WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced on Monday that it would officially designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Officials acknowledged the decision to label a part of a foreign government a terrorist organization was “unprecedented” but framed it as a necessary response to Iranian aggression.
“The Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terror. It exports dangerous missiles, fuels conflicts across the Middle East, and supports terrorist proxies,” President Trump said in a statement released by the White House.
Critics, including some within the Trump administration, have suggested the step could place U.S. troops or intelligence agents in danger of facing similar designations or other forms of retaliation. Indeed, shortly after the designation was announced, Russian state-owned media reported that the Iranian Foreign Ministry asked the country’s president to brand U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization. It is also unclear how the move could affect businesses in European countries that still engage with Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is taking the lead on this action, announced the move in a news conference Monday morning. He said the designation would take effect “one week from today.”
“The Iranian regime’s use of terror as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government,” Pompeo said, adding, “This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”
Pompeo cited several examples of “Iran-backed terror incidents” including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that targeted U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia and an alleged 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. The secretary of state pointed to Iran’s “wrongly detaining U.S. persons including some who remain in custody.” Additionally, Pompeo noted Iranian support for other groups that America has labeled as terrorist organizations: Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A senior administration official who discussed the terror group designation on a press conference call with reporters described it as a longtime goal for Trump.
“President Trump has always believed the threat from the Islamic Republic goes beyond its nuclear and missile programs, as deadly as they are,” said the official, who declined to be named.
Both Pompeo and the officials on the press call also described the decision as an extension of Trump’s “maximum-pressure campaign” on Tehran, which has included sanctions and the decision to pull out of the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran.
The Trump administration has been mulling designating the IRGC a terror group for months, with Pompeo a strong supporter of the move while other officials were concerned it could expose U.S. troops to fallout and retaliation. When asked about this concern, the officials on the call emphasized that the move came after an interagency process that included the evaluation of security concerns. They also said curbing the IRGC would benefit U.S. forces abroad.
“What endangers American troops, among other things, is an IRGC that operates with impunity and never has its ambitions checked in the Middle East,” an official said.
Pompeo also addressed whether the move could lead to financial consequences for European allies.
“If you’re the general counsel for a European financial institution today, there is more risk. It is absolutely the case that the IRGC amounts to a significant piece of the Iranian economy through pure kleptocracy. And it is also the case that it is sometimes difficult to know whether the IRGC is involved,” Pompeo said, adding, “I think this will require more diligence be done by every business that is considering doing things that are even now second and third orders removed from what you might think of as a traditional connection to the Iranian economy.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has suggested the Trump administration was considering this move to benefit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally and staunch opponent of Iran who is facing a tight election on Tuesday. The U.S. official emphasized Trump had hoped to make this designation for some time prior to the announcement.
“Our willingness ... to give them plausible deniability just came to a close,” the official said of Iran. “This is something the president has long wanted to enact.”
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