Trump Administration Should Abstain from Unprecedented IRGC Designation

On October 30th, President Donald J. Trump is required to impose the sanctions applicable with respect to a foreign person designated pursuant to Executive Order 13224 on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and foreign persons that are officials, agents, or affiliates of the IRGC. During Senate consideration of legislation that was folded into the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), NIAC Action repeatedly expressed its concern to legislators that this provision would lead to the effective designation of the IRGC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) pursuant to E.O. 13224. A designation of a foreign military as a terrorist group, NIAC Action argued, would be unprecedented, run counter to a decade of warnings from the Pentagon and endanger U.S. troops – particularly those operating in close proximity to IRGC-linked forces in Iraq and Syria. Republican and Democratic sponsors of the legislation, however, countered that this provision did not require the President to designate the IRGC an SDGT, but merely to impose sanctions applicable with respect to the IRGC.      

Section 105 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act

As a technical matter, Section 105 of CAATSA merely requires the President to impose blocking sanctions on the IRGC and those the President determines to be its officials, agents, or affiliates.  However, those seeking to undermine the foundations of the Iran nuclear accord are urging the President to go beyond the plain text of this provision and designate the IRGC an SDGT under E.O. 13224 – a move that would inflict grave damage to U.S. national security interests, all the while providing the U.S. no additional sanctions leverage with respect to the IRGC.  President Trump and the U.S. agencies delegated the authority to implement this mandate should strictly adhere to its plain text and affirm the imposition of blocking sanctions on the IRGC without taking additional designation action. Doing otherwise risks both undermining the successful implementation of the Iran nuclear accord and enveloping the United States in military conflict with Iran, all the while betraying the understanding of the legislation’s original sponsors.     

Both the original sponsors of the bill and outside advocates shared this understanding.  For instance, during the bill’s mark-up, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) repeatedly stated that the provision does not designate the IRGC an SDGT, but merely imposes the sanctions applicable with respect to an SDGT to the IRGC (i.e., blocking sanctions). Similarly, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) noted in its bill summary that the provision “imposes terrorism-related sanctions on [the IRGC],” a noted distinction from designating the IRGC a terrorist group.  As a result, both the plain text of Section 105 and the original intent of the bill’s drafters caution the President against designating the IRGC an SDGT in favor of imposing the sanctions applicable with respect to an SDGT on the IRGC.

Current U.S. Sanctions Targeting the IRGC

The IRGC is currently designated under three U.S. sanctions programs, including for their role in Iran’s ballistic missile program and Iran’s human rights abuses.[1]  Each designation imposes blocking sanctions on the IRGC, as well as a general prohibition on U.S. person dealings with the IRGC.  In addition, current U.S. sanctions impose tough restrictions on foreign parties – including foreign financial institutions – transacting or otherwise dealing with the IRGC and those expressly determined to be officials, agents, or affiliates of the IRGC. Together, these U.S. sanctions have effectively severed the IRGC from the global financial system, all the while eroding the IRGC’s ability to conduct cross-border commercial dealings.

No Action Needed to Implement Section 105

Because the IRGC is currently the subject of blocking sanctions, neither President Trump nor the U.S. agencies delegated the authority to implement the legislative mandate identified in Section 105 of CAATSA are required to take any additional action to implement that provision. As discussed above, Section 105 of CAATSA merely requires the President to impose blocking sanctions on the IRGC.  However, the IRGC is the subject of blocking sanctions under multiple U.S. sanctions programs at present, and any additional steps to impose blocking sanctions would be duplicative of existing measures, conferring no further sanctions leverage over the IRGC. For this reason, President Trump or the agencies to which he has delegated authority to carry out Section 105 should provide notice that the IRGC is currently the subject of blocking sanctions and that the legislative mandate laid down in Section 105 is thus satisfied. Such notice would clearly suffice to fulfill Section 105’s requirements.  

Dangers of Taking Additional Action

Despite the ease with which the President can satisfy Section 105’s requirements, some opponents of the Iran nuclear accord are encouraging the President to take action that goes beyond the plain text of Section 105 – i.e., to designate the IRGC an SDGT pursuant to E.O. 13224. Such a move, however, would betray not just the plain text of Section 105, but also the intent of the bill’s drafters. Original sponsors of the legislation made clear that Section 105 (or its earlier iterations) did not designate the IRGC an SDGT, but merely imposed the sanctions applicable with respect to an SDGT on the IRGC.  For instance, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) stated repeatedly during the bill’s mark-up that this legislative provision would not designate the IRGC an SDGT. Similarly, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) noted that the bill would “apply terrorism sanctions against [the IRGC], [but would not] designate them as a terrorist entity.” This distinction is built into the plain text of Section 105 of CAATSA, reflecting the intent of its drafters, and efforts to push President Trump to designate the IRGC an SDGT would betray the purpose of this legislative mandate. 

Such a designation would also confer no additional sanctions leverage over Iran – as the designation would merely duplicate existing U.S. sanctions targeting the IRGC – all the while undermining important U.S. national security interests. For instance, designating the IRGC – which is regarded as a central component of Iran’s armed forces – a terrorist group could lead to deadly repercussions for U.S. military personnel sharing the battlefield with the IRGC and IRGC-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, a fact that the U.S. military itself has warned about for more than a decade now. The IRGC could set loose Iran-backed militias in Iraq to resume the targeting of American troops, as occurred during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. If the IRGC were to respond by targeting American troops, that could lead to an escalatory conflict between the U.S. and Iran – one that could prove the death knell for the Iran nuclear accord and the start of a new war in the Middle East. Such devastating consequences for U.S. security interests would be the result of imposing a designation on the IRGC that has no effective sanctions consequences favorable to the United States.

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