The stakes in West Asia couldn’t be higher.
A year after President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme and imposed harsh economic sanctions, Tehran remains defiant and unwilling to bend to Washington’s demands.
Suspicion that US intent is to force a regime change in Tehran rather than forcing Iran to curb its ballistic missile programme and support for militias in Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen was heightened this week when Trump designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organisation.
It is the first time that the US has labelled a branch of a foreign government a terrorist entity, one that effects millions of Iranians who get conscripted.
“Today’s unprecedented move to designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization demonstrates our commitment to maximize pressure on the Iranian regime until it ceases using terrorism as a tool of statecraft,” John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, tweeted April 8.
The label effectively blocks Trump’s successor from returning to the nuclear accord, complicates any diplomatic effort to resolve differences and changes the rules of engagement in theatres such as Syria, where the US and Iranian forces operate in a close proximity.
“Through this, some US allies are seeking to ensure a US-Iran war or to, at a minimum, trap them in a permanent state of enmity,” said Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, referring to Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The designation is likely to embolden advocates in Washington, Saudi Arabia and Israel of a more aggressive covert war against Iran that would seek to stoke unrest among the Islamic Republic’s ethnic minorities, including the Balochs, Kurds and Iranians of Arab descent.
Moreover, the risk of an accident or unplanned incident leading to a military confrontation has also been heightened by Iran’s response, declaring the US military a terrorist entity.
The US move and the Iranian retaliation can put US military personnel in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region in harm’s way.
The designation also rules out tacit US-Iranian cooperation on the ground, as was seen in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State and in Afghanistan. That collaboration involved the IRGC.
The move also piles economic pressure on Iran because the IRGC is not only an army but also a business conglomerate, with interests in construction, engineering and manufacturing.
It is unclear how the terrorist label will affect the IRGC, which, already heavily sanctioned, does much of its business in cash and through front companies.
The US policy, even before the April 8 move, raised the spectre of a nuclear race in West Asia. Saudi Arabia was gearing up to build its own programme, citing fears that Iran could return to its pre-2015 enrichment project.
The Guards goes to the heart of the Iranian regime. It was formed to protect the regime immediately after the 1979 revolution when the new rulers had reasons to distrust the military of the toppled shah.
Some six weeks before he was overthrown, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlav’s top commanders on the New Year’s Eve in 1978 discussed crushing the revolution. The shah refused to endorse the plan. He feared that large-scale bloodshed would dim the chances of his exiled son ever returning as the shah.
The IRGC has since emerged as a pillar of Iran’s defence strategy which seeks to counter perceived covert operations by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel by supporting proxies across West Asia.
It is a strategy that has proven both effective and costly. Iran’s failure to address fears that the strategy is an effort to export its revolution and topple the region’s conservative regimes, particularly in the Gulf, have raised the cost.
The revolution unleashed a vicious cycle that saw the Gulf states fund the Iran-Iraq war in which up to one million people died. Saudi Arabia waged a four-decade long $100 billion campaign to globally propagate ultra-conservative, anti-Shia and anti-Iranian strands of Islam. Attempts were also made to stoke ethnic tensions in Iran, which hit back by supporting violent attacks against Americans, Israelis, Jews and regime opponents in various parts of the world.
Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Washington’s Atlantic Council think tank, described the US decision as gratuitous and provocative. “It will also put countries such as Iraq and Lebanon in even more difficult situations as they have no alternative but to deal with the IRGC. It will strengthen calls by pro-Iran groups in Iraq to expel US troops,” she said.
(James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as well as its Middle East Institute)
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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 12:15:59 IST