Officials confirm US to name Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terror group Monday
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Officials confirm US to name Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terror group Monday

Unprecedented move will be first time Washington blacklists a foreign military; designation could complicate Iraq, Lebanon ties and spark backlash against US interests in region

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, arrives at a graduation ceremony of the Revolutionary Guard's officers. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, arrives at a graduation ceremony of the Revolutionary Guard's officers. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a “foreign terrorist organization,” an unprecedented move against a national armed force that could have widespread implications for US personnel and policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Officials informed of the step said an announcement was expected Monday, after a monthslong escalation in the administration’s rhetoric against Iran, its support for militia groups in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, as well as anti-Israel groups in the region and beyond.

It would be the first such designation by any American administration of an entire foreign government entity, although portions of the Guard, notably its elite Quds Force, have been targeted previously by the United States.

Two US officials and a congressional aide confirmed the planned move. They were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seemed to anticipate the designation, saying in a tweet Sunday aimed at President Donald Trump that Trump “should know better than to be conned into another US disaster.” He claimed the move was being pushed by those with dual loyalty to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The designation, planning for which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, comes with sanctions, including freezes on assets the Guard may have in US jurisdictions and a ban on Americans doing business with it or providing material support for its activities.

Although the Guard has broad control and influence over the Iranian economy, such penalties from the US may have limited impact. The designation, however, could significantly complicate US military and diplomatic work, notably in Iraq, where many Shiite militias and Iraqi political parties have close ties to the Guard.

In Lebanon, the designation could further restrict with whom US officials can interact. The Guard has close ties to Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah fighters hold flags, as they attend the memorial of their slain leader Sheik Abbas al-Mousawi, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992, in Tefahta village, south Lebanon, February 13, 2016. (Mohammed Zaatari/AP)

Hezbollah is already designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US. Its presence in Lebanon’s parliament and executive branch have forced the US to avoid any contact with Hezbollah members even as the US continues to provide assistance to and work with the Lebanese army.

Without exclusions or waivers to the designation, US troops and diplomats could be barred from contact with Iraqi or Lebanese authorities who interact with Guard officials or surrogates.

The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have raised concerns about the impact of the designation if the move does not allow contact with foreign officials who may have met with or communicated with Guard personnel. Those concerns have in part dissuaded previous administrations from taking the step, which has been considered for more than a decade.

In this photo released Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, by Sepahnews, the website of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, chief of the Guard’s aerospace division, left, explains the Dezful surface-to-surface ballistic missile to the Guard’s chief, Mohammad Ali Jafari during an inauguration ceremony, in an undisclosed location, Iran. (Sepahnews via AP)

It was not immediately clear whether the designation would include such carve-outs.

In addition to those complications, American commanders are concerned that the designation may prompt Iran to retaliate against US forces in the region, and those commanders plan to warn US troops remaining in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere of that possibility, according to a third US official. This official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard patrol boats shadow the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier on Friday, Dec. 21, 2018 (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Aside from Iraq, where some 5,200 American troops are stationed, and Syria, where some US 2,000 troops remain, the US 5th Fleet, which operates in the Persian Gulf from its base in Bahrain, and the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, are potentially at risk.

A similar warning is also expected from the State Department of possible Iranian retaliation against American interests, including embassies and consulates, and anti-American protests, the first two US officials said. Similar alerts were issued at the start of the Iraq War in 2003 and more recently when the Trump administration announced it would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Despite the risks, Iran hard-liners on Capitol Hill, such as Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and elsewhere have long advocated for the designation. They say it will send an important message to Iran as well as deal it a further blow after the Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed economic sanctions.

Members of Iran’s 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)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have taken up the call and have in recent months spoken stridently about Iran and its “malign activities” in the region.

Pompeo has made clear in public comments that pressure on Tehran will only increase until it changes its behavior. Just last week, Pompeo’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, accused Iran and its proxies of being responsible for the death of 608 US troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. He cited newly declassified Defense Department information for the claim, which is expected to be used in the justification for the Guard designation.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answers a question during a news conference on Tuesday, March 26, 2019, at the Department of State in Washington. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)

“Secretary Pompeo will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to press the regime to change its destructive policies for the benefit of peace in the region and for the sake of its own people, who are the longest-suffering victims of this regime,” Hook said, in an indication that new action is coming.

The department currently designates 60 groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and their various affiliates, Hezbollah and numerous Palestinian factions, as “foreign terrorist organizations.” But none of them is a state-run military.

Once a designation is announced by the secretary of state in coordination with the Treasury secretary, Congress has seven days to review it. If there are no objections, then it will take effect.

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