When 241 US service personnel were murdered by a massive truck bomb in Beirut in 1983, hardly anybody in the West had heard of a new entity called Hezbollah. In reality, the attacks are understood to have been planned from the IRGC base in the Beqaa Valley. In the same manner in about 2007, sophisticated attacks by Iraqi militants that ultimately killed 603 US troops were coordinated from IRGC bases just across the border. Aerial footage even revealed a site inside Iran where Iraqi fighters had been trained for a notorious attack against the US HQ in Karbala in January 2007, which was carried out in retaliation for an American attempt to detain a convoy of senior IRGC figures in northern Iraq.
What would have been the point in designating dozens of paramilitary and terrorist forces in Iraq, Syria and the region, but not the organization that acted as a midwife for bringing these entities into existence, then arming, training and commanding them? The IRGC Quds Force’s Qassem Soleimani took ghoulish pleasure in being photographed directing these forces from operations rooms in Aleppo, Fallujah, Damascus and Tikrit — with militia actions occasioned by crimes against humanity, sectarian cleansing and terrorization of local populations.
The IRGC is a pre-eminent worldwide facilitator of terrorism, including the botched 2011 conspiracy to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington; recent plots to murder Iranian oppositionists in European capitals; the 1996 Khobar Towers attacks that killed 19 US service personnel; and coup attempts and bombings in locations like Manama and Kuwait City. We should also not forget terrorist atrocities in Argentina; a bus bombing in Bulgaria; the bombing of an airplane over Panama; an assassination attempt in India; and botched attacks in Kenya and Thailand. And the IRGC bankrolled the Houthi takeover of much of Yemen, providing them with missiles with which to strike deep into Saudi Arabia.
With the onset of renewed sanctions, the IRGC is directing its proxies to upscale activities linked with narcotics, weapons and people smuggling; abductions and extortion of local populations; and money laundering and sanctions evasion. Tehran is deploying its puppet politicians in Baghdad to campaign against the US military presence in Iraq, and the IRGC probably already has plans for strikes against American forces as a means for upping the stakes. The US closed its Basra consulate last year after IRGC-backed militants launched missile strikes nearby — an unfortunate signal of how easily foreign nationals can be intimidated into departing.
The fact that the IRGC and its proxies pose a potential threat to US forces isn’t a reason not to act against them (as parts of the US media are already arguing). Rather this demonstrates why these out-of-control transnational menaces urgently need bringing under control, before their regional dominance becomes uncontestable.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s announcement, Tehran risibly declared the US military to be a terrorist entity. Yet the IRGC has never been a regular military force. The IRGC was set up after the 1979 revolution as an ideological paramilitary force, parallel to Iran’s army. “Protecting the revolution” meant detaining, torturing and murdering thousands of students and activists who participated in it, but did not share Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s hardline Islamist vision. To left-wing and nationalist forces who endured these purges, Khomeini and the IRGC hijacked their revolution, subverting it into something perversely contrary to popular aspirations for freedom from tyranny.
As well as the IRGC sending tens of thousands of youths to their futile deaths as “human waves” of cannon fodder against heavy Iraqi artillery during the 1980s war, it remained the primary enforcer of regime control against the Iranian nation. Each time there was unrest — such as in the late 1990s, 2009 and early 2018 — it was the IRGC that bloodily crushed all manifestations of dissent.
With Ayatollah Ali Khamenei an aging and sickening figure, the IRGC will determine the future path of this hated regime, becoming more politically dominant. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif already have minimal influence in foreign policy files like Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Yemen. It is IRGC figures like Soleimani who call the shots.
Designating the IRGC as terrorists can have real-world consequences, because the IRGC dominates many sectors of Iran’s national economy. Given the opacity of Iran’s economy and the difficulty of determining the real owners of various conglomerates, banks and multinational companies must become even more wary of who they are really doing business with. Businesses and institutions in Iraq and Lebanon will be forced to distance themselves from IRGC entities if they want to retain their international connections.
Designating the IRGC shouldn’t be seen as a move against Iran, but rather an action on behalf of the long-suffering Iranian people, who have endured decades of IRGC state terrorism. Trump has been rightly slammed for counter-productive moves on Jerusalem, the occupied Golan Heights, immigration and trade. But let’s give credit where credit is due. This is a smart measure and an overdue recognition of reality, signaling that Tehran’s hostile regional actions carry consequences. The EU and worldwide national governments should follow suit.
In 2014, an international coalition of states came together to exterminate the terrorist menace of Daesh. With the recognition of the IRGC as the terrorist menace it is, will we now see coherent global efforts to eradicate this principal remaining nexus of regional and global terrorism?