In an effort to tighten political and economic pressure on Tehran, the Trump administration moved Monday to brand Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, an unprecedented move against another nation’s military that the Pentagon had resisted.
President Trump issued the announcement from the White House after months of harsh rhetoric against Iran and an onslaught of sanctions aimed at crippling its economy.
In a statement, Trump said the guard “actively participates in, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft” and is the Iranian government’s “primary means of directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign.”
“This action sends a clear message to Tehran that its support for terrorism has serious consequences,” Trump said.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said the terrorist designation will take effect in one week.
Although the Revolutionary Guard plays a major role in the Iranian economy, the U.S. penalties may have limited impact because the group already is under U.S. sanctions. The designation, however, could complicate U.S. military and diplomatic missions, notably in Iraq, where many Shiite Muslim militias and Iraqi political parties have close ties to the guard.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have raised concerns that the designation may bar them from meeting foreign officials in contact with Revolutionary Guard personnel. Those concerns are one reason previous administrations did not make the move, which was considered for more than a decade.
But administration officials said Monday that exceptions would be made for U.S. personnel as needed. U.S. diplomats talk with the Taliban in Afghanistan, another group listed as a foreign terrorist organization, noted Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism.
Some military experts warned the decision could endanger U.S. troops, one reason for long-standing concerns at the Pentagon.
Iranian officials quickly warned of consequences for U.S. troops in the Middle East. The country’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called for U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in the region, to be designated “a terrorist group under Iranian law.”
Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the guard, warned that “the American army in West Asia will see the end of tranquility,” according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing a hotly contested bid for a fourth term, tweeted on the eve of the election that Trump had acted at his request.
“Thank you, my dear friend, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, for having decided to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization,” he wrote in Hebrew on Twitter. “Thank you for responding to another of my important requests, which serves the interests of our countries and countries of the region.”
He later posted a thank-you note in English that did not take credit, but said of Trump: “Once again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism.”
Trump’s move was viewed in Israel as a gift to the prime minister. Shimrit Meir, a Middle East analyst, tweeted that “the timing, of course, is last-minute help from afar for pal Netanyahu.”
The Trump administration has targeted what it calls Iran’s malign behavior since it took office, and withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord partly over those concerns. The administration cites Iran’s support for militant groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, as well as a perceived threat against Israel.
This is the first U.S. designation of an entire foreign government entity, although portions of the Revolutionary Guard, notably its elite Quds Force, have been targeted in the past.
The Revolutionary Guard “will take its rightful place on the same list as the terror groups it supports,” Pompeo said.
The designation allows the Revolutionary Guard’s assets to be frozen abroad and will complicate efforts by European and Asian companies and governments to do business with Iran. The elite military group is involved in numerous aspects of the Iranian economy.
It also makes it a U.S. crime to do business with the group or provide material support for its activities.
Brian Hook, the administration’s special representative for Iran, said the designation will deprive Iran and the Revolutionary Guard of funds needed to carry out policies that he said include assassinations and threats to U.S. military personnel.
Hook said the designation will “make radioactive” any aspect of the Iranian economy that deals with the guard.
“The Middle East cannot be more stable and peaceful without weakening” the Revolutionary Guard, Hook said, calling it the “blunt instrument” of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran hawk at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said the designation reflected the Revolutionary Guard’s growing influence in Iran’s “foreign and security policy, as well as the terror apparatus.”
The designation was announced a day before elections in Israel, where an embattled Netanyahu has long sought the listing and has long enjoyed Trump’s support.
In a tweet, Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, called it a “misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu. A(nother) dangerous U.S. misadventure in the region.”
Analysts in Tehran said the designation is unlikely to change Iran’s strategies or policies.
Ahmad Bakhshayesh, an analyst and former member of parliament, said Iran’s hard-liners will probably be emboldened. Officials may cite the designation as evidence that any effort to resume nuclear negotiations with the U.S. would be counterproductive.
The Revolutionary Guard “is the pillar of the Islamic Revolution inside and outside the country,” Bakhshayesh said.
“Iran will try to barter with Turkey, Iraq and Russia, to avoid dependency on the American dollar and other hard currencies to compensate [for] the repercussions of today’s designation.”
Bakhshayesh predicted further devaluation of Iran’s rial, already buffeted by U.S. economic sanctions.
The State Department designates 60 groups as foreign terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, Islamic State and their affiliates, Hezbollah and numerous militant Palestinian factions. The Revolutionary Guard is the first state-run military force on the list.