May 24, 2019

Deciphering the U.S. Move Against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard

Reporting Texas

William Inboden. Courtesy of UT-Austin

In a prelude to sharply escalating tensions with Iran, the Trump administration, in early April, designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard [IRG], a branch of the country’s armed forces formed to protect its Islamic system, as a foreign terrorist organization. It was the first time the U.S. has labeled a part of a government as such. The move signaled a continuing effort to ramp up pressure on Iran to stop various provocative activities in the Middle East. More recently, the Trump administration has deployed an aircraft carrier strike force to the Persian Gulf to counter what it says are elevated threats to U.S. forces in the region. Reporting Texas asked William Inboden, executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs, to provide insight on the terrorist designation. Herewith excerpts:

On the import of the move:
There’s less to it than meets the eye … Iran has been a long-time State Department-designated state sponsor of terror. I thought the State Department taking that step was interesting and notable, but not as significant or earth-shattering as some of the more breathless commentary made it out to be.

On IRG misbehavior and the designation:
It is certainly merited according to the letter of the law. The IRG has engaged in all sorts of horrible terrorist activity including attacks on American troops in Iraq, so in that sense they probably deserve it.

On states as terrorists:
Iran’s use of the IRG and employment of it has not been used for normal nation-state activities, it’s been for violence, subversion, and terrorism against Americans, Jews, against Israelis, against anyone who has been an adversary.

On Trump’s strategy and Iran’s reaction:
It is really more of a tactical move that should be seen as part of the Trump administration’s overall strategy of increasing pressure on Iran across multiple fronts, whether it’s sanctioning their oil exports and ending the waivers for our partner countries who buy oil from them, or the other financial sanctions we’ve put on them, or efforts to diplomatically isolate them. … No one knows for sure what effect it will have on Iran … I don’t think this will be a very significant step positively or negatively, both for the critics who call for de-escalation and the hawkish people who hope this might be a more serious step.

On military and intelligence implications:
Although I don’t think it’s a big deal, there is a plausible case to be made from the intelligence and military professionals that this step is unduly provocative and might stir up the Iranians to take up aggressive retaliation that we don’t want.

On a possible path to de-escalation:
I overall support the White House’s pressure on Iran … if the White House was looking for steps to de-escalate … the first step would be to lift the economic sanctions, which have really been squeezing their petroleum industry. Another potential step would be to see if some of the Iranian leadership would like to engage in some quiet discussions … A third would be some public messaging … conciliatory statements towards Iran or the branches there.

On long-term peace prospects:
Every presidency going back to Carter has tried to solve the Iran problem and not been able to. … none of it has really worked in changing their behavior. It’s a very hard foreign policy challenge … nobody really knows what will work because nothing has really worked thus far … we should still approach the Iran policy with a certain amount of humility.