WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said Monday that he was designating a powerful arm of the Iranian military as a foreign terrorist organization.
It is the first time the U.S. has designated an entity of another government as a terrorist organization, placing a group, which has vast economic resources and answers only to Iran's supreme leader, in the same category as al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
The designation imposes a variety of economic and travel sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as organizations, companies and individuals with ties to it. Iran's Revolutionary Guards carry out operations across the Middle East, train Arab Shiite militias and oversee businesses in Iran.
"This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognizes the reality that Iran is not only a state sponsor of terrorism but that the Revolutionary Guard Corps actively participates in, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft," Trump said in announcing the decision.
The designation, which sources said was opposed by some top Trump administration national security officials who argued that it could incite retaliation by Tehran against U.S. troops and intelligence officers, takes effect next week. But it was announced Monday in what U.S. officials described as a chaotic and rushed process.
In response to the move, Mohammad Ali Jafari, a Revolutionary Guard commander, issued an implied threat against U.S. forces in the Middle East.
"With this stupidity, the American army and security forces will no longer have today's calm in the west Asia region," the Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Fars news agency quoted him as saying.
The Supreme National Security Council of Iran responded to the U.S. decision Monday by branding "the government of the United States as a supporter of terrorism and Central Command, and all of its affiliated forces, as terrorist groups," the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
In Baghdad, where some Iraqi officials have close ties to Iran, U.S. officials said they had been given no guidance on how to enforce the policy.
The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies were said to have raised concerns about the effect of the designation if the move did not allow contact with other foreign officials who may have met with or communicated with Revolutionary Guard personnel. Those concerns have in part dissuaded previous administrations from taking the step, which has been considered for more than a decade.
The administration has taken an aggressive posture toward Iran, taking steps including the U.S.' withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Trump's critics warn that the administration is flirting with a potential military conflict in the region.
The Iranian government immediately condemned the designation and alleged that it was done to boost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chances in today's election.
"A(nother) misguided election-eve gift to Netanyahu. A(nother) dangerous U.S. misadventure in the region," Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded on Twitter in English.
In thanking Trump on Twitter, Netanyahu took credit for the idea of the terrorism designation. "Once again you are keeping the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism," Netanyahu wrote in English, while writing in a separate tweet in Hebrew, "Thank you for accepting another important request of mine."
Last month, in another gesture toward Israel, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; the United Nations considers it occupied territory.
Some U.S. officials said the broad designation potentially covers 11 million members of the Iranian group and affiliated organizations, including the large Basij volunteer militia.
In its statement about the designation, the State Department also criticized the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards led by Qassim Suleimani. That unit and Suleimani are already under sanctions from lesser terrorism designations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the move is part of an effort to put "maximum pressure" on Iran to end its support for terrorist plots and militant activity that destabilizes the Middle East. Speaking to reporters, he rattled off a list of attacks dating to the 1980s for which the U.S. holds Iran and the Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible, beginning with the attacks on the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983.
No waivers or exceptions to the sanctions were announced, meaning U.S. troops and diplomats could be barred from speaking with Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who have dealings with Revolutionary Guard officials or surrogates. Such contact occurs now involving U.S. officials in Iraq who deal with Iranian-affiliated Shiite militias, as well as in Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement is in parliament and the government.
Top U.S. intelligence and military officials, including Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were said to have opposed Trump's action, which they argued would allow Iranian leaders to justify operations against Americans overseas, especially Special Operations units and paramilitary units working under the CIA.
Pompeo and John Bolton, the national security adviser, pushed for it, a Trump administration official said. The fighting among the senior administration officials was said to have intensified after The New York Times disclosed the pending designation last month.
The final decision belonged to Pompeo because the State Department controls the list of designated terrorist organizations.
American military commanders were planning to warn U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region of the possibility of retaliation. About 5,200 American troops are stationed in Iraq, and about 2,000 troops remain in Syria. Aside from those areas, the U.S. 5th Fleet, which operates in the Persian Gulf from its base in Bahrain, and the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar are seen as potentially at risk.
The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, and the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, Nathan Sales, said the decision was reached after consultation with agencies throughout the government, but they would not say at a news conference whether the military or intelligence concerns had been addressed.
"Doing this will not impede our diplomacy," Hook said, without elaborating. He noted that the U.S. has at various times had contact or even formal negotiations with members of groups that are subject to sanctions.
Critics of the policy also see it as a prelude to conflict.
"This move closes yet another potential door for peacefully resolving tensions with Iran," said Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council. "Once all doors are closed, and diplomacy is rendered impossible, war will essentially become inevitable."
National Security Action, a group mainly made up of former Barack Obama administration officials, said the move would put U.S. troops at risk while jeopardizing the 2015 nuclear accord, with which Iran is still complying.
"We need to call out today's move for what it is: another dangerous and self-defeating tactic that endangers our troops and serves nothing but the Trump administration's goal of destroying the Iran deal," it said.
The decision could also open hundreds of foreign companies and business executives to U.S. travel bans and possible prosecution for sanctions violations.
The designation "raises the question of whether a non-U.S. company or individual could be prosecuted for engaging in commercial transactions with an Iranian company controlled by the IRGC," said Anthony Rapa, an international trade and national security attorney with Kirkland and Ellis.
The added pressure from the Americans also could fuel a popular proposal among Iraqi lawmakers to limit the movements and actions of the U.S. troops based in Iraq.
In recent days, State Department officials had asked Pompeo to delay any announcement, arguing that the designation could have unintended consequences for unrelated countries, a government official said. But Pompeo dismissed their concerns.
Under a provision of the USAPATRIOT Act, low-level officials are empowered to deny entry to foreigners who are associated with an organization that the officials decide meet broad standards for terrorism -- even when the U.S. government has not formally applied a terrorism label to that group.
Until now, U.S. officials had never interpreted laws as permitting them to deem a government entity a terrorist organization.
The Trump administration's decision to breach that constraint with the Iranian group raised the question of whether other government intelligence services that use violence -- including those of Israel, Pakistan and Russia -- also now meet that standard. State Department officials said the rushed announcement meant such policy details have not yet been worked out.
Information for this article was contributed by Edward Wong and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times; by Matthew Lee, Susannah George, Nasser Karimi and Aya Batrawy of The Associated Press; and by Anne Gearan, Carol Morello, Souad Mekhennet and Erin Cunningham of The Washington Post.
A Section on 04/09/2019
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