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Analysis

It’s about sending a message: Implications of US delisting Iran Revolutionary Guard

Move being mooted by US could set a worrying precedent, though some are convinced it’s necessary in order to secure a deal to curb Iran’s nuke program

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Illustrative: This photo taken on September 22, 2018, shows members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) marching during the annual military parade that marks the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in the capital Tehran. (Stringer/AFP)
Illustrative: This photo taken on September 22, 2018, shows members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) marching during the annual military parade that marks the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in the capital Tehran. (Stringer/AFP)

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll was asked Tuesday to explain the government’s public opposition to the reported US intention to delist Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror group, as a final step in the negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear agreement.

Roll told Kan public radio that the IRGC is a terror organization with significant reach and that Israel would continue to treat it as such, regardless of any decision made by the Biden administration.

Having not really answered the question, the deputy foreign minister was again pushed to explain the practical implications of the move, given that the new Israeli government has until now largely avoided coming out so publicly against US policies.

“I don’t know. There isn’t yet a textbook for this. We have to see how it plays out,” Roll responded in somewhat shocking candor.

The more official statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Friday didn’t get into the question of the proposed move’s potential impact either, and instead focused on highlighting the IRGC’s rap sheet in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Iraq and inside Iran as well.

“The attempt to delist the IRGC as a terrorist organization is an insult to the victims and would ignore documented reality supported by unequivocal evidence.” Bennett and Lapid said in a joint statement.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speak at a press conference in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Experts who spoke with The Times of Israel suggested that part of the reason behind Israeli officials’ hesitance or inability to delve into the practical implications of delisting the IRGC is due to the move being largely symbolic.

More than a handful of heavy US and EU sanctions against the IRGC will remain in place, regardless of whether the Iranian government agency is on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list or not.

The FTO designation does come with a bar on emigration to the US of any ex-IRGC fighters as well as criminal penalties for those caught aiding the military group. But those implications may barely be felt on top of all the other sanctions against the IRGC.

That is not to say that the symbolism lacks significance. Those looking to rein in Iran’s influence in the Middle East are in agreement that it is a move they would prefer the Biden administration not make. But those convinced that it’s the price the US will have to pay to ensure an Iranian return to an agreement that rolls back its nuclear activity believe that Washington doesn’t have the luxury of rejecting the Iranian demand.

‘Won’t change anything’

The US administration appeared to say as much when asked to comment on reports that it was readying to delist the IRGC as talks between world powers in Vienna reach their culmination point.

“We are prepared to make difficult decisions to return Iran’s nuclear program to its JCPOA limits,” a State Department official told The Times of Israel on Saturday, refraining from denying the speculation.

The official argued that while the IRGC presents a threat to regional stability, that threat is far greater when it is coupled with an unrestricted Iranian nuclear program.

Mohammad Eslami, head of Iran’s nuclear agency (left), and Iran’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazem Gharib Abadi, leave the International Atomic Energy’s General Conference in Vienna, Austria, on Monday, September 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner, File)

“Under any return to the JCPOA, the United States will retain and aggressively use our powerful tools… to counter the IRGC, in concert with our allies and partners,” the official added, in an apparent reference to the other sanctions against the IRGC that will remain in place.

These include the 2007 and 2011 designations of the IRGC by the US Treasury Department for its nuclear proliferation and human rights abuses, as well as an additional terrorist entity designation that was slapped on it by the Treasury in 2017. It wasn’t until 2019 that then-president Donald Trump added the IRGC to what is seen as the premier terror listing — the FTO — as part of his administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign.

CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie also downplayed the potential impact of a delisting at a briefing last week, telling reporters that “in the terms of the way we think about the threat [posed by the IRGC] and what they do on a daily basis across the [region], I don’t think much would change as a result of [delisting].”

‘Chipping away at the legitimacy of sanctions’

But if delisting the IRGC will really have no practical impact on the ground, one might wonder why Iran is reportedly refusing to back down from its demand.

Danny Citrinowicz, who headed the Israeli Military Intelligence’s Iran research branch, said the delisting is critical to President Ebrahim Raisi, who will need the support of the IRGC not only to run for reelection but also to replace Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when the latter dies.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Matt Levitt argued that the Iranian demand is part of an effort to “chip away at the legitimacy and international consensus around the idea of adhering to sanctions and unilateral American sanctions in particular.”

The leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, Ismail Haniyeh (2nd R), shakes hands with Iranian Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri (L) and the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard force, General Hossein Salami (C), during the swearing in ceremony for Iran’s new president at the parliament in the Islamic Republic’s capital Tehran on August 5, 2021. (Atta KENARE / AFP)

“What they want with this delisting is to be able to say to potential financial partners, ‘even the US government’s premier terrorism list doesn’t have us on it. Do you really think they would take us off the FTO list if we were still a terrorist group? It’s clearly just political,'” Levitt speculated, suggesting that the move will make it easier for Iran to convince countries, banks and businesses that there’s little risk in doing business.

To Raz Zimmt of the Institute for National Security Studies, the larger concern in delisting the IRGC is the precedent that it sets.

US negotiators have long made a point of differentiating between nuclear-related sanctions, which Washington is willing to lift as part of a joint US-Iran return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and non-nuclear-related sanctions imposed due to Iran’s support for terror and human rights violations. The Biden administration has pledged to maintain the latter group of sanctions, even though critics of the Trump policy argue that the sanctions he implemented after withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018 were as much about bringing Tehran to its knees as they were about preventing a US return to the agreement.

Maintaining the differentiation between two types of sanctions allows the US to continue to act against Iran’s regional activities, even while a nuclear deal is in place. It follows that incorporating Iran’s regional activity into the nuclear talks by accepting the demand to delist the IRGC could undermine that distinction, along with the effort to rein in Islamic Republic’s regional hegemony, Zimmt told The Times of Israel.

Nonetheless, he said, removing the IRGC from the FTO list would be a compromise between the US position in favor of upholding non-nuclear related sanctions and the Iranian position demanding the removal of all sanctions implemented by Trump.

Illustrative: Members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade, marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the capital Tehran, on September 22, 2018. (AFP/STR)

“I agree that this doesn’t look good, but if this is the only thing keeping the sides from an agreement, then unfortunately I think this is a price worth paying,” said Zimmt, who is also a research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies.

Citrinowicz, the former Military Intelligence official, was more definitive in supporting what he admitted was a “very problematic” move.

“The administration is at a very critical point in the negotiations, and it understands that the only way to stop Iranian progress in its nuclear program is a return to the agreement. The sweetener of the IRGC delisting is the straw that can break the back of the resistance in the Iranian regime,” he said, arguing that supporters of sanctions have turned them into an end rather than a means and that some of the economic penalties have already exhausted their influence.

Levitt, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on the other hand, expressed his opposition to the move, arguing that Iran is too desperate for sanctions relief to hold out on signing an agreement over an issue like delisting the IRCG.

“Not in a million years is the [nuclear] deal going to happen or not happen based on this,” he said.

Quiet backers

While Bennett has not found a sympathetic audience for his concerns regarding delisting the IRGC in the US, he’ll likely have an easier time rallying support among partners in the region.

An Egyptian official told The Times of Israel that the issue came up during Bennett’s trilateral meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this week.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (C) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, March 22, 2022 (Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency)

While Abu Dhabi and Cairo may be more amenable than Israel to a revived nuclear deal, they are much more concerned with Iran’s regional activity, through the IRGC and other proxies. The Emiratis, in particular, are still fuming over the lack of US support following missile attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

This, on paper, makes them much more likely to cooperate with Israel in an effort to pressure the US not to cave to an Iranian demand that Jerusalem fears will further embolden Iran to expand its grip throughout the region.

Still, Zimmt cautioned against talk of a NATO-like alliance between Israel and its Arab allies, pointing out that the latter are not in a position to come out too forcefully against Iran.

“They’re the ones who live two meters away from Iran, not us, and there’s a limit to what they can do,” he said of the Emiratis. “Iran may be on our border as well through its proxies, but the power balance is not the same between Israel and Iran and between the UAE and Iran.”

He noted efforts over the past two years by Abu Dhabi to warm ties with Tehran, as well as its decision not to blame Iran for the Houthi attacks, “even when it’s clear to everyone who backs the Houthis.”

Regardless of whether opposition among Israel’s Arab allies will bring them to act against delisting the IRGC, Levitt argued that ignoring their concerns would be a self-defeating policy for the Biden administration.

“If your whole foreign policy is about rebuilding partnerships and alliances, you can’t alienate your partners and allies,” he said.

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