After countless ups and downs and near-death riots, negotiations to resume the Iran nuclear deal appear to have stalled on one final disagreement: an end-of-game demand by Tehran to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US list remove foreign terrorist organizations.
On this question hangs probably the last opportunity to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
The Biden administration has rightly objected that the Iran deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), deals exclusively with the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. It does not address Iran’s subversion of other nations in the region, its longstanding support for terrorism, or other contentious issues. The JCPOA should always address the greatest threat to stability posed by the Islamic Republic: its quest to achieve nuclear weapons capability. Because that threat is most likely to trigger a regional and possibly nuclear conflict — and because a blanket deal that covers all of Iran’s malign activities was deemed too elusive — negotiations have always been limited in focus.
While the issue is politically charged and Iran hawks in both parties are poised to pounce if the Biden administration does anything that suggests weakness to terrorism, a sober long-term view is required here. Iran-backed terrorism is a serious problem, but designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization was, first and foremost, a surprisingly frivolous move, a sanction that put no discernible pressure on the group or on Iran more broadly.
Instead, it’s an artifact of the last government’s bizarre approach, demonstrated mostly through empty imagery, tantrums and childish resentment to communicate maximum antipathy. It had nothing to do with advancing US interests.
This became clear in other contexts: almost all aid to the Palestinians stopped because they not welcome US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. or reduce assistance to Central American countries that could not stop the flow of migrants north. The terrorist designation of the Revolutionary Guards was another in a series of amateurish attempts to punish a hated opponent.
In fact, the practical value of the designation 2019 was zero; The move has in no way restricted Iran’s action as Iran is under sanctions as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. As a matter of fact, since 2007 The IRGC’s Quds Force has been sanctioned for the aid it has provided to groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This designation – as well as the state sponsorship list – makes it a criminal act to support the IRGC and block all of the group’s assets held by US financial institutions. The designation Terrorist 2019 does the same – nothing more, nothing less.
Treasury reporting tells the story well. In 2019, the year the Trump administration announced its designation as a foreign terrorist organization, total blocked IRGC assets were $1,121,760. Corresponding Treasury reporting actually blocked IRGC assets dropped the following year to $1,049,801. (The report is silent on the reasons for the decline.) State Department official at time of appointment Brian Hook boasted that this would result in the prosecution of those providing material support to the IRGC. But the naming has not led to any successful prosecution. While the government promised a maximum pressure campaign against Iran, the label was just imaginary statecraft on Trump’s part.
It’s fair to ask: if the recent terrorist designation isn’t having any effect, why is Iran insisting that it be lifted? There is no easy answer. The Iranian regime may believe that IRGC leaders and Iranian companies will benefit financially, although this will not be the case if the United States maintains strict enforcement policies of other existing sanctions. Tehran no doubt wants to win every iota of sanctions relief it can get ahead of a possible 180-degree turnaround in US policy should a Trump-leaning Republican win the White House in 2024. Or maybe it’s just another inexplicable test it orchestrated against Iran’s isolated, ideology-clouded leadership.
Be that as it may, Iran’s negotiating tactics threaten to prevent it from obtaining sanctions relief for most of its legitimate companies – those not controlled by the Revolutionary Guard – which in turn could revitalize an economy that has been hit by wall-to-wall reintroduction was damaged sanctions after the withdrawal of the trump administration from the JCPOA. But the history of US-Iran relations has been plagued by misunderstandings and missed signals for decades.
With the 2022 midterm elections approaching, removing the Revolutionary Guard from the terrorist list would certainly be used as a bludgeon against the Democrats. This threat is one of the reasons why the Biden administration rejects the Iranian demand. The decision makes political sense in the short term.
But the final decision – one with serious implications for the future of the Middle East – must be made in the longer term. After all, Trump said the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was the first step in ending Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, the opposite has been achieved. Iran has rushed ahead, greatly reducing the time it takes to assemble a bomb.
If Iran does not back down in the talks, we should not be captivated by the illusion Trump has created that this designation as terrorism matters. It doesn’t. But an Iran continuing its march toward nuclear capability matters in the greatest possible way.