Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist designation is latest major stumbling block to restoring Iran nuclear deal
After months of grueling negotiations, Iran and world powers appeared to be on the verge of agreeing to reinstate a landmark 2015 nuclear deal.
But several last-minute hiccups have threatened to derail efforts to revive the deal, which curbed Tehran’s sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
The biggest and most complicated stumbling block is Iran’s demand that the United States withdraw the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – a branch of Iran’s armed forces that plays an important role in the economy – from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. (OTF).
Tehran has said removing the IRGC from the blacklist is a “red line”. Washington did not comment directly on the matter, although it said separate US sanctions against the IRGC would remain in place as part of any deal.
Observers said there could be a compromise, although they warned the sensitivity of the issue could sabotage a compromise.
In the US, the issue is controversial given that US officials have accused the IRGC of creating instability and supporting militant groups in the region. The IRGC is also in charge of Iran’s controversial missile program. Meanwhile, for Tehran, the terrorist designation of the IRGC, a major center of power in the Islamic republic, is unacceptable.
“I think it’s more likely than not that Washington and Tehran will find a way around this impasse to revive the JCPOA,” said Henry Rome, senior analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, referring to the overall action plan. joint, the name of the nuclear agreement. “It will take some creativity and political cost, but I think there is enough incentive on both sides to get over that hurdle.”
“But it’s clearly not guaranteed,” Rome told RFE/RL. “The FTO designation has acquired a political significance that goes beyond its practical implication, which makes compromise particularly difficult.”
“Both sides are prone to miscalculations”
In 2019, then-US President Donald Trump designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, marking the first time Washington has officially used the label on a foreign state institution. It came a year after Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed tough economic sanctions on Tehran.
Iran responded by gradually expanding its nuclear activities, shortening its so-called breakout period for the development of nuclear weapons, a move that set off alarm bells in Western capitals.
Despite the high stakes, Iran and the US have shown no signs of compromising on the IRGC blacklist.
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group (ICG), compared the situation to “a Mexican standoff”.
“It’s very difficult to find a mutually acceptable formula and it’s a situation like a Mexican standoff. [in] that each side expects the other to concede because they think the other needs the deal more,” Vaez said during a online round table March 29. “The reality is that both sides need it and both sides are prone to miscalculation.”
The Washington-based news outlet Axios, citing US and Israeli sources, announced on March 16 that Washington was considering removing the IRGC from its terrorist blacklist in exchange for Iran’s “public commitment to de-escalation in the region”.
Tehran is accused of backing Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are waging a deadly war against a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, a key US ally and Tehran’s regional foe. The Huthis staged cross-border assaults on Saudi Arabia, striking key energy facilities.
Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias have been accused of launching attacks on US security personnel and bases in Iraq. The US presence in Iraq has long been a flashpoint for Tehran, but tensions rose after a January 2020 US drone strike near Baghdad airport killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.
The assassination infuriated Iran, which days later launched a ballistic missile attack on a military base housing international troops in Iraq, causing concussions to around 100 US soldiers. Iranian officials have threatened further retaliation, including targeting Trump administration officials.
On March 12, the State Department said it was paying more than $2 million a month to provide 24-hour security for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a former senior official, who , he said, faced “serious and credible” threats from Iran.
A source close to the US negotiating team in Vienna, the site of the nuclear talks, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda this week that one of Washington’s key demands for delisting from the IRGC was a commitment by Iran not to target Trump administration officials in retaliation for Soleimani’s killing.
In a written statement to Radio Farda, the State Department said it “was not going to respond to specific requests about what sanctions we would be prepared to lift as part of a mutual return to full implementation. of the JCPOA”.
“The most absurd of obstacles”
State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on March 30 that several issues remained unresolved in the nuclear talks with Iran, adding that it was up to Tehran to make those choices.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on March 26 that the IRGC’s terrorist designation was a major stumbling block in the talks. But he suggested some flexibility, saying senior IRGC officials have said the deal should not be suspended over whether the deal serves the nation’s interests.
Amir-Abdollahian, however, later said on Instagram that “red lines” should not be crossed. He quoted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic republic, as saying, “I too am a Revolutionary Guard.”
Vaez told RFE/RL that the FTO designation, seen as largely symbolic, did “nothing to reduce the IRGC’s influence”. In fact, he said, it had made the IRGC even “brazener”.
“This is the most absurd of obstacles to the restoration of the nuclear agreement,” Vaez added. “Keeping the FTO designation doesn’t help the United States. Lifting it won’t help Iran.”
Prior to its terrorist designation, the IRGC had already been the target of numerous American sanctions about his involvement in Iran’s missile program, his alleged human rights abuses and interference in Iranian elections, and his support for militant groups in the Middle East region.
Even amid ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna, Washington has continued to target the IRGC and its affiliates with new sanctions.
On March 30, the Treasury Department sanctions announced against “an Iran-based procurement agent and his network of companies who procured materials related to ballistic missile boosters” for the IRGC.