Two reactions are appropriate to the Bush administration’s decision to place Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. First, one should cheer. Second, one should ask how much longer it will take the president to resolve the contradiction at the heart of his Iran policy.
One should cheer because the Revolutionary Guard is among the world’s most effective forces for barbarity and chaos. Separate from Iran’s regular military, it espouses the revolution-exporting ideology of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei (the latter of whom possesses ultimate control of its actions). It has killed Americans gladly, as at the Khobar Towers. Its current specialty is killing American soldiers in Iraq, through Iraqi proxies, with armor-piercing bombs. These things alone do not make it a terrorist group in the precise sense of that term, but its arming and financing of Hezbollah certainly does. Likewise the massacres of civilians that its aid to Iraqi militants has made possible.
To designate the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist entity, then, is to acknowledge reality. Yet there is something decidedly unrealistic in the idea that the Revolutionary Guard can be separated from the Iranian government as a whole. (The distinctions got even more jesuitical when it emerged that the State Department might not designate the entire Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, but simply its Quds Force, composed of special covert units.) There is no getting around the fact that the Revolutionary Guard — including the Quds Force — expresses the will of Iran’s highest rulers. If what it does counts as terrorism, they count as terrorists.
Given their history of working mayhem in the Middle East and beyond (recall, for example, their handiwork in Argentina in 1994), this is an obvious enough fact, and the State Department designation will do little to make it more obvious. It will also do little to hurt Iran — the designation would freeze any assets the Revolutionary Guard had in the U.S., but, as you might imagine, it prefers to bank elsewhere.
What the designation does do is lay bare the contradiction in President Bush’s Iran policy. After September 11, in a moment of great strategic clarity, Bush said that the U.S. would not distinguish between terrorists and the governments that harbored them. Yet his administration has approached Iran — the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism — as though it were a legitimate government, capable of being persuaded to adopt positions agreeable to liberal democracies.
On Iran’s nuclear program, Bush has deferred first to Europe and then to Condoleezza Rice’s State Department in allowing years of negotiating, followed by a few more years of negotiating, followed by (wait for it) more negotiating.
Worse than do nothing, this strategy created an illusion that the world was seriously confronting Iran when just the opposite was true. The two Security Council resolutions against the Islamic Republic were so weak as to be meaningless, except in distracting attention from alternative courses of action (e.g., effective sanctions or military force). Iran’s leaders have grown more brazen at every turn — kidnappings of foreign soldiers and proxy wars are now par for the course — yet the Bush administration has remained unable to forge a credible policy.
What one should hope now is that the administration, in its waning days, is making a course correction. The squeamishness with which much of Europe opposes the designation suggests that it fears just this. For a variety of reasons — economic interest, anti-Americanism, and reflexive pacifism chief among them — it would prefer to avoid any bad blood with the Islamic Republic. Most of the U.S. State Department feels likewise. But the simple truth is that, unless Iran’s regime gives up both its terrorist ideology and its weapons, we will never be safe. The president has taken an important — albeit partial and overdue — step toward facing that unpleasant reality.