Why repealing IRGC sanctions is infuriating but a sideshow - analysis

Removing the IRGC's status as a terrorist organization might just be a desperate try to go around oil sanctions put by US government

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani receives Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, in Doha, Qatar, February 21, 2022. (photo credit: QATAR NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani receives Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, in Doha, Qatar, February 21, 2022.
(photo credit: QATAR NEWS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Former US State Department official Gabriel Noronha tweeted that the Biden administration is seriously considering a pitch by Iran negotiations chief Rob Malley to remove Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) from the US’s terrorist list.

If the US goes through with this move, it would be infuriating to Israel, to Sunni Arab states, and portions of Americans, but it is also a sideshow to the real big game.

The real big game is whether sanctions are lifted on Tehran’s oil industry and whether the Biden team fills any of the holes in the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal or adds new concessions, such as letting the ayatollahs keep hundreds of advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium in storage.

Why declaring the IRGC not to be terrorists is infuriating is sort of obvious.

Besides creating much of Hezbollah and the Houthi rebel forces which have ruined Lebanon and Yemen, the group is responsible for terrorism across the Middle East and even in Europe and other parts of the world.

  Members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) navy participate in a joint exercise called the 'Great Prophet 17' in the southwest of Iran, in this picture obtained on December 22, 2021. (credit: IRGC/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS) Members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) navy participate in a joint exercise called the 'Great Prophet 17' in the southwest of Iran, in this picture obtained on December 22, 2021. (credit: IRGC/WANA (West Asia News Agency)/Handout via REUTERS)

It is the most fanatical, violent, and hardline segment of the regime.

When then US counter-terrorism state department official Nathan Sales explained the IRGC terrorist designation in April 2019 to a closed meeting of a handful of reporters, he said the broad goal was to “make it radioactive.”

The counter-terrorism official said that for years some entities were accused of supporting terrorism in a more general sense, but that “now Iran stands accused of directly engaging in terror.”

“This removes its plausible deniability. It cannot hide behind Hezbollah or Palestinian Islamic Jihad” anymore, he said.

The second area that Sales highlighted as being important about the designation was that it “enables material support [criminal] prosecutions [of] anyone knowingly providing support,” to any entities linked to the IRGC which can lead to an up to 20-year prisons sentence.

He noted that this crime had led to over 150 convictions relating to other terrorist groups.

For business people concerned about risk, this could have an economic impact of deterring business with the IRGC even where the US might have difficulty sorting out what straw-man entities are backed by the IRGC.

Third, he said that the designation would empower the US to deny entry to the country to persons with links to IRGC entities, including those raising funds for the group’s efforts.

Noronha also mentioned a number of specific Iranian individuals involved in infamous mass global terrorist attacks who might get a free ticket from Washington as part of the deal.

With these individuals, the objection is less at a policy level, as they are not economically significant, and more at the level of being morally abhorrent.

But this is only half of the story.

The IRGC was not sanctioned by the JCPOA.

In fact, even Trump did not sanction the IRGC when he pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018. Nor did he sanction it during his two big rounds of sanctions in August and November 2018.

Trump did not get to sanction the IRGC all the way until April and June 2019.

At the time, certain Trump administration officials admitted to The Jerusalem Post that some of the moves to sanction the IRGC was to make it harder for a potential future Democrat president to return to the nuclear deal during a time when most of the leading candidates were committing to exactly that.

Moreover, not all US counter-terrorism officials thought the move was wise.

In June 2019, former US National Counterterrorism Center Director Nick Rasmussen told the Post, “I understood the political views for wanting to do it,” but questioned whether it was more effective than other moves.

He said that the US could have “designated specific entities and individuals associated with the IRGC to make a point in a very direct and precise way about who was involved in terror-related behavior.”

In contrast, he said that “by designating the entire group as a terror organization, you set up a potential conflict where you are demonizing an entire segment of the Iranian national security apparatus.”

“While that may be politically useful to make the case about Iran... I am not sure it puts us in a better place,” implying he would have preferred a scalpel in applying sanctions than a big machete.

Many experts have pointed out since 2019 that it has been unclear how well the US was able to discern in practice which entities are backed by the IRGC. This is true since the group has tentacles spread through up to 40% of the entire Iranian economy.

Back in 2019, Sales did not want to get into intelligence specifics of how the US might crack the IRGC’s straw-man cover.

Former US envoy on Iran Brian Hook in May 2019 justified the sanctions as leading to cutting the IRGC Quds Force budget by 17%.

But at the same time in May 2019, the National Security Action think tank, many of whose members are now in the Biden administration, included the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group in a list of “ominous” Iran policies by the Trump administration.

So there have always been officials, certainly on the Democratic side, who thought the move was wrongheaded and Trump administration officials who admitted that it had political and symbolic aspects to it.

It is unclear that the move has had a major policy payoff and if the US is going to remove sanctions on Iranian oil – the heart of the sanctions regime – then the issue is sort of a drop in the bucket in economic terms.

In that sense, removing sanctions from the IRGC will cause many Israeli officials, some Americans and moderate Sunni Arab countries to pull their hair in disgust. Yet, there are many far more critical issues at play in the nuclear standoff.