Fallout from IRGC designation could come from many directions

What are the possible fallout scenarios?

U.S. President Donald Trump (photo credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID)
U.S. President Donald Trump
On Monday the US designated the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps of Iran a “Foreign Terrorist Organization,” an unprecedented step that is likely to have wide ramifications throughout the Middle East. However due to the nature of Iran’s regime, focused on long-term strategy, the reaction and fallout may be more complex and take time to unfold.
“We must help the people of Iran get back their freedom,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Monday, announcing the designation. Iran was quick to respond, with officials asserting that it was the US whose track record is in fact “arming, supporting and harboring terrorist groups,” Iran’s judiciary head said. The Iranian National Security Council, according too Tasnim news, said that unlike the US and its allies, which “fuel extremism,” Iran has confronted terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. It claimed that the US government was the one that was “implementing terrorist policies” and that the US and its regional Central Command were “terrorists.” Other Iranian media ran similar statements. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif followed the Tehran talking points about labelling the US and its CENTCOM forces “terrorists.”
Clearly the Iranian response was prepared days in advance. Already Ayatollah Khamenei had told the Iraqi Prime Minister on Saturday to remove US forces from Iraq and Iran had threatened US forces with ending the “calm” in the region if the US moved forward with the designation.
What are the possible fallout scenarios?
In Iraq Iran may use the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias that are official paramilitary groups to strike at or harass US forces. In the last year these groups, such as Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Kata’ib Hezbollah, have already harassed US forces and threatened them. US inspector generation reports regularly indicate the Iranian threat in Iraq and the US already warned last year that Washington would respond if any Iranian proxies attacked the US in Iraq.
Iran will be reticent for a direct confrontation that would give the US an excuse to unleash real war power on Iran or its proxies. So Iran will seek subterfuge, or mild harassment or slowly building pressure in Iraq’s parliament to remove US forces. Iraq is already moving in this direction, all Iran has to do is push.
In Syria Iran is a key ally of the Syrian regime. It will use its allies in Syria and its allied militias on the ground to pressure the US in eastern Syria. This could also mean seeking to stir up trouble among Syrian tribes along the Euphrates river valley. Or it could mean direct confrontation, as happened last February with a pro-Syrian militia attack on US partners among the Syrian Democratic Forces. Again Iran will not want direct Iran-US confrontation, but to use proxies or even to strike at US allies and create instability.
Russia and Turkey
Iran will seek to cement a closer alliance with Russia and Turkey to encourage both countries to oppose the US role in Syria. This will be a full-court press with Russia using international leverage and Turkey using regional leverage. Turkey and Russia held a high-level meeting on Monday to discuss a Turkish offensive into Manbij where US forces are in Syria. Turkey is buying the Russian S-400 missile defense system. Iran will want to encourage, behind the scenes, that Russia and Turkey will both pressure the US in Syria.
Iran may seek to stir up trouble with Israel, either via southern Syria near the Golan via Hezbollah in Lebanon, and with Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The goal will be to pressure Israel but not to give Israel an excuse for a wider war. Iran will exploit the aftermath of Israel’s elections to do this. The goal will be to try to draw Israel into a conflict in Syria just after Israel and Russia had high level talks. Also Iran is seeking to lease a port in Syria and will try to use this as leverage.
Iran wants to encourage the US to leave Afghanistan. The US is seeking a way out through talks with the Taliban that had taken place with Qatar’s help. Iran, which works with Qatar, will also seek to get the US moving on this. Once again Iran knows that direct confrontation in Afghanistan gives the US an excuse to stay. So Iran will work to undermine the US in Afghanistan. Iran has trained numerous Shi’ite fighters from Afghanistan who it used in Syria during the civil war. Now it may send them back to cause troubles for the US.
The Kurds
Iran is already putting out statements of solidarity with Kurds, particularly in Iraq, seeking to draw them away from the US. Iran will work with Kurdish political parties that are already closer to Tehran, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The President of Iraq is Kurdish and joined the PUK in the 1970s.
Iran’s goal will be to seek to dangle support for the Kurdistan autonomous region while also seeking to undermine the US there and in Iraq in general.
Europe and the world
Iran will seek to portray the US decision as rash and one more example of how the US isolated. It will use this decision to once again argue for a need to have a workaround on sanctions and encourage EU states and others to ignore the US designation. It will quietly whisper that the Trump administration does not have many years left in office.
In the US
Iran will seek to work with its allies in the US, particularly backers of the Iran deal, to encourage them to undermine the designation. The goal here will be to cement Iran’s inroads among those who are critical of Trump, particularly Democratic candidates. Iran will argue through its proxies and allies that Trump’s decision poses a risk of conflict and war and that it is so unprecedented and broad that it cannot be enforced. It will also argue that it empowers “hardliners,” and that it may destabilize the region after ISIS. Through a whispering campaign Iran will try to stall any ramifications of the designation.