President Donald Trump has been laying the groundwork for today’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group for at least 18 months, a review of US statements shows.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo himself suggested as much when he made the decision official, telling reporters at the State Department that the IRGC designation should “surprise no one” but rather “builds on” the administration’s sanctions against more than 970 Iranian businesses and individuals since the president took office.
Why it matters: The increasingly hostile rhetoric places today’s decision squarely within the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. A timeline of recent public statements lays out the US escalation — and the Iranian pushback — in stark terms:
- February 2016: The Barack Obama administration’s last worldwide threat assessment makes a single reference to the IRGC, saying its Quds Force allows the country to “exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East.”
- Oct. 13, 2017: Trump announces his Iran strategy, declaring that it “begins with the long-overdue step of imposing tough sanctions” on the IRGC, which he dubs “the Iranian Supreme Leader’s corrupt personal terror force and militia.” The president authorizes the Treasury Department to further sanction the “entire” IRGC “for its support for terrorism” and accuses the group of “arming the Syrian dictator [Bashar al-Assad], supplying proxies and partners with missiles and weapons to attack civilians in the region, and even plotting to bomb a popular restaurant right here in Washington, DC,” a reference to an alleged 2011 plot attempt to assassinate Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.
- May 8, 2018: Trump announces the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. The president justifies the move in part by declaring that the deal “does nothing to constrain Iran’s destabilizing activities, including its support for terrorism.”
- May 21, 2018: Pompeo announces his 12 demands on Iran. No. 11 on the list: “Iran, too, must end the IRG Qods Force’s support for terrorists and militant partners around the world.”
- Aug. 16, 2018: The State Department launches the Iran Action Group, headed by special representative for Iran Brian Hook.
- Sept. 25, 2018: Hook’s team releases a white paper that blames the IRGC for a range of malign and threatening actions, including terrorism, cyberattacks and even destruction of Iran’s environment.
- Jan. 29, 2019: The Trump administration’s latest intelligence assessment faults the IRGC navy for infrequent “unprofessional interactions” with US ships in the Gulf while raising concerns that such interactions could resume “should Iran seek to project an image of strength in response to US pressure.” The report also accuses the IRGC of flying drones close to US aircraft carriers during flight operations. It also points out that Iranian leaders since July 2018 have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in response to US sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports.
- April 2, 2019: The United States says it has assessed that Iran was responsible for the deaths of at least 600 US service members during the Iraq war, from 2003 to 2011. “This death toll is in addition to the many thousands of Iraqis killed by the IRGC’s proxies,” Hook adds at a State Department briefing during which he also accuses the group of “trying to plant military roots in Syria and establish a new strategic base to threaten Syria’s neighbors such as Israel” and enabling Lebanese Hezbollah to use “murder, terrorism and corruption to intimidate other Lebanese parties and communities.”
- April 8, 2019: Pompeo cites the deaths of US service members during today’s IRGC designation, making clear the high-stakes personal animosity driving US policy: “Inexplicably the regime has faced no accountability from the international community for those deaths. Far from being an arbitrary attack on Iran, our pressure campaign imposes just and long overdue consequences for the regime’s malign activity.”
What’s next: Today’s designation “makes crystal clear the risks of conducting business with, or providing support to, the IRGC,” Trump said in a statement. “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.” As the sanctions go into effect in one week, look to the Europeans and other parties to the deal to see how far they are willing to challenge the United States in an effort to salvage a nuclear deal they see as being in their national interest. Iran’s neighbors — particularly Iraq — will also come under tremendous pressure. And Iran will be contemplating its next steps after labeling the Pentagon’s Central Command a terrorist group today.
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