Last week, the Trump administration designated the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, which finally took effect yesterday. I’d hoped that saner heads would prevail in the meantime. While on the surface that seems like the right move, it’s replete with negative ancillary effects that far outweigh any positive ones.
Right up front, I’ll say that this idea didn’t arise from just the Trump administration. I remember writing The Widow’s Strike in 2013, where Pike goes against a Qods Force IRGC officer and he’s stymied because the Taskforce didn’t have authority to target him, as he wasn’t part of an organization designated a FTO – a Foreign Terrorist Organization. In the story, the Oversight Council acquiesced to the adventure because the designation was coming – and it was, by news reports. Both George Bush and Barrack Obama considered changing its designation, and both pulled back from the brink based on sound reasoning.
The word “Terrorism” has a finite meaning, and by designating them as such, we dilute what we want to achieve. Terrorism is a sub-state phenomenon. In our own United States Code, state actors cannot, by definition, be terrorists. That doesn’t mean they are good or just, but words have meaning. There’s a reason we don’t arrest a bank robber who killed someone in a robbery, and then charge him with terrorism. Did he terrorize the people in the bank? Yes. But he isn’t a terrorist. There’s another word for him in our judicial system: Murderer.
In the same vein, the IRGC isn’t conducting terrorist attacks. Does it support terrorism? Yes. Does it fund terrorism? Yes. But, it has never conducted a unilateral terrorist attack. As a state organ, it supports others who do, and, conveniently, we have a designation for that, and Iran has been included in it for decades: State Sponsor of Terrorism.
That is what the IRGC is doing, and by designating it as a terrorist group instead of a sponsor of terrorism, we’ve diluted the meaning of the term, which ultimately will benefit our enemies. For example, we are currently, training and advising a Kurdish force in Syria to wrap up operations against ISIS – a true terrorist group. The Kurds we’re helping have been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey. By advising them, much like the IRGC does with Hezbollah, we’ve now given Turkey every right to claim that we are terrorists. I know that is far-fetched, but just yesterday, Iran did a tit-for-tat and its parliament designated everyone working with US CENTCOM as terrorists.
Beyond the sparring over words, there’s a reason we’ve always relegated the term to sub-state groups, and it’s precisely to prevent unscrupulous actors at the UN, screaming about “terrorism” from the US – or from Israel. It’s going to be difficult to defend Israeli actions when it’s attacked by partisans in the UN by saying, “terrorists aren’t states” when we just designated a state as terrorists. Even greater, how do we defend ourselves against unjust accusations of “terrorism” when we’ve given up the very meaning of the word?
The Qods force – the IRGC external branch that conducts support for terrorism – has already been designated a terrorist group. Iran itself has been designated a State Sponsor of Terrorism for decades, and all of those designations have repercussions in the form of sanctions. Designating the Iranian Army as a terrorist group does not increase the existing sanctions. All it’s accomplished is to make it easier for the word “terrorist” to be used by others, and hamper our ability to operate around the globe.
By federal law, because the IRGC is now designated as a terrorist group, nobody in our government can interact with anyone who tangentially associates with the IRGC. On the margins, there are some benefits – for instance, Instagram and other social media have dropped all IRGC related accounts to keep out of federal crosshairs – but on the main, it makes it harder to operate.
A perfect example is Hezbollah. Whether we like it or not, Hezbollah, which controls 40% of Lebanon’s parliament, is a legitimate political party in Lebanon. Hezbollah deals directly with the IRGC. Will we now break off all contact with Lebanon because its government has a political party that works with the IRGC?
More concretely, we’re still fighting ISIS in Iraq. The Iraqi military is working hand in glove with both the IRGC and us. Should our US military not coordinate with the Iraqi military since the Iraqis are working with the IRGC too? Actually, it’s not a “should” question. They literally can’t now. The end result is the US will lose more influence in Iraq to Iran, a self-defeating event for negligible gains. I could continue with one example after another of international ties that could now be threatened as an ancillary affect of this new designation.
It just makes no sense.
In the end, while it may make some people happy to finally get the designation they’ve been pushing for years, putting the IRGC on the foreign terrorist organization list will do nothing more than muddy the waters of international designations and make our work fighting true non-state terrorists that much harder. Words have meaning, and while designating IRGC as a terrorist organization may sound good, it’s not likely to help our security.