BY Claude Salhani
US President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy is not exactly the smoothest of foreign policies to come out of Washington. It is not one that makes the United States popular in a part of the world where America’s policies regarding the dispute between Arabs and Israelis are rapidly becoming intertwined and interchangeable with those of Israel.
This is costing Washington political leverage in the Middle East, much to the benefit of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is happily picking up the pieces left behind. Still Trump insists there is no collusion with Moscow.
Some have compared the Trump administration’s handling of issues of importance in the Middle East to that of an elephant in a china shop. That is unfair. A more apt description would be that of a rhinoceros in a china shop.
After picking on the Palestinians, Trump ordered the transfer of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, giving up one of the very few and precious points that Washington could use as leverage to push Israel along in any peace talks.
Trump also ordered the closure of the Palestinian Authority office in Washington. He had no real reason to do this other than being his usual spiteful self. He stopped US financial support of UN agencies that provide education and health care to children of Palestinian refugees.
Trump’s biased policies are providing Tehran with an alibi to pursue aggressive actions in the region. Even before Trump took on the Iranians, pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal that Washington and the major European powers had concluded with Iran, Tehran was not really a force for peace and stability in the region.
The US administration is imposing escalating sanctions on Iran, stricter economic penalties than ever seen before. Now Trump has taken the ball even further down field. The Trump administration has designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation.
This sets a precedent in international affairs, in which a unit or a segment of a country’s government is declared to be part of a group adhering to terrorist acts.
That Iran’s ruling clergy has been using the IRGC to carry out a policy that can only be described as supportive and conductive of terrorism is no secret. The Iranian government’s budget even has a line dedicated to terrorism activities, albeit, presented under a somewhat more benign heading.
So what does designating the IRGC a terrorist organisation mean?
US sanctions will now affect any foreign government that undertakes any type of transaction or any form of cooperation with the IRGC. This is another stage in tightening the noose around the Iranian regime and its clientelist networks.
The IRGC was established 40 years ago to defend Iran’s Islamic system and provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces. It has become a major military, political and economic force in Iran, with close ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior figures.
The IRGC is estimated to have more than 150,000 active personnel, boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force and oversees Iran’s strategic weapons systems. It controls the paramilitary Basij Resistance Force, which has helped suppress domestic dissent, and the powerful bonyads, charitable foundations that run a considerable part of Iran’s economy.
The IRGC has been active in Lebanon through Hezbollah. In the Palestinian territories it supports Islamic Jihad and Hamas and has taken part in the civil wars in Yemen and in Syria.
The IRGC provides money and weapons technology training, which is funnelled through al-Quds force, a shadowy organisation conducting most of Iran’s overseas black operations.
It is such activities that led the United States to designate the IRGC as a “foreign terrorist organisation.”
Iran, of course, denies supporting terrorist activities, insisting that it is the United States that is destabilising the Middle East.
Having seen the power they had on the military, the leaders of the Islamic revolution wanted to make sure they in turn would not one day be overthrown by a powerful military. Thus, the IRGC was created.
From initially tasked with protecting the revolution, the IRGC has morphed into a parallel army. Al-Quds Force has also been accused by the United States of plotting or carrying out terrorist attacks, directly or through its proxies, in five continents.
In 2011, al-Quds Force was allegedly involved in a plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by bombing a restaurant in Washington. Last year, a court in Germany convicted an al-Quds Force operative of spying on the former head of a German-Israeli group and people close to him.
The IRGC has reportedly overseen the arrests of at least 30 dual nationals inside Iran since 2015, mostly on espionage charges.
While the IRGC is well deserving of the title “terrorist organisation,” Trump’s approach might give the Iranians more fodder in their claims that it is the Americans who are interfering in the Middle East and that the Iranians intend to stand up to them. Tehran’s rulers are threatening to mass produce nuclear centrifuges and deliver nasty “surprises” to Americans.
However, they will only give the US administration more excuses to ratchet up sanctions again Iran and further complicate the task of regional or global powers inclined towards saving Tehran from its deepening morass.
Declaring the IRGC a terrorist organisation is not the last of US pressures against Iran. Expect others in this endless spiral.