COMMENTARY: Why applying ‘terrorist’ label to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will backfire on Trump
President Donald Trump’s move to label Iran’s elite militia as an officially designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) is straight out of a playbook on how to ensure that Iran will forever remain a nuclear-armed state — and a fiercely proud one at that.
Consider the knee-jerk response in Tehran to Trump’s announcement on Monday: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared U.S. forces in the Middle East as a terrorist organization; front page images of army soldiers on Tehran’s reformist newspapers with headlines that read: “I am also a Revolutionary Guard” and “Playing with fire“; photos on social media of reformist MPs in Iran wearing IRGC fatigues. On Telegram, Iran’s popular messaging app, photos of IRGC soldiers helping the victims of Iran’s recent floods are abound with jokes: “I wish all ‘terrorists’ were as nice as you,” one user wrote.
The decision to label the IGRC as a terrorist group didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching America’s disastrous policy in the Middle East since Trump came to power. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton have been relentless in trying to provoke a U.S.-Iranian war to topple Tehran’s current government, much to the delight of Trump’s cronies (and Iran’s rivals), Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The news came as a gift to Netanyahu who immediately gushed on Twitter: “Thank you, President @realDonaldTrump for your decision to designate the Islamic revolutionary guards as a terrorist organization.
Once again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism.”
Security experts, including some of Trump’s own national security officials, have noted that the FTO designation is pointless. The notion that it will “significantly expand the scope and scale” of pressure on Iran, as Trump asserted Monday, is false. Foreign individuals and companies who work with IRGC-owned businesses can already be blocked from U.S banks, have their assets frozen, or be subjected to lawsuits. But the move still has dangerous implications.
For one, Trump has made it infinitely harder for reformist politicians in Iran to push through real change. “One overlooked consequence of the IRGC’s FTO designation is that criticizing the corps will now become nearly impossible for critics in Iran who will be accused of playing into the Trump administration’s hands,” says Ali Vaez, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.
This tactic reflects the consistently hypocritical approach taken by foreign policymakers to Middle Eastern countries. We’ve seen it before: in building the case to invade or drop bombs on a Muslim country, U.S politicians first put out a narrative of how its people need or deserve to be “liberated” from their autocratic leaders — and then covertly (or in Trump’s case, publicly) do everything in their power to ensure that never actually happens.
WATCH BELOW: Iran threatens to put U.S. military on terror list
It’s easy for those in the west to have short-term memories of the human cost of U.S. foreign policy blunders over the last several decades, but these “errors” (read: tens of thousands of civilian deaths and subsequent inter-generational trauma) are something millions of Iranians, Iraqis (U.S invasion in 2003) and Afghans (U.S. invasion in 2001) will never forget. Older Iranians in particular, have vivid memories of living through the crippling Iraq-Iran war, in which the U.S. supported then Iraqi-president Saddam Hussein.
Anyone who has even the slightest pulse on Iran will know that Iranians, by and large, want to end their isolation on the global stage. They are hungry for political reform — but on their own terms. Even while hurling abuse at their own leaders, they are fiercely patriotic. The photographs of reformist MPs and newspapers donned in military garb speak to their strong sense of national pride.
They also speak to something else Trump and his cronies have failed to understand: the IRGC symbolizes something different to many Iranians, including humanitarian aid, defence and protection against Islamic State. Let’s not forget that without Iranian involvement, IS would still have a formidable presence in both Iraq and Syria — a fact that’s been acknowledged by former Marine Corps intelligence officer Scott Ritter in a leading U.S. conservative magazine.
But the real kicker that revealed the staggering ignorance — and quackery — of Trump’s administration came when Pompeo agreed with a suggestion posed in an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network last month that it was possible God raised Donald Trump to be president in order to protect Israel from Iran.
Pompeo was asked if “President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from an Iranian menace?” Esther is the main heroine of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which was celebrated in March.
Pompeo responded: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible. …. I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”
Ludicrousness aside — can we stop for a moment and acknowledge the irony of hearing the U.S. Secretary of State invoke religious polemic to drive foreign policy, much like Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does?
“I believe the threats the Islamic Republic of Iran presented to our country are many. We have asked the Islamic Republic of Iran simply to behave like a normal nation,” Pompeo told a meeting of NATO’s foreign ministers in Washington last week.
Yes, Mr. Pompeo. It is true there is a real threat to international peace. But it’s not Iran. It is America’s sense of entitlement. Perhaps it’s time the US started behaving like a “normal” state.
Shenaz Kermalli is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Ryerson University.