Trump is about to make matters much worse with Iran

Trump is about to make matters much worse with Iran
Comment: Undermining the nuclear deal coupled with designating the IRGC a 'foreign terrorist organisation' only risks emboldening hardliners in Iran, which is bad news for everyone, writes Marcus Montgomery.
6 min read
12 Oct, 2017
Trump and his allies have the potential to set back Iran-US relations by years [Getty]
The time has finally come for President Donald Trump to announce his administration's strategy towards Iran. 

For weeks Trump has been dropping hints, but it appears the Iranian strategy review is now complete. White House officials have confirmed that Trump has made a decision on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the administration's broader Iran strategy, and he is slated to make a public announcement today.

It is all but certain the president will refuse to provide Congress with the mandated certification the deal requires. He will do so, not on the basis that Iran is failing to comply with the deal - which, according to the international community, would be false - but that the deal is no longer consistent with US national security interests.

Ultimately, the White House will shift questions about the deal over to Congress. Will Congress "snap back" sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement, effectively killing it?

It is too soon to say definitively, but even the most strident Iran hawks on Capitol Hill seem uneasy about such a move. Additionally, the White House stopped short of recommending that the old sanctions be put back in place.

With Congress, though, there is still a possibility that members agree to undermine the deal. Once the 60 day deadline kicks in and lobbyists flood the halls of Congressional office buildings, all bets are off.

Many proponents of reimposing old nuclear-related sanctions are telling Congress members that there is no chance that the United States' European allies, as well as the regimes in China and Russia, would choose to maintain economic ties with Iran despite US sanctions.

Has this administration also forgotten that Iran and the United States share several active hostility zones?

However, it simply is, in fact, a possibility.

European allies have bucked US sanctions before, and if they choose to do so again, it will leave the United States politically isolated and will undermine the use of any potential sanctions regime against Iran.

Additionally, the United States' reputation for stability and trustworthiness will be greatly diminished. Allies and adversaries alike would view the United States' withdrawal as an indication that this usually stable, reliable nation can no longer be trusted to maintain agreements from one administration to the next.

As if jeopardising the fate of the JCPOA is not folly enough, recent reports have stated that the administration is also leaning towards designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - its largest conventional military apparatus - as a terrorist organisation.

Though the US once named Nazi Germany's Waffen-SS a criminal organisation, designating a foreign military as a terrorist organisation is unprecedented, and could elicit a host of negative consequences. 

This is a bold step. It is true that the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act mandates that the president choose by end of October to either sanction the IRGC as a terrorist group, or certify to Congress that such a move is anathema to US security concerns.

Additionally, numerous individuals and entities are already subject to sanctions for their relations with the IRGC.

Should the White House move forward, it could do so under existing authorities (such as executive order 13224) and implement unilateral sanctions as laid out in the aforementioned legislation.

Should the administration choose this option, Iran likely will not feel a significant squeeze on its economy because the Europeans likely will not impose further sanctions without a clear abrogation of the deal on Iran's part.

Read more: From Iran to UNESCO: Trump's Withdrawal Doctrine

What is worrisome, however, is that the Trump administration could instruct the State Department to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO), thus imposing wider reaching sanctions on any entities within US jurisdiction that deal with the IRGC - possibly even affecting companies in allied nations.

Aside from potentially frustrating key allies, Iran has been vocal about its willingness to retaliate over such a move. It could designate US military outfits as terrorist groups, for example.

The Department of Defense has long worried about this because such a move could jeopardise US soldiers - particularly special forces units that undertake covert missions. Many of these soldiers operate in close proximity to Iran or its proxies and are constantly at risk of being captured by Iran or militias sympathetic to it.

Once designated as terrorists, soldiers would lose their protections under the Geneva Convention

Once designated as terrorists, soldiers would lose their protections under the Geneva Convention. Imagine how much worse things could have been for the US sailors picked up by Iran last year, had they not been afforded protections under international law.

Has this administration also forgotten that Iran and the United States share several active hostility zones?

Iran could close indirect channels of communication that have proven crucial for de-escalation in the battlefields that both sides currently share in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Worse yet, Iran could actively escalate tension between Iranian-backed militias and US-backed forces - if not US troops directly - in these same places. 

The Trump administration's preferred steps needlessly undermine effective alliances, and escalate hostilities with Iran

Iran could choose to direct such a campaign in Syria or in Afghanistan, where President Trump is sending thousands more troops, and things could get much worse for US troops in the region.

Donald Trump and his allies who are most hostile towards the Islamic Republic have the potential to set Iranian-American relations back years.

There is no love lost between the United States and leadership in Tehran, but the general Iranian public has long been more sympathetic to the United States, and this administration risks turning those moderates away.

Nationalist pride is robust in Iran, and an attack like this on the IRGC - an institution so intertwined with Iranian society - would undoubtedly stir up opposition at all levels.  

Designating the group an FTO - essentially calling husbands, fathers, brothers, and cousins terrorists - will foster no good will towards the United States.

That, combined with the possible abrogation of the deal by the United States could serve as an "I told you so" point for the regime and the hardliners in Iran, and it could undermine the optimism that the everyday Iranians may have held towards the United States. 

The Trump administration's preferred steps needlessly undermine effective alliances, and escalate hostilities with Iran. If Donald Trump insists on maintaining this trajectory, key issues between the United States and Iran will go unresolved, and tensions the region will continue to deteriorate.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.