The United States has decided to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s 125,000-strong elite military branch, as a “specially designated global terrorist,” according to U.S. officials, a move that allows Washington to target the group’s business operations and finances.
The Bush administration has chosen to move against the Revolutionary Guard Corps because of what U.S. officials have described as its growing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as its support for extremists throughout the Middle East, the sources said. The decision follows congressional pressure on the administration to toughen its stance against Tehran, as well as U.S. frustration with the ineffectiveness of U.N. resolutions against Iran’s nuclear program, officials said.
The designation of the Revolutionary Guard will be made under Executive Order 13224, which President Bush signed two weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to obstruct terrorist funding. It authorizes the United States to identify individuals, businesses, charities and extremist groups engaged in terrorist activities. The Revolutionary Guard would be the first national military branch included on the list, U.S. officials said — a highly unusual move because it is part of a government, rather than a typical non-state terrorist organization.
The order allows the United States to block the assets of terrorists and to disrupt operations by foreign businesses that “provide support, services or assistance to, or otherwise associate with, terrorists.”
The move reflects escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran over issues including Iraq and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran has been on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1984, but in May the two countries began their first formal one-on-one dialogue in 28 years with a meeting of diplomats in Baghdad.
The main goal of the new designation is to clamp down on the Revolutionary Guard’s vast business network, as well as on foreign companies conducting business linked to the military unit and its personnel. The administration plans to list many of the Revolutionary Guard’s financial operations.
“Anyone doing business with these people will have to reevaluate their actions immediately,” said a U.S. official familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced. “It increases the risks of people who have until now ignored the growing list of sanctions against the Iranians. It makes clear to everyone who the IRGC and their related businesses really are. It removes the excuses for doing business with these people.”
For weeks, the Bush administration has been debating whether to target the Revolutionary Guard Corps in full, or only its Quds Force wing, which U.S. officials have linked to the growing flow of explosives, roadside bombs, rockets and other arms to Shiite militias in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Quds Force also lends support to Shiite allies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and to Sunni movements such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Although administration discussions continue, the initial decision is to target the entire Guard Corps, U.S. officials said. The administration has not yet decided when to announce the new measure, but officials said they would prefer to do so before the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly next month, when the United States intends to increase international pressure against Iran.
Formed in 1979 and originally tasked with protecting the world’s only modern theocracy, the Revolutionary Guard took the lead in battling Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq war waged from 1980 to 1988. The Guard, also known as the Pasdaran, has since become a powerful political and economic force in Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose through the ranks of the Revolutionary Guard and came to power with support from its network of veterans. Its leaders are linked to many mainstream businesses in Iran.
“They are heavily involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to telecommunications and pipelines — even the new Imam Khomeini Airport and a great deal of smuggling,” said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Many of the front companies engaged in procuring nuclear technology are owned and run by the Revolutionary Guards. They’re developing along the lines of the Chinese military, which is involved in many business enterprises. It’s a huge business conglomeration.”
The Revolutionary Guard Corps — with its own navy, air force, ground forces and special forces units — is a rival to Iran’s conventional troops. Its naval forces abducted 15 British sailors and marines this spring, sparking an international crisis, and its special forces armed Lebanon’s Hezbollah with missiles used against Israel in the 2006 war. The corps also plays a key role in Iran’s military industries, including the attempted acquisition of nuclear weapons and surface-to-surface missiles, according to Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The United States took punitive action against Iran after the November 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, including the breaking of diplomatic ties and the freezing of Iranian assets in the United States. More recently, dozens of international banks and financial institutions reduced or eliminated their business with Iran after a quiet campaign by the Treasury Department and State Department aimed at limiting Tehran’s access to the international financial system. Over the past year, two U.N. resolutions have targeted the assets and movements of 28 people — including some Revolutionary Guard members — linked to Iran’s nuclear program.
The key obstacle to stronger international pressure against Tehran has been China, Iran’s largest trading partner. After the Iranian government refused to comply with two U.N. Security Council resolutions dealing with its nuclear program, Beijing balked at a U.S. proposal for a resolution that would have sanctioned the Revolutionary Guard, U.S. officials said.
China’s actions reverse a cycle during which Russia was the most reluctant among the veto-wielding members of the Security Council. “China used to hide behind Russia, but Russia is now hiding behind China,” said a U.S. official familiar with negotiations.
The administration’s move comes amid growing support in Congress for the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which was introduced in the Senate by Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and in the House by Tom Lantos (D-Calif.). The bill already has the support of 323 House members.
The administration’s move could hurt diplomatic efforts, some analysts said. “It would greatly complicate our efforts to solve the nuclear issue,” said Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Center for American Progress. “It would tie an end to Iran’s nuclear program to an end to its support of allies in Hezbollah and Hamas. The only way you could get a nuclear deal is as part of a grand bargain, which at this point is completely out of reach.”
Such sanctions can work only alongside diplomatic efforts, Cirincione added.
“Sanctions can serve as a prod, but they have very rarely forced a country to capitulate or collapse,” he said. “All of us want to back Iran into a corner, but we want to give them a way out, too. [The designation] will convince many in Iran’s elite that there’s no point in talking with us and that the only thing that will satisfy us is regime change.”