The White House’s decision last week to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization could deal a double blow to efforts to utilize diplomacy with Iran in order to stabilize Iraq.
Not only would such a designation risk undermining the important yet limited talks between the United States and Iran in Baghdad, but it may also negatively impact the next U.S. president’s ability to seek diplomacy with Iran by further entrenching U.S.-Iran relations in a paradigm of enmity.
The Washington Post and New York Times reported last Tuesday that the George W. Bush administration is considering designating the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s 125,000-strong elite military branch, as a "specially designated global terrorist" organization under Executive Order 13224, due to the organization’s alleged destabilizing activities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The designation would authorize the United States to target the IRGC’s business dealings, including blocking its assets.
Originally set up by the ruling clergy in Iran as a parallel army to prevent the regular Iranian army from orchestrating a military coup against the revolutionary government, the Guards are widely considered to be a powerful political force in Iran with close ties to the country’s conservative factions.
The IRGC has heavily penetrated Iran’s economy, including some of its key industries. It is often accused of behaving like a state-sponsored mafia, with a corrupting influence on Iran’s economy, police, media, industries, judiciary, and government.
As such, many Iranians find the power and political influence of this paramilitary force highly problematic. Some Iranian political activists have warned that any swift political change in Iran will likely benefit the Guards rather than the pro-democracy movement precisely because the IRGC is well equipped and highly organized.
The Bush administration’s decision to label the Guards as a global terrorist organization has been presented as a step to ratchet up pressure on Iran and intensify efforts to financially isolate the country. Yet, it is unclear whether the designation is necessary to target the Guards economically.
The U.S. Treasury is already engaged in an extensive campaign to dry up Iran’s sources of finance. Whether the Guards are labeled a terrorist organization or not will likely have little bearing on that campaign. Nor is the decision likely to have a decisive impact on the IRGC’s shady business dealings.
Iran has, after all, been under intense U.S. sanctions since the mid-1990s. While the sanctions have been effective in imposing a major cost on the Iranian economy, they have been utterly unsuccessful in compelling Iran to alter its foreign policy. More sanctions and financial pressure are likely only to achieve more of the same: they will increase the cost for the Iranian government to pursue its policies while failing to halt or change those policies.
The real impact of the designation is likely to be political. One the one hand, the move risks undermining the newly initiated talks in Baghdad between U.S. and Iranian officials regarding the security situation in Iraq. While this step has been hailed as unprecedented, the talks are yet to produce a real breakthrough; except that is, for the fact that the two countries actually talked to each other in the open for the first time in 28 years.
It is unclear how Washington expects success in those talks if it at the same time designates the very same people it seeks help from as global terrorists.
Ironically, some of the Iranian diplomats the United States is dealing with in Iraq are still part of the IRGC, including Mohammad Jafari, who sat across the table from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the Iraq summit in Sharm al-Sheikh earlier this year.
The designation jeopardizes the Baghdad channel by potentially causing its collapse or, at a minimum, by sending a signal of hostility that could convince Tehran—rightly or wrongly—that the United States is not serious about diplomacy.
Many analysts in Washington are already skeptical about the Bush administration’s intentions with the talks. On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers supportive of the administration’s policies have pointed to the Baghdad channel as evidence that the White House is implementing the Iraq Study Group recommendations, and have urged their Democratic colleagues to support the surge in return.
Even if the Bush administration is not banking on the Baghdad channel to produce anything tangible, at the very least, it does provide the administration with much needed political cover on Capitol Hill.
The long-term effect of the decision to designate the IRGC a global terrorist organization, however, may be even more significant. It is easier to put an entity on the terrorist list than to remove it. Future U.S. presidents will likely find their efforts to change Iranian behavior and resolve U.S.-Iranian disputes more difficult; the designation may put legal limits on how the United States can deal with individuals associated with the IRGC.
It will strengthen and prolong the dominating narrative in the United States, which reads that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through Iran’s containment and defeat. In this paradigm, the United States and Iran are entangled in a zero-sum game where compromise and dialogue is tantamount to defeat. Diplomacy, in this context, is not a tool for seeking win-win solutions, but rather means for confrontation with the aim of beating back U.S. adversaries.
Not surprisingly, this line of thought is equally common among radicals in Tehran, who in the past have found no shortage of ways to undercut any diplomatic outreach to Washington. Left unchallenged, the strengthening of this paradigm of enmity in Tehran and Washington may very well lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Trita Parsi is a writer for the Inter Press Service and the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States (Yale University Press, 2007).