Iran Terror Label Bites Deep

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

In the aftermath of the US House of Representatives' recent resolution branding the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as terrorist, the White House is reportedly poised to formally place it on the terrorist list of the US State Department, with ramifications to follow, such as a freeze on the IRGC's assets wherever the US can get its hands on them.

This is considered a small victory by anti-Iran hawks, who know the important side-effects of this initiative in inching the US closer to war against Iran. Veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, meanwhile, has written about a "policy shift" in Washington. This involves a thirst for confrontation with Iran less on the grounds of Iran's nuclear program and more as a result of the situation in Iraq, where Iran has gained substantial influence, to the detriment of US-led coalition forces.

Justifying the anti-IRGC resolution in the name of an attempt to protect US soldiers, various lawmakers, such as Senator Joe Lieberman and Congresman Tom Lantos have accused the IRGC of supporting terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied territories. They dismiss the small yet loud dissent by fellow legislators, such as Senator Chuck Hagel and Congressman Dennis Kucinich, that this is a misguided initiative that could increase the possibility of war with Iran.

The case for the designation of the IRGC as terrorists has been built on thin empirical grounds and even thinner legal grounds, and is bound to complicate the US's Iraq policy. The arguments against the move can be listed as:

1. Illicit use of the term terrorist: Following the United Nations' definition of terrorism as the use of violence against unarmed civilians for political objectives, it is difficult to see how the activities of the IRGC alleged by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan can be fitted into this definition. Per the recent testimony of top US commanders, the IRGC, particularly its elite Quds Force, has been giving arms and explosives to Shi'ite militias which, in turn, use them against US forces. Assuming this is true, given the fact that Shi'ite (or Sunni) militias opposed to the US military presence are not referred to by the US itself as terrorists, but "insurgents", the question is: Why then brand the Iranian backers of those insurgents as a step worse than those directly fighting the US, and name them terrorists?

2. Scant empirical proof: The US has until now failed to lay out the facts against Iran and that is one reason the senior leadership in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as certain members of the international community, are not going along with the US's accusations against Iran. A case in point is Chris Alexander, the deputy UN representative to Kabul, who had this to say recently: "We are, quite frankly, trying to encourage everyone to recommit to having a sense of proportion, to putting the reality of the insecurity of Afghanistan into proportion. That means not saying that Iran is the principle source of arms shipments to the Taliban. That's simply not true."

In Iraq, the US has reportedly apprehended a number of Iranian operatives linked to the Quds Force, yet none of those individuals, including the five doing consular work in Ibril until kidnapped by US special forces nearly a year ago, has admitted to the crime alleged by the US. Nor has the US military introduced any documents that corroborate the allegations.

The question, then, is how to justify the IRGC's terrorist labeling in the absence of viable hard proof?

3. Questionable assumptions about the IRGC: Key to the designation of the IRGC's designation as terrorists is the assumption that it, and the Quds Force in particular, are "rogue" or "government-within-government" operatives. To paraphrase recent articles in the Washington Times and by the Council on Foreign Relations, they are "mafia-type" institutions. The problem with this is that, again, there is little about Iranian polity that endorses it.

The IRGC is very influential and some members of Parliament (Majlis), the cabinet, government ministries and local administrations have backgrounds in the IRGC. This actually shows the depth of integration of the IRGC (past and present) in formal government structures.

The much-scrutinized role of the IRGC in the economy, on the other hand, can be similarly interpreted as further support for the counter-argument that with the growing involvement of those guards in the formal and informal economy, their vested economic interests dictate more and more mainstream, as opposed to terroristic and subversive, behavior.

4. Questionable designation over Lebanon: Although the IRGC has played a prominent role in supporting Lebanon's Hezbollah since the early 1980s, calling the IRGC terrorists because of this is problematic. This in light of Hezbollah's powerful mass base, its political clout and its participation in parliamentary politics of Lebanon.

Hence, to designate Hezbollah as terrorist because of its occasional face-offs with the Israelis, is to turn this terminology into a propaganda tool that ignores important realities in the Middle East. Indeed, by labeling the IRGC as terrorists, the US will probably torpedo its own slow coming to terms with Hezbollah's staying power.

5. Overlooking history: US and Israeli hawks don't like to hear this, but in both Bosnia-Herzegovina during the early and mid-1990s and more recently in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, the US military and the IRGC interacted positively. In Bosnia, invited by the Bosnian government under siege, the IRGC trained and armed Bosnian fighters, with the tacit blessing of the White House. They continued to provide humanitarian support even after their military role ended shortly after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which called for the exit of foreign forces.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, where the IRGC played a prominent role in supporting the anti-Taliban and anti-al-Qaeda Northern Alliance led by the late Ahmad Shah Masoud long before the US cavalry arrived in 2001, US and IRGC commanders met repeatedly both before and after Kabul's fall into the hands of the Northern Alliance.

6. Negative costs outweigh benefits: Given Iran's stern reaction to this initiative, such as reciprocating by branding the US military and the Central Intelligence Agency as terrorist, there is little doubt that this initiative will have a corrosive influence on the diplomatic track between the US and Iran and pave the way to the nightmare scenario of physical confrontation. Dissenting voices in the US Congress have already warned of this.

For one thing, this action will at a minimum put a huge dent in the progress already made in the US-Iran dialogue over Iraq in the form of a joint committee of experts to discuss security-related issues. If the US is correct and Iran's intelligence operatives in Iraq are from the Quds Force, then the question becomes: How can the US expect to enlist Iran's cooperation on security and intelligence matters when it has branded its potential counterparts across the table terrorists?

7. No chance of an "incident at sea" agreement: The IRGC is not a one-dimensional army of 125,000 plus soldiers. It has an air force and a navy, in tandem with the regular Iranian army and navy. They are also active as Iran's coast guards, as seen in their temporary detention of British sailors this year.

This means that the terrorist labeling of the IRGC could be a catalyst for confrontation between the US Navy and IRGC in the Persian Gulf and nearby waters, especially the disputed waters shared by Iran and Iraq. Moreover, the possibility of an "incident at sea" agreement between the US and Iran will be substantially reduced when and if Washington formally categorizes the IRGC as terrorist, thus depriving the region of effective conflict-prevention mechanisms.

8. Difficult enforcement measures: As "terrorists", the entire IRGC ensemble, including its purely civilian projects, many of which are in partnership with foreign contractors, will come under the purview of US anti-terrorist measures. These include the IRGC's management of the new Mehrabad International Airport and IRGC-controlled telecommunication companies, not to mention a host of medical, purely charitable, activities.

The IRGC is partly responsible for the health care of about 60,000 victims of Iraq's chemical attacks in the 1980s, as well as thousands of other war veterans who sustained long-term injuries in the was with Iraq.

There will be complicating effects on European and other companies doing business with the non-military branches of the IRGC, for instance, those involved in building houses for the large number of families of members of the IRGC "martyred" in the war with Iraq.

So the terror designation will affect the IRGC's charitable foundations, which will swell anti-American anger in Iran to new heights.

9. Terrorist label helps Iranian hardliners: US hawks may have intended the designation as a wrench to cause divisions within Iran, but the exact opposite has already happened. The IRGC are now even more popular than before, basking in their front-line status against the "great Satan". And political moderates are unhappy with yet another unwise US move that provides a political bonanza for their competition.

Having said that, it is an error to say that the entire IRGC consists of ideological zealots and hardliners, given that most of its rank and file supported moderate former president Mohammad Khatami in his re-election bid six years ago. But the likely net result of the terrorist labeling will be to tilt the majority of IRGC members and their families and friends toward more militant tendencies.

10. Wrong in international law: As mentioned above, the designation does not not fit well with the UN's definition of terrorism. And it raises serious questions in terms of the UN charter, which calls on member states to resolve disputes through "pacific settlement".

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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