In 2007, an Iranian-made 107mm rocket exploded within a few tens of feet of me. It was part of a barrage that killed no one and injured no one, but only through luck; that blast struck the smoking pit of an American military post in Iraq. Fortunately it was not the first rocket to strike, and everyone got under cover before that one hit. Had things been slightly different, who knows how many soldiers would have been killed by it?
This was only one of the Iranian rocket barrages I’ve ridden out over the years. My favorite one happened on Victory Base, just about supper time in the winter months. The sky was dark, and when the rockets came over the wall — targeting the dining facility at dinner time — the automated “C-RAM” guns shot some of them down. I happened to be out away from any buildings or cover at the time, so I laid down and watched them come in and explode. ‘The rockets’ red glare; the bombs bursting in air’ has never sounded quite the same since that evening.
Overall, Iranian efforts to kill Americans in Iraq are estimated to have succeeded several hundred times. At the core of these efforts has always been the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). They provided these weapons, which require an industrial base to construct, to Iraqi terrorist groups. They provided trainers to teach those groups how to operate the weapons effectively. They provided other weapons, too, such as “explosively formed penetrator” IEDs that could penetrate the most sophisticated armor. They even provided plasma grenades, a sci-fi sounding weapon originally designed by the Soviets to penetrate tank armor.
In spite of that, until today the IRGC was not designated as a terrorist organization. Saddam’s government had oppressed many of the people who were trying to form the new Iraqi government under the protection of American-led Coalition forces. Many of those people had fled to Iran, or developed ties with the IRGC as a means of resisting Saddam. In those days, too, Al Qaeda in Iraq and the proto-Islamic State were in full swing. Many Iraqis were keeping up their ties to Iran’s irregular warfare elements as a hedge in case the Coalition was not successful. To designate the IRGC would have entailed a breach between us and the very people we were trying to help build a government.
Many of those people are still in the Iraqi government today. The case is even more emphatic when you look at the “Popular Mobilization Forces” the Iraqi military teamed with in the campaign against the Islamic State. Some of those have sworn allegiance to the Iranian clergy. Iran has been using them to conduct purges within Iraq. Today’s designation puts all of these groups on notice.
In a way this is a triumph of the sort of honesty that also characterized the Trump administration’s Jerusalem embassy decision. Just as Jerusalem obviously and actually is the capital of Israel, the IRGC is, in fact, everything they say it is. Everyone knows this, and everyone has always known it. We have only pretended otherwise to make things easier.
It is hard to say how much this decision is going to affect. As no less than Al Jazeera points out, the IRGC is deeply involved in the Iranian economy at every level.
The designation allows the US to deny entry to people found to have provided the IRGC with material support or prosecute them for sanctions violations. That could include European and Asian companies and businesspeople who deal with the IRGC’s many affiliates.
It also may complicate diplomacy. Without exclusions or waivers to the designation, US troops and diplomats could be barred from contact with Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who interact with IRGC officials or surrogates…. After the 1980s’ Iran-Iraq war, the IRGC also became heavily involved in reconstruction and has expanded its economic interests to include a vast network of businesses, ranging from oil and gas projects to construction and telecommunication.
“Iraqi or Lebanese,” yes, but also Qatari and Afghani, Pakistani and Turkish. It could bar contact with Yemeni warring factions, who are Iranian proxies as much as they are anything else, as well as affecting any peace process that involves Hezbollah or Hamas. In terms of the economic interests, it is impossible to estimate how complex the interactions are. Effectively anyone doing business with Iran is likely to run afoul of ties to the IRGC.
In the end this offers the opportunity to maximize pressure on Iran, and to start severing some of these ties that permeate the region. It is going to be a hard lift, though. It is a gutsy move, one that could easily go badly if it is not well-handled.