Iran’s IRGC & US FTO Law—Think Before Leaping

This short essay briefly outlines this argument:  the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), could yield two outcomes: complicate Iraq’s internal politics, and destabilize the precarious peace that exists between Israel and Hezbollah.  My premise is that a disruptive IRGC constitutes a threat to stability across the Middle East and its capacity ought to be contained and confined so that it cannot threaten US Allies.  Doing so leveraging the FTO law is poor policy.

Why should the IRGC react, perhaps convulsively to a FTO designation?  The clues lie in two considerations: first, it would signal the Iranian political establishment that the recent work of Iranian moderates to depressurize US/Iran relations has been repudiated by America thus throwing open the door for hardliners, most notably the IRGC, to escalate tensions across the Middle East, especially where they collide with US vital interests.  Here, the admonition from the Iranian far right that America was not to be trusted becomes an apparent, albeit engineered fulfillment of prophetic state demonization of the US. The second consideration has to do more with the broader notion of what approaches Iran will leverage in dealing with the US and the West.  Armed with the FTO label, the IRGC will use it to shout down, intimidate, or jail moderates to the objective of leading Iran away from negotiation—perhaps for another generation, as a discredited approach that fails to satisfy Iranian priorities and cannot help it attain its ends independent of violence and destabilization.

Designating a non-state actor as a FTO is taken from the 1996 US law whose intent was to recognize and focus US efforts to counter non-state actors that support or conduct terrorism.  The administration is rumored to be considering the designation of the IRGC as a FTO; unwise for two reasons:  first, the FTO law is the wrong tool to constrain the IRGC.  Since late 1997, the US has designated nearly 60 overseas entities as FTOs.  Of those organizations, only Hamas—nine years after first being sanctioned by the US as a FTO, became a state actor.  Other FTO organizations remain active terrorist actors but none of them are arms of a nation’s military as is the IRGC.  Designating the IRGC as a FTO is a bad idea for a second reason in that doing so will virtually guarantee the IRGC will retaliate in ways that could asymmetrically jeopardize US vital interests in Iraq and Israel.

In Iraq, the IRGC has the means to act throughout the depth of Iraqi society.  Specifically, the IRGC’s direct connections to Sh’ia centers of power in Iraq could thwart Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi’s ability to contain the political influence of Moqtada Al-Sadr.  An active IRGC would prompt yet more activist meddling by Nouri Al-Maliki, the previous prime minister.  Practically, Sh’ia violence away from the northern IS battlefield could upset domestic security and promote the perception that the Abadi regime is chronically weak and dangerously ineffective.  Looking elsewhere, the IRGC maintains contact with the Sh’ia militias that form the core of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs).  While the PMUs lack the ability to tactically defeat Iraq’s military, the PMUs have sufficient influence to destabilize a post-IS Iraq.  In other ways, the militias could occupy Baghdad neighborhoods and elsewhere across southern Iraq to in effect, create policing no-go zones where IRGC influence has the upper hand.

A high percentage of Iraq’s military and police are Sh’ia.  This provides an opening for activist Sh’ia clerics competing for political influence and public visibility to undermine the willingness of Iraq’s military to confront IRGC guided militias.  The IRGC will almost certainly mount a resumption of violence against US personnel within Iraq.  From 2003 to 2011, Sh’ia militias were responsible for 500+ US combat deaths.  Against the backdrop of any of these scenarios, it is likely that foreign governments will remove their Iraqi military and police trainers, as several coalition nations did during the occupation.  Consequently, the train/advise/assist military mission in Iraq would contract and quickly cease.  The end of those enabling activities matters for two reasons:  first, the military and police would stagnate, each descending into widespread incompetence; second, both would return to hollow forces in being, each incapable of protecting Iraq from within and without.

In the case of Israel, the IRGC could impose high costs and enduring consequences on Israeli security.  In southern Lebanon, The IRGC has embedded presence within Hezbollah.  With thousands of rockets in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah under the leadership of IRGC field commanders, could order rocket and missile attacks against settlements within a broad swath of northern Israel.  Intercepting incoming Hezbollah missiles and rockets attacks is a problem for which the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have an answer:  Iron Dome.  Unlike Iron Dome’s capacity to intercept Hamas rockets occasionally fired out of Gaza, there may not be sufficient Iron Dome capacity to mitigate all of Hezbollah’s missile and rocket capacity and respond appropriately to Hamas.

Hezbollah aggression would meet with a swift, full-throated IDF response that could lead to the third major war fought along Israel’s northern border since the early 1980s.  The human and financial costs to the Israel of a full-scope war against Hezbollah would be significant as this war would likely not be permitted to end in a stalemate.  Unlike the conclusion of the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel would likely feel compelled to foreclose any future Hezbollah aggression that could continue to threaten northern Israeli settlements.  Moreover, a third Lebanon War fight would end the lives of innocent civilians in Israel and Lebanon, consume a vast sum from Israel’s national treasury, and cause collateral damage on the ground and throughout the region’s economy.

Additionally, there are other potential courses of action open to the IRGC; for example, maritime confrontations along its Persian Gulf shoreline, and direct action against US supported anti-Assad regime groups in Syria.  In the Persian Gulf, the IRGC’s fast craft could mount attacks versus US Navy ships that could result in loss of American lives.  In Syria, the IRGC has means to hunt down US proxy forces operating there to counter both Al Qua’ida and the Assad regime.  The IRGC is a sophisticated Iranian state military actor, not a classic non-state terrorism entity.   Any US designation of the IRGC as a FTO will be met with a range of responses—the US is not in control of the where, when, or how.

Downtown Baghdad, across Iraq, southern Lebanon, throughout Syria, or the Persian Gulf—the designation of the IRGC as a FTO creates multiple levels of risk that threaten two US vital interests: a stable Iraq and a secure Israel.  Further complicating matters are spillover effects such the safety of US naval forces in the Persian Gulf, and US proxy forces within Syria.  On balance, the downsides of US FTO designation of Iran’s IRGC beg for another big idea and strategy to contain and ultimately thwart IRGC adventurism.  America must be more creative than its IRGC adversary.