US President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Sunday night to threaten Tehran: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”

The statement came two weeks after the US deployed an aircraft carrier to the region, and just over a month after the Trump administration blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist entity.

Despite a cooling of Persian Gulf tensions in recent days, the US president’s antagonism towards Iran has not dwindled and his administration seems to be determined to chip away at the Islamic Republic at any cost.

In May 2018, President Trump ruffled feathers in Tehran by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council that had shaped a peaceful international consensus around the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

Trump’s controversial decision to pull out of the JCPOA was only the tip of an iceberg in a larger Iran strategy. On April 8, President Trump delivered the second major blow to Tehran in a span of two years by designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

The IRGC is a branch of Iran’s armed forces established after the 1979 revolution and tasked with protecting and safeguarding the Islamic Republic system by foiling coups, preventing foreign interference in the country and blocking “deviant movements”.

The elite military force is estimated to have more than 150,000 active personnel, and is considered a counterweight to the conventional armed forces. The IRGC also controls the paramilitary Basij militia, which has 90,000 members. The special foreign operations branch of IRGC is called the Quds Force, and it is involved in places such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in support of its local allies.

While the IRGC was previously targeted with sanctions over its support for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, its designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the US government is the first time that the United States has ever named a part of another government on this list.

Prestige at stake

The IRGC provides money, weapons, technology, training and advice to its allies and oversees Iran’s contested ballistic missiles program. It also patrols the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway connecting the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean and passageway to 20% of the world’s oil supply.

The Guards also run an intelligence unit that is believed to be behind the detention of some 30 dual nationals inside Iran since 2015, chiefly on espionage charges. It sometimes launches crackdowns on journalists, political activists, and critics of the government.

Major-General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force. Photo: Wikipedia

Some scholars have compared the role of IRGC in Iran’s political, social and economic landscape to what is called the “military industrial complex” in the United States. The major difference is that the IRGC champions ideological causes. It runs gigantic economic projects in Iran and operates the Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, a major engineering firm that is the recipient of hundreds of government contracts, is closely connected to Iran’s oil and gas industry, and even carries out projects in other countries.

It is believed that the role of IRGC in Iran’s economy had shrunk following the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, which saw the lifting of international sanctions against Iran and a trade opening to the West. That was why high-ranking IRGC commanders and the Guards’ media conglomerates were staunchly opposed to the JCPOA, sparing no opportunity to voice their unhappiness with the agreement. The Trump administration’s reimposition of far-reaching sanctions on Tehran starting in November 2018 has since chipped away at the deal, potentially opening the door for the Guards to reassume any lost economic clout.

Khamenei nixes talks

The designation of the IRGC as a terrorist entity is something that the Iranian government has not taken lightly, mostly because of the political and reputational investment it has made in the Guards, and because for the past 40 years, mostly under the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the government labored to empower and inflate IRGC. That was done even at the cost of enfeebling the army. It is, therefore, no surprise that advocates of better Tehran-Washington ties are concerned this move by the US government might gravely undermine the chances of a rapprochement between the two countries in the future, including under a new administration.

Shervin Malekzadeh, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Williams College and a noted Iran expert, believes President Trump’s decision was driven by a dated worldview and interpretation of Iran through the lens of the Islamic Revolution and events of the subsequent decade.

“Trump is consistent in his foreign policy beliefs, reaching back to the 1980s when, based on the public record, his ideas about foreign policy appear to have been first articulated or ‘come online’. In other words, he thinks of Iran in 2019 as the Americans thought of Iran in 1979, or 1989,” he told the Asia Times.

US President Donald Trump, with National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L). Neither Trump nor and Bolton are known to be keen on arms treaties. Photo: AFP/Lars Hagberg
US President Donald Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton, right. Trump and Bolton are known to have an unfavorable opinion of arms treaties. Photo: AFP/ Lars Hagberg

Malekzadeh says the announcement about the IRGC might have been the product of external influence on Trump and a rivalry with his predecessor.

“That Obama sought to mend relations between the two countries only adds to Trump’s vitriol and sense of purpose… It’s unclear to me the extent of Saudi and Israeli influence, though by now it’s evident that the president is influenced by whomever the last person in the room was,” the professor said.

“It’s unlikely, with the departure of [former Secretary of Defense] Mattis and [former National Security Adviser] McMaster, that he’s hearing voices other than those who are deeply supportive of the current US-Israel-KSA [Saudi] relationship,” he added.

The contentious decision to brand IRGC a terrorist entity will be a challenge for those voices in Iran who are in favor of improved Iran-US relations and have been calling for a cessation of hostilities between the two nations. Although it is hardly unprecedented and might have little tangible impacts, given the international restrictions the IRGC was previously subject to, it might affect public perceptions of this branch of Iran’s armed forces.

“In practical terms, there is little difference between the designation of the IRGC as an FTO and the previous inclusion under the Specially Designated Nationals And Blocked Persons List,” said Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.

“However, the new legislation is likely to have additional unintended consequences, as demonstrated — for instance, by the closure of the social media accounts of several IRGC-linked members, including of Quds Force Commander General Qasem Soleimani,” she added.

“Overall, while the legislation is unlikely to significantly weaken the IRGC, both within and outside of Iran, the perception of outside threat and exceptionalism that the US designation, the first of its kind, entails will most likely lead factions and centers of powers across the political spectrum to close ranks and increase their support for IRGC.”

Already, the moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has approved a law declaring all US forces in the Middle East region as terrorist entities.

With the fate of the Iran nuclear deal uncertain and the Iranian Supreme Leader having vociferously ruled out any negotiations with the United States under President Trump, it is clear that Iran’s relations with the US have hit an all-time low and the IRGC designation can at best be described as counterproductive.