The Biden administration’s year-long negotiations to salvage the nuclear deal are close to failing, and it is telling that the reason for the failure will be an issue that has nothing to do with nuclear proliferation. The latest sticking point is the US designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, which Iran wants reversed and the US has so far refused to undo. Trump added the entire IRGC to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) in 2019 in an unusual move that designated part of another country’s military as a terrorist group. He did this for the express purpose of making a future US return to the nuclear deal more difficult as part of the "maximum pressure" campaign, which imposed many ostensibly "non-nuclear" sanctions in order to make a restoration of the nuclear deal much harder. Iran understandably wants this designation lifted for face-saving reasons, but the Biden administration is reportedly not going to budge on what everyone acknowledges to be a mostly symbolic decision. Letting the nuclear deal die over this designation would be a major failure and further proof that the Biden administration won’t take the political risks needed to secure a solid diplomatic agreement.
The symbolism of the designation is important for hardliners in the US and for regional US client states, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These opponents of the deal are seizing on any issue that they can use to block its revival, and they loathe the idea that US relations with Iran might improve even a little. The Biden administration has been unwilling to remove the designation mostly out of fear of the political backlash it will face from these critics. This is playing directly into the hands of the most fanatical opponents of the nuclear deal. Iran hawks have boasted about the "sanctions wall" that they were creating to prevent the nuclear deal’s revival, and instead of dismantling that wall Biden is allowing it to get in his way.
When the IRGC was added to the FTO list, it was already under other sanctions related to terrorism. If it is removed from the list, it will still be under sanctions. The Biden administration understands that the practical impact on the IRGC’s finances will be minimal. As one administration official put it: "It’s the administration-wide assessment that it would not have a significant – if any – impact." The Iranian government also understands that the IRGC doesn’t stand to benefit very much, but the Iranian negotiators need the designation removed so that they can sell the final agreement back home. According to Reuters, the Raisi government sees the lifting of the designation as an indication that it was more effective than the previous government under Rouhani. One anonymous Iranian diplomat told Reuters, "Mostly it is a matter of dignity for the establishment and Iran’s negotiators."
The FTO designation isn’t completely meaningless. One of the only things that it has achieved over the last three years is contributing to increasing US-Iranian tensions and making conflict more likely. The US shouldn’t have set the precedent of adding an entire branch of another state’s military to the list, and it has the opportunity to correct that mistake now. There is also some reason to believe that removing the designation could reduce or possibly end attacks on US troops in Iraq and Syria. Those forces should be withdrawn regardless, but in the meantime it would make sense to minimize potential threats to them. Removing the designation would be a smart move even if the nuclear deal’s fate weren’t bound up with it.
Lifting the FTO designation makes sense for another reason: to stop punishing ordinary Iranians. The main victims of the FTO designation are innocent Iranians conscripted to serve in the IRGC when they were younger. Years or decades after their brief involuntary service, they now face huge obstacles in being able to travel, study, or work in the United States. Murtaza Hussain reported on this last week for The Intercept, and he quoted Prof. Ramzi Kassem on the effects that the designation is having on Iranians that try to enter the US: "When the United States designates a large branch of a foreign military, like the IRGC, in a country that has mandatory conscription for men, like Iran, the fallout is immense. It is taking a contemporary, highly politicized terrorism designation and applying it without limitation to hundreds of thousands of people who had no real choice in their situation, most of whom are not currently nor even recently affiliated with the designated group." As we have seen many other times with US sanctions on Iran, a decision that supposedly punishes a government’s leaders does far more damage to ordinary people that are forced to bear the brunt of it. The harmful effects of the designation on ordinary Iranians should be a lesson for how far-reaching and destructive these labels can be when they are applied so broadly in the service of an ideological agenda.
The US ought to lift the FTO designation on the IRGC to secure the revival of the nuclear deal. If it fails to do so, the Biden administration will own the consequences of the deal’s final demise.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.