Why Did Trump Place Sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

After a contentious interagency debate, the United States government has designated the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and many of their affiliates and subordinate organizations as terrorist organizations. By the New York Times’ estimate, this enables the U.S. to impose economic and travel restrictions on up to eleven million people, including some Iraqis. To get an idea of how broad this declaration is, the IRGC only has an estimated 125,000 military personnel. The paramilitary “police force” known as Basij is technically under their command, and they have approximately 90,000 regular soldiers and 300,000 reservists. The elite Quds Force, the likely element responsible for any acts of foreign state-sponsored terrorism, has no more than 20,000 members. The reason this could directly impact as many as 11 million people is that the IRGC is much more than a military organization.  It’s an economic powerhouse, controlling more than a hundred companies and billions in contracts.

As far back as 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush, the U.S. has contemplated designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, but it is only in the wake of the Saudi Arabian government’s brutal assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their Turkish consulate that the effort gained steam. Last October, when international opprobrium was at its height, the Kingdom (and its satellite, Bahrain) made an effort to distract the world from their misdeed. When they declared the IRGC as a terrorist organization, Iran pointed out the obvious:

“Saudi Arabia is in a quagmire it cannot easily come out of,” Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted Brigadier-General Esmail Kowsari, the Revolutionary Guards’ deputy security chief, as saying on Tuesday.

“Saudi rulers are trying to distract the world and the region from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, in their consulate in Turkey,” he added.

“They should know that this crime cannot be washed away easily or by these methods.”

The New York Times doesn’t mention Jared Kushner as having any potential role in this decision despite his close relationship to Saudi Arabia’s leader, Mohammed Bin Salman. Instead, they place responsibility for the decision on the administration’s two most notorious anti-Iran hardliners:

Top Pentagon and C.I.A. officials oppose the designation, which they argue would allow hard-line Iranian officials to justify deadly operations against Americans overseas, especially Special Operations units and paramilitary units working under the C.I.A.

An interagency lawyers group concluded the designation was too broad, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, pushed for it, said a Trump administration official.

While the military thinks this will put their own soldiers at enhanced risk, they’re also concerned that the government in Baghdad will retaliate and make it more difficult to operate in that theater. As a matter of foreign relations, any sanctions imposed on Iraq will remind the people there of the decade-plus they suffered under sanctions between the Persian Gulf War and the American-British invasion of their country in 2003.

Their concerns were dismissed, and the timing is highly suspicious:

The announcement also comes one day before Israeli elections in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term with hawkish promises to battle threatening Iranian behavior across the Middle East.

It’s not entirely clear that the president understands what he’s doing or if he is being manipulated. Consider how he made the decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, another decision nakedly motivated by a desire to help Netanyahu win tomorrow’s election:

The president told the Republican National Coalition’s annual convention in Las Vegas that he decided on recognizing Israel’s hold on the territory after getting a rushed briefing from senior White House aide Jared Kushner — his son-in-law — ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and negotiator Jason Greenblatt.

He said the three had phoned him about an unrelated matter when he brought up the Golan, but did not say when the conversation took place.

“I said, ‘Fellows, do me a favor. Give me a little history, quick. Want to go fast. I got a lot of things I’m working on: China, North Korea. Give me a quickie,” he recalled.

Trump said he was told about the security ramifications of Israel holding on to the high ground of the plateau, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee and part of the upper Galilee.

“I said ‘How do you like the idea of me recognizing exactly what we’re discussing?’  because I agree, you need it, you need the height,” he said he told Friedman, who reacted “like a wonderful, beautiful baby.”

“You would really, you would do that sir,” he recalled Friedman asking him, to which he replied. “Yeah, I think I’m doing it right now. let’s write something up.”

“We make fast decisions, and we make good decisions,” he told the crowd.

Assuming Trump’s version at least approximates the truth, he was convinced to make the Golan Heights decision by Jared Kushner. It’s unknown if Kushner also convinced him to dismiss the objections of top Pentagon and CIA officials and side with Bolton and Pompeo on the IRGC matter.

Last week, Tricia Newbold, a whistleblower in the White House’s personnel security office, disclosed that Kushner was granted a security clearance despite red flags about “about foreign influence, private business interests and personal conduct.” Basically, there is a suspicion that Kushner is susceptible to manipulation by foreign powers, possibly related to his businesses. He shouldn’t be seeing sensitive information, let alone be in a position to guide hugely consequential foreign policy decisions. Yet, he was placed in charge of crafting a Middle East peace plan and developed a very close relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince. He was behind the decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, in an obvious attempt to boost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection bid. It seems certain what counsel he would give his father-in-law on the Revolutionary Guard sanctions.

Sanctioning eleven million people would be insane even if the policy goals behind it were unassailable, but this is another move in a growing list of issues where the president has taken actions that have obvious appeal to foreign powers and no appeal to the military, intelligence community, or the diplomatic corps in our own country.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com