Iran’s request to remove the Revolutionary Guards from the US terrorism list is one of the last obstacles to international talks on the Iranian nuclear deal.
Analysts say this obstacle is more a “political issue” than it is fundamental.
As the two sides began to be on the brink of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal a month ago, talks have since stalled due to last-minute Russian demands, Nowruz, and the unresolved question of whether the United States would remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The United States and Iran have been in intermittent and indirect talks for more than a year about reviving the 2015 accord under which Iran curbed its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions.
One of the sources said that the United States is considering dropping this designation in return for some kind of commitment from Iran to curb the activities of the Revolutionary Guards.
However, the White House is well aware of the “political sensitivity and cost” of removing elite power from the list, according to Dennis Ross, a long-serving US negotiator in the Middle East, noting that some Democrats oppose removing the Revolutionary Guards from the list of terrorist organizations.
Ross added, “There is reluctance on the political side in the White House.”
A senior US administration official made it clear that President Joe Biden did not intend to remove the Revolutionary Guards from the list of terrorist organizations, according to David Ignashos, columnist for the Washington Post.
In response to a question about this report, a senior Biden administration official said, “We will not negotiate openly. There are still loopholes.”
The official, who asked not to be named, noted that “the responsibility lies with Iran already at this stage, especially concerning this issue.”
Simple Economic Effect
When the administration of former US President Donald Trump designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization in 2019, it was the first time that Washington blacklisted part of another country’s military, and the move was seen by some as toxic pills making it difficult to revive the nuclear deal that was abandoned by President Trump in 2018.
Critics of delisting the IRGC, as well as those open to the idea, say doing so would have a little economic impact because other US sanctions force foreign actors to ostracize the group.
A senior US official said an administration-level assessment concluded it wouldn’t have a significant impact if any.
This is partly because the IRGC will remain under sanctions as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization” on a separate US list created after the 9/11 attacks.
The IRGC, a military faction in Iran, controls a business empire as well as its elite armed forces and intelligence, which Washington accuses of waging a global terrorist campaign.
Iranian sources cited multiple reasons for their desire to revoke the designation, including domestic politics and the desire of the team of new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to show that they can secure a better deal than his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani.
“It is mostly a matter of dignity for the establishment and the Iranian negotiators,” said a senior Iranian diplomat.
A former senior Iranian official familiar with the talks also pointed out that the reason for the new team’s insistence from the beginning on the FTO issue is mainly for domestic use because they criticized the 2015 Rouhani deal and they can’t just revive it.
Another Iranian diplomat said that Iran rejected the idea of lifting the designation of the IRGC as a whole while keeping it for the movement’s Quds Force.
leniency in dealing with terrorism?
Although US officials are loath to admit it, the main issue in Washington is also political.
Republicans argue that dropping the Revolutionary Guard’s “foreign terrorist organization” designation would show the Biden administration to be soft on terrorism, an accusation US officials deny.
Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, last week described the Revolutionary Guards as a “killing machine” threatening Americans and stressed the political cost to the White House.
“It would split the Democratic Party in half on this matter, if not more,” McCall said.
Some Democrats have expressed concerns, although there is little chance that Congress will block the revival of the nuclear deal.
US Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey, said last week that “we can’t gamble with American lives and revoke… a foreign terrorist organization designation.”
Even critics admit that removing the IRGC from the list will have few practical implications.
Designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization only added two powers: allowing the US government to deny entry to anyone associated with it and imposing criminal sanctions on those who knowingly provided it with “material support,” Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said.
In a recent analysis, Levitt said Iran would use the Revolutionary Guards’ de-listing to confirm that it was not involved in any terrorist activities and that dropping that designation would undermine the credibility of US sanctions.
“The IRGC should not be removed from the list of foreign terrorist organizations until there is evidence that it has stopped terrorist activities,” he wrote.