One of the defining characteristics of terrorist groups is that they are non-state actors. There are other characteristics — for instance, the use of violence, targeting innocents, seeking political objectives — but they are always outside the context of sovereignty that governs relationships between states, or the much longer Treasury Department list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist Entities (SDGTs). You’ll find terror groups, guerilla armies, crooked banks, fake charities, corrupt businesses, and very, very bad men — but you won’t find sovereign governments, their armies, their spy agencies, or other instruments of foreign security.
So what are we to make of the proposal to add Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a.k.a. Sepah-e-Pasdaran-e-Enghlab-e-Islami (or Pasdaran) to one or both of the terrorist lists? The Pasdaran is a good candidate; Iran has long been identified as a state sponsor of terrorism, and a number of Iranian-backed groups are currently on both the lists, including Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. (Note that Hamas is itself a government of sorts, but not of a sovereign state.) Iran’s global terrorist training and liaison work is undertaken by the IRGC’s Quds force, and the Office of Liberation Movements. Pasdaran operatives have been active in Iraq for years, giving insurgents and terrorists the training, specialized weapons, and other support to conduct deadly operations against Coalition forces and the Iraqi people.
The Pasdaran supports, promotes, and commits acts of terrorism, which brings it under the legal definitions for inclusion on the terror lists. But the fact that it is a government entity has larger implications. The U.S. government would be saying not only that Iran supports terrorism, but that its government is partly comprised of terrorists.
In a sense, this downgrades Pasdaran activities in Iraq. The IRGC may use terror tactics, but because its activities are expressions of the policy of the Iranian government, they are more properly categorized as acts of international aggression; in other words, they are considered as acts of war. Iranian aggression is costing the lives of American and Coalition service people, not to mention hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Yet for some reason the U.S. government has chosen not to respond in kind, at least not overtly. This is a self-imposed strategic asymmetry similar to the limitations the U.S. observed when it was confronting North Vietnam 40 years ago, even though NVA Regulars were waging open war in the South. Then, as now, U.S. reluctance to respond effectively has only served to embolden the adversary.
Few organizations on the FTO or SDGT lists have been complicit in killing more Americans than the Pasdaran. But the primary effect of its inclusion in this exclusive club will be to enable seizure of Pasdaran assets if we can find them, and restrict the movement of its members. This will have limited impact, since the assets can easily be hidden or reclassified, and IRGC members aren’t seeking to travel here openly in great numbers (we hope).
However there may be substantial operational implications. Section 6 of Executive Order 13224 that established the SDGT list instructs government agencies to “make all relevant efforts…to achieve the objectives of this order, including the prevention and suppression of acts of terrorism…” That is broad enough language to permit a variety of actions, but some issues need to be clarified. What would the status be of IRGC members captured in Iraq? Would they be enemy combatants, absent a declaration of war on Iran? What action could we take against the IRGC in other countries? Could its members be apprehended at sea? Could we take action against the IRGC on Iranian soil, for example in the context of hot pursuit? Could Predators range over Iran seeking IRGC leaders? If they are all terrorists, can the US take action against the Pasdaran the same way it would against al Qaeda; anyway, anyhow, anywhere?
This is potentially groundbreaking and precedent setting action and should not be undertaken lightly. It could be used to single out groups within foreign governments that are involved in terrorism and other destabilizing activities without having to levy broader and less effective sanctions. Other similar agencies could be added to the terror list, for example the North Korean Reconnaissance and Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureaus. Or all of the Syrian government. In the right hands, and with the will to act vigorously and imaginatively, this could be an important tool to combat a variety of international ills, such as weapons proliferation and weapons-of-mass-destruction development. And it will help crack the façade of state sovereignty that has been the main bulwark legitimizing the world’s nastiest dictatorships.
– James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington University, senior fellow for national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point. Robbins is also an NRO contributor.