions of the IRGC leadership that Washington needs to first consider as the Trump White House develops its Iran policy. And simply hinting at possibly listing the IRGC as a terrorist organization is an important step in the effort to influence the shadowy organization’s behavior.

In that regard, it might be a good idea to stop compartmentalizing America’s Iran policy. The Obama administration’s excessive separation of Iranian hardliners in the ranks of the IRGC from the moderates in the government of President Hassan Rouhani only helped to muddle Washington’s response when the Revolutionary Guard’s actions required swift reaction.

The truth is that Iran’s moderates -- such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif -- are not in charge of the policies that most concern the United States. Take the case of Iraq. Since 2003, all of Iran’s powerful ambassadors to Baghdad have come straight from the ranks of the IRGC’s Quds Force, led by the powerful and influential Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Meanwhile, the top brass at the IRGC continues to view the multiple conflicts in the Middle East as a zero-sum rivalry with the United States and her regional allies.

However, while it is true that anti-Americanism is a core part of the worldview of this close-knit group of men at the top of the IRGC leadership, they are far from suicidal. A more forceful U.S. stance against their policies is highly likely to shape their calculations. 

There are already signs that the IRGC bosses believe it is essential that they reduce provocative actions against the United States, especially as the Trump team formulates its Iran policy. As one top IRGC general, Mohsen Rezaei, put it, “there are some sensitive days ahead between Iran and the American generals.”

An emphatic attitude is the only way the United States can push back against the spread of the worst tendencies of the Iranian regime, which are today spearheaded by the IRGC. In Iran itself, it took the Revolutionary Guard’s generals some 20 years to impose their rule over the Iranian people. These same Iranian hardliners are hell-bent on spreading their way of life to other parts of the Middle East. This is not a prospect any U.S. president can let go unchallenged.