"The beginning of wisdom," the philosopher Confucius famously said, "is to call things by their name." By this measure, the Trump administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization is wise. And in the war against Islamist terrorism, it is also necessary.
The decision to designate the IRGC is unique. Never before has the U.S. State Department classified a branch of a foreign government’s military as a foreign terrorist organization. But Iran is not, by any measure, ruled by a normal government. Indeed, in order to understand why designating the IRGC makes sense, one must first understand the Islamic Republic.
Nader Uskowski, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Central Command and author of "Temperature Rising," a 2019 book on the IRGC, noted that the founder of the regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, "envisioned a revived Islamic state governed according to his militant interpretation of Shia Islam that would transport the revolution across the region." Accordingly, "one of the first institutions that he set up after the victory of the revolution was the IRGC, whose members," Uskowski writes, "were to serve as the guardians of Shia Islam."
For its part, the IRGC has been candid about its purpose.
In an interview with Iran’s state-controlled Fars News Agency, IRGC General Ahmad Qolampour proclaimed in October, 2016: "The Islamic Revolution does not have any border. Further, Qolampour added: "The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps does not [even] have the word "Iran" in its title. This means that it seeks to defend the Islamic Revolution and its achievements without regard to particular borders." Chief among these "achievements" has been Iran’s support for terrorist groups.
The U.S. - under both Republican and Democratic administrations - has long considered the Islamic Republic to be the chief state sponsor of terrorism. If terror is Iran’s top export, the IRGC is often the means of delivery.
IRGC operatives have trained, armed and equipped scores of terrorist groups, many of them formally designated by the U.S. government as FTOs, including Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
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The IRGC also has long standing links to the group responsible for the worst terrorist attack in American history.
According to the bipartisan 9/11 Commission report, Iranian operatives and al-Qaida terrorists met in Sudan in late 1991 or 1992 and agreed to cooperate. Subsequently, Al-Qaida members were sent to Iran and Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where they were trained in intelligence, security and explosives. The Commission also found that at least eight of the hijackers who took part in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks passed through Iran before arriving in the United States.
More evidence of the Iran-Al Qaida connection was made public in 2017, when the CIA released documents that were seized during the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. A summary by the CIA concluded that Iran offered al-Qaida members "money and arms and everything they need, and offered them training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in return for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia."
Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran provided shelter to fleeing al-Qaida members. In their 2017 book "The Exile," journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy detailed how the IRGC closely monitored and manipulated the movement of al-Qaida members hiding in Iran, with IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani even ordering his deputies to "take Al-Qaida women and children on outings, arranging visits to the zoo, a riding stable, and even an amusement park on the top floor of an upmarket Tehran mall."
Many of the al-Qaida members and their families were kept in "Block 300" - located near the IRGC’s Quds Force Training Facility in Tehran.
But more than sanctuary was provided.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the IRGC allowed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaida in Iraq - the progenitor of ISIS - to travel throughout the region, recruiting jihadists to take on coalition forces. Zarqawi was given real Iranian passports and a "Swiss satellite phone and two Iranian cell phones," the journalists note. The IRGC also helped al-Qaida with funding and communications, according to the book, which was based on interviews with al-Qaida operatives and bin Laden family members.
Previous administrations have refrained from designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization, in part because of fears of reprisals from the IRGC and its terrorist proxies.
But U.S. foreign policy should not be susceptible to blackmail. Iran has been threatening -and murdering - U.S. personnel for decades without the IRGC being designated as an FTO. Indeed, on April 4, 2019, the Pentagon announced that at least 603 U.S. service members had been murdered by Iran in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 - many of them by the IRGC and terrorists that it aided and armed.
In his book "The Art of War", the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu famously emphasized the necessity of "knowing thy enemy." The war against Islamist terrorism can’t be won if the role of the IRGC as one of its chief purveyors goes unacknowledged - and unpunished.
Sean Durns is a Washington D.C. based foreign affairs analyst. His writings have appeared in The Washington Examiner, The Hill and the Jerusalem Post. Twitter: @SeanDurns