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Attempting to remake the Middle East, one decision at a time

The potential for a strong Iranian retaliation — beyond designations and sanctions — is very real after President Trump’s April 8 speech,  especially in three important locations in the region where American interests are at stake: Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

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Binnur Ozkececi-Taner
In an April 8 speech, President Donald Trump announced his administration’s decision to designate Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained the decision by stating that while “masquerad[ing] as a legitimate military organization,” IRGC was responsible for facilitating and perpetrating regional terrorism in the Middle East and for the deaths of hundreds of American service members in the region.

According to Brian Hook, special representative for Iran, the designation came as “the next step” in the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign to strengthen the economic and political sanctions on Iran.

The move, which comes after a series of other decisions aligning the Trump administration closely with Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, effectively bans any person or group to provide material support to IRGC and makes those who have any ongoing dealings with the group vulnerable to U.S. travel bans or criminal penalties.

Some concerned, some jubilant

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly had raised concerns about the impact of the new designation. A number of influential individuals and groups, on the other hand, were notably jubilant about the decision, which indicates that the decision has strong support both in and outside of the United States.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump “for answering another of [his] important requests that serve the interests of [both Israel and the United States] and of the countries in the region.” Similarly, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called the move an essential “overdue” step and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, suggested that the administration’s designation “end[ed] the facade that the IRGC is part of a normal military.”

While the United States has long designated more than 60 organizations as “foreign terrorist organizations,” and Iran a “state sponsor of terrorism” since 1984, this is the first time that the U.S. has regarded a part of state’s armed forces as a terrorist organization, but it should be noted that the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, with the United States as a participant, had condemned Nazi Germany’s Waffen-SS as a criminal organization for its involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity. With this decision, the Trump administration has effectively placed IRGC in the same category as al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Counterintuitively, Hook noted during an April 9 interview on NPR that the designation would not impede U.S. diplomacy in any way. Since no exemptions or waivers were made to the announced sanctions, it is a curious statement.

Iran escalates the situation

The Iranian leadership has already taken measures to escalate the situation. It was only a few hours after Trump’s announcement that the Iranian Supreme National Security Council designated the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and all its forces as terrorists. Furthermore, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani labeled the U.S. the “leader of world terrorism,” and Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian Parliament, denounced the decision as the “climax of stupidity and ignorance.” These actions do not seem to favor an advancement of diplomacy.

While some may believe that a new and severe containment regime might prove to be effective in stopping the nuclear ambitions of Iran and helpful in rendering the country ineffective in the newly emerging regional context following the Arab Spring, the terrorist designation seems to be a “blanket sanction” with unknown consequences.

The consequences of designating IRGC as a terrorist organization will become more clear in the coming weeks and months, but the potential for a strong Iranian retaliation — beyond designations and sanctions — is very real, especially in three important locations in the region where American interests are at stake: Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Binnur Ozkececi-Taner is department chair and a professor of political science in Hamline University’s College of Liberal Arts. She holds a B.A. in international relations from the Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey), an M.A. in peace studies from the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, and a Ph.D. in political science from Syracuse University.


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