As a precondition to returning to the nuclear agreement, Iran had demanded that the United States remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. The IRGC was designated a terror group in 2018, when President Donald Trump pulled out of the JCPOA, not least because of its role in fomenting chaos in the region.
The Trump administration made clear that any attempt to renegotiate the agreement would be predicated on IRGC’s commitment to refrain from destabilizing the region and to eliminate its proxy network. Though publicly rejecting the Iranian demand, unconfirmed reports indicate that the Biden administration is willing to compromise and remove the IRGC from the FTO blacklist while keeping the Quds Force – the Guards’ foreign terror unit – on the list.
Keeping the Quds Force only on the blacklist flies in the face of reality and would have profound security implications. First, it is imperative to note that the IRGC and Quds Force are inseparable and intertwined organizations, and the distinction between them is misleading.
When the Revolutionary Guards was formed on May 5, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini tasked them with safeguarding the Islamic Revolution’s achievements, defending the regime against internal and external threats, and spreading the revolution to the region in what would become the “Axis of Resistance” movement.
To accomplish the goal of spreading the revolution, the IRGC has set up several divisions, and offices, among them the Islamic Liberation Movements Unit, the Irregular Warfare Headquarters, the Lebanon Guard, and the Ramezan Headquarters tasked with engaging in foreign military operations.
In a 1990 organizational reform, the Quds Force replaced all these units and offices. To make it more interrelated, several other branches were also added to the structure of the Revolutionary Guard to help the Quds Force successfully carry out its foreign missions: the Basij Resistance Force, Intelligence Organization, Counterintelligence Unit and Security Unit. All of these units operate under the supervision of IRGC Commander-in-Chief General Hossein Salami and his deputy, Gen. Ali Fadavi.
ALTHOUGH THE IRGC and the Quds Force have a seemingly separate hierarchical structure, they actually work as one unit. The top echelon commanders and members of the Quds Force are all members of the Revolutionary Guards and vice versa, making a distinction between the two untenable. The Guard Corps commanding echelon also selects the top commander of the Quds Force and his deputy.
Second, with the exception of Lebanon where the Quds Force seems to have a well-established independent base by working in conjunction with Hezbollah, the Guards have played a dominant role in other Axis of Resistance countries.
In Iraq, the IRGC-sponsored militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as Hashid Shaabi, have attacked American diplomatic and military bases. The IRGC also interferes with Iraq’s internal politics, turning the country into a client state. At present, the Guards have prevented Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite cleric pushing to sideline Iran-backed factions, to form a government.
In Syria, the Guards have established permanent military bases across the country, especially near the borders with Israel, in the eastern part of the Golan. The terror organization brought in thousands of fighters and shipments of weapons and military technology such as drones to spy on and attack the Jewish state. IRGC commanders regularly show up at the front lines to lead battles.
Similarly, in Yemen, the IRGC supports, trains, arms and orders the Houthi operatives to attack US regional allies. It provides them with drones and missiles to carry out attacks against oil installations in Saudi Arabia.
SOME PRO-IRANIAN advocates argue that delisting the IRGC as an organization would not make a difference because numerous commanders are already sanctioned and would remain so. This assumption is wrong. The group was added to the FTO roster because of its terrorist activities, nuclear proliferation activities and human rights abuses. Lifting the designation would deeply disappoint America’s regional allies and give the Guards a green light to continue with terror activities. Furthermore, if delisted, members will be able to acquire US visas to set up terror cells.
This will not be a far-fetched scenario. It was only recently that two men, one with an Iranian name and a history of travel to Iran, impersonated federal agents and infiltrated the White House secret service. Although it is unclear at this point whether the two suspects were IRGC intelligence infiltrators, this would not be an improbable scenario given the IRGC threats directed against US officials – as revenge for the elimination of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
More broadly, symbols do matter a lot. If the Biden administration delists the IRGC, it sends a signal to the world that America is ready to work with terrorists – which is morally indefensible and largely impractical, not least because it would fuel more terrorism and legitimize terrorist goals.
For all these reasons, the Biden administration should keep the IRGC on the State Department terror list as long as it is engaged in terror activities and wreaking havoc across the region and in the world. Only by Washington increasing the Guard Corps’ cost of doing business and of its brutal methods will the terror organization’s behavior change. If it is delisted, however, there would be few if any costs to the IRGC’s adventures.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.