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Troubling reports are emerging from the nuclear talks in Vienna that the Biden administration is on the verge of removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).
Such a move would severely hamper the United States’ efforts to counter Iranian terrorism around the world – even if the White House keeps other terrorism sanctions in place. I would know. I led the Trump administration’s efforts to designate the IRGC as an FTO.
The Iranian regime is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and the IRGC is its favorite tool for promoting terrorism across the globe. The IRGC doesn’t just support terrorism. It actively engages in terrorism as a basic tool of Iranian statecraft.
Just last week, the IRGC took responsibility for a missile attack near the American consulate in Erbil, Iraq. Over the years in Iraq, IRGC proxies have killed hundreds of American troops and wounded thousands more. In Yemen, the IRGC has provided the Houthi rebels with advanced drones they’ve used to attack airports, energy infrastructure, and other civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, the IRGC brazenly plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by bombing a restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.
Then there’s Hezbollah. Before the IRGC was named an FTO, it showered the Lebanese terrorist group with cash, to the tune of $700 million a year. It also provides weapons, including precision-guided missiles Hezbollah uses to threaten Israel. Hezbollah explosives caches have been uncovered around the world, including in South America and Europe. In the past few years, a number of Hezbollah operatives have been arrested for plotting terrorist attacks on American soil.
In light of this bloody record, delisting the IRGC would send a terrible message that the United States is prepared to look the other way to entice the Iranian regime into a renewed nuclear accord. But beyond the fraught symbolism, delisting would have significant practical consequences, dramatically hindering our ability to counter IRGC terrorism.
Terrorism is fundamental to what the IRGC is.
First, federal law makes it a crime to provide “material support” to a designated FTO. “Material support” is defined broadly to include everything from money to weapons to personnel. If you join a designated FTO, you’ve broken the law. In addition, the penalties for violating the statute are severe, with a maximum punishment of up to 20 years in jail per offense.
The material support statute is the main tool federal prosecutors use to put terrorists and their enablers behind bars. In the quarter century the law has been on the books, prosecutors have used it to convict more than 500 terrorists of every conceivable stripe, from al Qaeda to ISIS to Iran-backed terrorists.
Second, federal law provides that members of a designated FTO are inadmissible to the United States. It isn’t necessary to show that a particular traveler has, for example, planned a terrorist attack or raised money for a terrorist group to bar him from entering the country. He is inadmissible simply by virtue of his membership in an FTO. An FTO designation thus helps secure our borders against terrorist travel.
Third, federal law allows terrorism victims to file civil lawsuits against those who aided and abetted an attack by a designated FTO, such as banks and other private companies. Not only does that enable victims to seek justice in court, it also creates powerful disincentives for any company to do business with an FTO.
Make no mistake: Delisting the IRGC will make it harder to prosecute the group’s operatives and supporters, and harder to keep them out of our country. And while victims of IRGC terrorism could still sue the Iranian regime, delisting could make it harder for them to hold the group’s enablers accountable.
It doesn’t matter that the administration might maintain different terrorism sanctions on the IRGC or individual officers. An FTO designation is the gold standard, imposing costs that other sanctions cannot match.
Nor should we take much comfort from any promises the Iranian regime might make to somehow moderate the IRGC’s behavior in return for its delisting. Tehran simply can’t be trusted. Terrorism is fundamental to what the IRGC is. It has been enabling terrorism since its inception over four decades ago. It’s not going to stop now, and any pledges to do so won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on.
Our Iran policy has to be based on reality. And the reality is the IRGC is one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations, with the blood of countless Americans on its hands.
Reasonable people can disagree on whether a renewed nuclear deal is worth pursuing. But turning a blind eye to Iranian terrorism – and taking some of our most powerful counterterrorism tools off the table in the process – is simply too high a price.